Immigration extends diversity to the suburbs

The mid-August Saturday dawns warm and clear, with sun dappling our suburban lawn as the thud of the newspaper on the driveway serves as an early wake-up call. This weekend, like most others, arrives with a list of things to do, the inevitable accumulation of errands facing any suburban resident who spends weekdays working in the city.

What better way to begin than by stopping at a local bakery-cafe for blueberry-lemon scones, their specialty? As usual, my father and I are served by an engaging Brazilian man who has been working here almost a year. We talk briefly with him, then head for a small shoe-repair shop. The owner, a friendly Armenian man, works alone, 10 hours a day, six days a week. We exchange pleasantries as he fills out a ticket for my shoes, and then proceed to the cleaners.

Here, two young Asian women stand behind the counter. They are relatively new employees, smiling cheerfully as they master the intricacies of customers' requests for "Light starch, please" and "Could this be ready Monday?"

At the bank, we chat briefly with a customer service representative who emigrated from the Middle East. Then onward to the gas station, now owned by a native of Lebanon. He explains that he spent five years in Tucson before coming to New England 10 years ago.

Our final stop: the tailor shop. Jimmy, as everyone calls him, breaks into a smile when I ask about the recent trip he and his wife made to visit relatives on the island of Patmos in their native Greece.

As we head home, our list of errands accomplished, I come to a startling realization: Without exception, everyone who has served us this morning at all six stops was born in another country. With their accented English and widely divergent backgrounds, they are bringing a new cultural richness to what had been a mostly white middle-class suburb.

Their presence represents a gradual and growing transformation in our suburban business world. Although the Greek tailor and the Armenian shoemaker have been local businessmen for years, their small shops offering reassuring signs of stability, new foreign-born owners of places like the dry cleaners and the gas station are helping to change the face of suburbia.

Even our local Presbyterian church offers a Taiwanese service on Sundays.

Saturday after Saturday, as I make my suburban rounds, brief conversations with these and other foreign-born workers provide small and touching glimpses into their lives. The Brazilian man at the bakery refers to "tough times," as he tells of coming to America 12 years ago with his wife and then-4-year-old son. Now, his son, an industrious 16-year-old, works weekends at the bakery.

Another part-time employee at the bakery, a Chinese man who grew up in Saigon, took his wife and children to Vietnam and China this summer to visit relatives, including a sister he has not seen since he fled Vietnam 29 years ago. His quiet references to life as a refugee only hint at past hardships.

Immigration has always shaped the American landscape, of course. I grew up in a Midwestern city that was heavily Swedish. My friends had blond hair and blue eyes and last names ending in "son" - Johnson, Swenson, Carlson, Peterson, Olson. Some were the offspring of grandparents who had emigrated from Sweden. One friend came to the US with her parents when she was 5. Yet, only when friends visited her at home and listened as she and her family spoke Swedish did we remember her foreign-born status.

In previous generations, when manufacturing was dominant, many immigrants remained largely invisible to the public. My Swedish friend's parents, for example, worked in a factory in Illinois; no one knew them except their co-workers and their circle of Swedish friends.

Today, in a service economy, many newcomers from other countries enjoy a greater visibility, to everyone's benefit.

This cultural patchwork quilt comes with occasional challenges, to be sure. On this same Saturday afternoon, I leave the cosmetics counter of a suburban department store empty-handed, because the clerk, in her halting English, cannot understand my request. No wonder local newspapers report that the growing demand for English-language instruction far outstrips the availability of classes.

We and they. Majority and minority. Native-born and immigrant. The balances are shifting. As time goes on, the distinctions between "us" and "them" will gradually fade, perhaps helping 21st-century newcomers to fulfill the same dreams and hopes held by the first immigrants almost 400 years ago.

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