Immigrants to US share cultural knowledge

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 12:17 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Recent immigrants living in Greater Bangor shared some of the cultural differences they encountered here during a panel discussion Thursday night at United Technologies Center.

The program, presented by Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, aimed to help their American tutors better grasp the challenges they face when coming to a new land, executive director Mary Marin Lyon said.

In opening the discussion, literacy tutor Chris Dirmeir said some of the cultural differences immigrants meet here involve basic mannerisms and customs, such as handshakes, the length of eye contact and volume of speech.

To some, the differences may sound small but they can have a profound influence on immigrants’ and Americans’ perceptions of each other, she said.

The panel discussion involved natives of China, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Vietnam and Russia who now call Greater Bangor home as well as some give and take with tutors and other participants, several of whom have lived in foreign lands.

Sandra Tijerina of Colombia, who is now an intake and retention specialist at the University of Maine, moved to the U.S. after marrying a dual citizen from Texas.

Here she found she was “suddenly put into a gigantic category.”

“Even though I speak Spanish like a Mexican, I have nothing in common with them,” she said, adding that a common stereotype Americans perpetuate is that Colombia is the land of “violence, drugs and sometimes coffee.”

The language barrier initially made her much more dependent on her husband.

“That’s not the person I was in Colombia,” she said.

Minh Phan, who works at Bagel Central in Bangor, said she moved here from Vietnam to escape the communist regime and to obtain a solid education for her children, adding that all three completed college and landed professional jobs.

Here she was struck by the freedoms Americans enjoy, especially the freedom of speech.

“School was free. People can move around whenever they want to. In Vietnam, you have to pay the government for a permit to move and they have to approve it,” she said in written remarks distributed after her talk.

Xinfeng Xie, a UMaine doctoral candidate in forestry, shared the culture shock he experienced when he arrived from China to pursue an education that began at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that in China, “people are not as valuable as things.” Here, he said, people come first.

Marianna Norris, who came from Russia, was struck by Mainers’ warmth and the state’s natural beauty and extensive network of roads.

“The most important thing that impressed me here is the people. I did not expect to find so many good people,” she said.

Once here, she said, “I realized that I had to drive and learn English to make my life more interesting,” she said.

Srimal Garusinghe, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at UMaine, said some differences he encountered when he arrived from Sri Lanka were Maine’s extreme temperature differences and the shortage of public transportation systems.

Because he was unfamiliar with the language, currency and system of measurements, he found everyday tasks, such as food shopping, daunting at first.

He also was confronted by larger differences.

“I noticed that most Americans like to express their opinions and do it very loudly,” he said. He has come to respect that trait in Americans “because they are very direct.”

Literacy Volunteers of Bangor provides free tutor support to adults with the lowest levels of literacy, including those with limited English speaking skills. For information, call 947-8451 or visit www.lvbangor.org.

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