Noa arrived from Israel to America in 1990 the month Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to attack Israel. She arrived from a place where everyone walked around with boxes of gas masks in case they were attacked with mustard gas, to the quiet peaceful college town of Davis, California. To call it culture shock would not do it justice…
Here is the story of crossing over and learning to live in a culture where the perceptions of time, space and values are completely different from your own. (more…)
Five years ago, when Karin moved to a small town in the Midwest after previously living in Tokyo, New York City and Orlando, Florida she worried at first about fitting in but was glad to find that people seemed overall friendly and open-minded. Very recently, however, she had a troubling encounter with racism and told her story to her friends (one Caucasian and two African American sisters) in town as well as her Jewish husband and got very different responses. (more…)
In this story, Ada Cheng explains the meanings of her Chinese name: Shu-Ju. She explains the connection between her name, her parents’ expectations for her as a daughter, and the cultural expectations for her as a daughter. She details why she chose to stay with the name Ada and what Ada means to her life and her identity.
Hi! I’m Ada Cheng. Ada Cheng. Let me start with my original name. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and I was born Chen Shu-Ju. In Taiwanese culture and some of the Asian cultures, Cheng, we put our last name in the first place so Cheng is the family name. Shu-Ju, um, that’s my given name. In Taiwanese culture, when parents give children their names, uh, it represents, uh, their expectations in terms of what they want and what they hope for their future. It can be about their life; it can be about their career. Shu-Ju. Shu, the character means like a lady. Ju means good luck.
So, I can just imagine my mother going to a fortuneteller and trying to find the right characters for me. Um, and, eh, she would probably talk to my father. “I think it would be great if we give our daughter, uh, this wonderful name and we hope that she will be gentle and… and… and quiet and polite and respectful. Like a lady with a lot of good luck.
So, now imagine my being a little girl, like a tomboy. And then my parents’ expectation was that they wanted me to be respectful, polite, quiet and… and gentle like a lady and I didn’t like my name when I was growing up. Um, here’s the thing, this is what my mother’s… as I was growing up, this is what my mother would say, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You got to wash dishes. You… you’re a girl; you have to help out in the kitchen. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Close your legs! You’re a girl! Come on, you can’t do that anymore. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You can’t beat up your brother. He’s a boy. You’re a girl! Ah, Shu-Ju, what’s going on with you? You can’t run around naked anymore. You’re a girl! Ah, you can’t play with boys. Please do not talk back!”
Let sink that, think, sink that, sinking for a while. I grew up like playing, running around, tomboy, climbing, liked to climb trees, climb things, fight with boys. And as I was growing up, I hated my name because how did you… could you convince me to love a name that I knew I was going to fail my parents’ expectations. That there was no way for me to fake it, right! Often time you fake it until you make it! There’s no way. For me to know I can fake it until I make it. And… and there’s no way for me to… when I was a little girl, I thought there… there’s no way for me to make it as a woman in this society.
And I rebelled; I refused to do anything required me as a girl. Um… which also very interesting is that I… my mother also gave me another nickname. Um, in Mandarin, it’s called Zhi Da Bien. In Taiwanese, it’s called Gay Sei. In… in English, it’s called Chicken Poop! That’s right! My mother called me Chicken Poop. Eh… and it was… so, um, I asked my mother, “Why would you call me such name?”
And she say, “Because you were so small; just like a chicken poop, right?” She thought it was very, very endearing to call me this. Um… ah, she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. But the thing when… as I am older and think back, would she call my brother such a name?
So, I remember when I was 8 years old and I was playing with, uh, neighborhood children. And I was the smallest one in the neighborhood but I was the one, the strongest one with the strongest opinions. I liked to order people around and I would say, “Line up! Do this and do that!” So, often time, after school the children would just stand there and play. So I remember that day, that close to dinnertime, and I was gathering people and say, “Hey, hey, hey! Please, uh, gather up, we’re gonna play the game (whatever the game was). We’re gonna play again!”
And as I was ordering people around and, uh, I was the smallest one, my mother suddenly appear at the door and then she said, “Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien! Shi wăncān!” So, the English translation is “Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop, it’s time for dinner!”
And I just froze! And I turn around and I look at my mother and I was exasperated. I was being authority figure, standing in front of a group calling the shot and then, I say, “Five minutes, give me five minutes!” Ah! In my back, I heard children giggling, right! And when I turn around, the kids just started to laugh at me. “Ah, Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien, right! Your name is Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop! And then I was… I just… I was so mad! I was so frustrated! And I… I just left. I ran away. I said, “You know, I’m not going to play with you guys!” and left.
And when I went home, I finished dinner and I didn’t talk to my mother. And that was pretty much the day I kind of lost my status in the neighborhood. I mean, think about it, how many boys will want to play with a girl and to be ordered around by a girl whose name is Chicken Poop, right! Um, and I realize nobody wanted to play with me. Um, when my mother saw me this small or given me this small… um, and later on, uh, you know, my mother and I, ah, my family and I – we stopped talking with each other.
And, um, because I was trying to be my own person, um, wanted to search my own life, um… And it was actually October, 1976, I was in junior high school. We… everyone started to learn English and so one day when I’m home, we have this very small dictionary. And I thought if I started to learn English, I am going to have an English name so I can immerse myself in with… into the environment so I flipped through the dictionary. I found this name list and I looked through the names. In our textbooks, we have Mary, we have Susan, we have… have all these names. I thought I got to find a name that nobody has heard. So, I looked through it and I saw the name… I saw Ada, right! Ada is for the first place, the first name listed under the alphabet A. And I looked at it and I thought, “That’s it, Ada! That’s the name for me!”
Because at the age 12, the only thing I want to be was number one. So, I thought I wanted to pick the name Ada so I could be number one then and number one forever. So, I pick that name and I stick with it, uh, forever. And I started to introduce myself to everyone as Ada and that’s the important part is that when I picked that name, I also wrote a different story for myself. Thank you.
Gene travelled by van across the country to see the land of his people. Along his journey, he had the experience of meeting a southern white couple on a backcountry dirt road and an old black man in Sparta, Georgia who fought with First Nation men during the Korean War.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sparta-GA
How do we break up the biases we have about other people?
Can travel be a way to open or confirm our ideas about other people?
Where would you like to travel? How would you keep an open mind about the people you meet along the way?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Smooth Traveler: Avoiding Cross-Cultural Mistakes at Home and Abroad by Susan O’Halloran
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
First Nations/Native Americans
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban.
My name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan, the Raven, Freshwater Salmon clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m the child of a Wooshketann, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska.
I am Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino. I’m a Cherotlingipino. I’d like to tell the story about an adventure of mine when I was a young man. I bought a van and I was going to drive across the country. And see what that land where I came from, my Indian people, was like.
Many people were exploring Europe and going over there but there’s so much richness here just in our backyard. So I was driving through Louisiana, me and my girlfriend. And so we stopped one night on a side road, dirt road and it was dark out. We were gonna camp there for the night. As we are just gettin’ ready to camp, a truck pulls up. Pulls in front of us. Turned around. And the headlights are shining right into our van. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh! What the heck’s going on here?”
And the only thing that could run through my mind was just these things I hear that’s going on in the south in the back country in Deliverance. We were kind of freaked out and they pulled up right next to us. I rolled down my window. And they said, “How y’all doin’?”
“Oh, we’re doin’ good.”
“Now where are y’all from?”
I told ’em, “I’m originally from Alaska.”
“Who are you people?”
And I said,” Guy Yaaw (then speaks about his people in his native language).
And they looked at me and said, “Now what kind of foreign language is that?”
“Oh, that’s my Tlingit language. I’m a Native American from this country. That language I just spoke to you was from Alaska.
“Alaska! You guys from Alaska?”
I said, “Yes, I am!”
“Now what y’all doin’ way down here. Did you guys get lost?”
I said, “No, we’re just driving around seeing this country.” And we started to strike up a conversation.
And he asked me, “How do y’all say… fire?”
He said, “Now did you hear that… fire. Now right here you say… fire to say… fire. You know, you’re some interesting folks! Now we don’t get many people like you around here much often. You know what? We’re having a… a gathering here that’s coming up here in a couple of days. You sure are welcome to come if you’d like to come. You can meet my kin, my folks that’s back there in the swamps a little bit. You’ll be more than welcome!”
I said, “Ah, thank you for the invitation but I think we’re gonna move on and keep traveling. I think we’re gonna make our way up… around Georgia. See, I’m part Cherokee and my people come from that area.”
“Well, all I want to tell you is that stay away from Sparta, Georgia there. I’ve been to Sparta. A lot of black folk there, you know. You good people. I don’t want you to get in trouble now. Ah, it’s good to meet you.”
“It sounds good to me too. I’ll tell you what! A couple of days later, we are in Sparta, Georgia and we were hungry. So we went to go get a couple of sandwiches and across the street was a basketball court and playin’ basketball there – a bunch of youngsters playing ball and they’re all black. And we sat there to go watch them play basketball. So we’re sitting there eatin’ our sandwiches and they’re arguing back and forth because they need an extra player.
And so they looked at me. They came up to me and said, “Heh! You right there! You play ball?”
I go, “Who? Me?’
“Yeah, we’re talking to you. You play ball?”
I said, “Do I play ball?” Now, I tell you what! Indians love basketball! So I said, “Yeah, I play ball!”
And so we went out there. They brought me out there. We started playing hoops back and forth. And we were playing basketball all afternoon and then they asked me, “Excuse me. Where are you from?”
I said, “From Alaska.”
And they asked me, “Are you an Indian?”
I said, “Yeah, I am!”
“Can we touch you?”
“You want to touch me?” I said, “Sure.”
So they felt my skin and they felt my hair and they told me… they said, “Hey, wait here, wait here!” And so they ran off but they brought back all their family, their relatives – aunties, uncles, cousins. They wanted to meet us Native American people because they’ve only heard about us in movies, books, magazines, museums. They never met a real live native person before. They said, “We gotta take you…we got Uncle Leroy who’d love to meet you.”
And so we went to Uncle’s Leroy’s house and Uncle Leroy, when we walked in, he was like this skinny black man. I mean he was so black, he was like purple. Long white hair, long white beard and he had square glasses tinted blue. Yes, and he was skinny, about as skinny as a broom pole when he came shuffling up to us, looked at me, “My Indian brothers!” You see, Uncle Leroy was in the Korean War and in the Korean War, Uncle Leroy was this young black man and he was scared and there were bombs and guns goin’ off. And so he was runnin’ around. But at the same time he was runnin’ around, there are a couple of Indians in a foxhole and they’re smokin’ their tobacco, saying their prayer. “Oh, Creator, take care of us. I swear here on this here foreign land, watch over us and we promise we’ll live a good life. Send us a sign that you hear what we’re talkin’ about. You hear our prayers!” And they’re smoking their tobacco! And just as they’re praying, suddenly Uncle Leroy jumps into their foxhole and those two Indians look at this black man and they go, “Ah, the creator! Thank you for sending us this good luck charm of a black man. We promise we’ll take care of this young man here in a good way.” And so they did.
They kept that promise and they took care of Uncle Leroy. And they taught Uncle Leroy about spirit, honor, culture, tradition, prayer, brotherhood. And they took care of Uncle Leroy and Uncle Leroy felt that. He owed those Indian brothers of his. So I went to his house. He told us the stories of brotherhood, took care of us while we were in his home. So the next morning we jumped in the van and we headed off. And as we were driving off, I heard Uncle Leroy, “My Indian brothers!”
If a story plays a part in your identity – what is it and why do you use it to state who you are? Is there more than one story we can use to claim or identify who we are?
What is your family migration story? Does it matter or not?
What are some of the challenging moments in your life? How did you handle them? Could the challenges you faced and the solutions you created be a story that you tell?
Can you describe the story of a world you’d like to see and live in?
Idi Amin: Lion of Africa by Manzoor Moghal
Immigrants Settling in the City: Ugandan Asians in Leicester by Valerie Maret
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
So, my name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is about my parents.
How do you eat a mango? You hold a mango in your hands, you caress it, you squeeze it, and you soften the pulp from the mango, and then you suck out the juice from the middle. I know how to eat mango because my parents told me how to eat a mango. They came to Britain in 1972 from Uganda as Ugandan refugees, and I was born in England. But they told me how to eat the mango because that’s what they did in Uganda. Mangoes flourished in their garden. And we eat mangos every day. But there are so many other stories from Uganda and Kenya.
There were stories about how my mother, when she grew up, she was sitting in an elementary classroom, and, she picked… a cobra, walked into, came into the classroom, and she picked up a hockey stick and killed the cobra. And still to this day, that cobra is in a jar and in the school museum with a label on it, “Killed by Pravina Korga Tora.” There were so many other stories from East Africa, from Kenya, and Uganda, where my family grew up. Stories about how they’d make popcorn and go to the drive-in cinema. Or stories of how they would pick food from the garden and make bugga or baquarda, bagia. Or how they make African food and combine that with Indian ingredients like ugali.
There was even a story once that my mother told me that the Bisaya people used to come on trains with vegetables and fruit and sell these vegetables to the houses. And one day, a young boy was knocking at the door to sell vegetables. And my grandma opened the door and invited this young boy in. And he became a friend of the family and as he grew up with my mother.
There was a story about my grandfather that one day, he looked out and he saw so many people walking past thirsty, they had no water. So, he went out with his own hands, he built a well so they could drink fresh clean water. There are many stories such as this and I know them because my parents told them to me and I had never been to Uganda.
But in 1972, in the summertime, Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, announced on public radio, that Ugandan Asians had to leave the country in three months or they be executed. Now, you can imagine the panic. People were scared. But they had no time to fuss around. They had to pack up what they could, put their possessions into bags, and then leave the country, or obtain the visas so they could leave the country. A sociologist once described my people as the thrice migrant community. A community of people that had migrated across three continents in one lifetime. Thousands fled the borders. Some moved back into Kenya or Malawi or Tanzania. Well, my family were kind of lucky because they were born as British citizens. Originally, my grandparents came from India to East Africa to build the railroads from Mombasa to Jinja, the source of the Nile. The British needed the British railroads to keep control of the British Empire. They needed an access from the sea to the source of the Nile, to keep control of the Suez Canal. So, they sent for migrant Indian skilled workers to do this. And when it became an independent country, both Kenya and Uganda, the Ugandan Asians, they stayed and they settled and made Uganda their home.
On route to Britain, though, in the winter of 1972, things weren’t all that rosy. When the plane tried to land at Luton Airport, the airport was stormed by far right fascist groups that tried to stop the immigrants from coming into the country. And this was spurred by Enoch Powell’s “The Rivers of Blood” speech. Enoch Powell was a politician that talked about the blood of migrants is going to ruin our country. Many of the refugees settled in refugee camps. But my father got word, because he was a young architect in Uganda, that sister branch in a town called Eastbourne, sent word that any Ugandan refugees that were going to come to England had a promise of a job. So, my parents moved to Eastbourne.
The front page of the headline of the Eastbourne Herald Newspaper read, Uga, “Eastbourne Welcomes Ugandan Refugees,” and there was a picture on it of my parents. A young, cool Indian couple. My father wore a bright red turban. My mum even, even bright red sari and they carried a little baby, my older brother.
Eastbourne was where they grew up. It was also where I was born. It was a town that welcomed my family in. There was so many stories about those early years. I remember, my dad told me once, when he was walking down the Eastbourne promenade, a young boy called out, “Look mum, aliens!” My dad loves to tell that story. I once asked my dad what was it like. You left Uganda at gunpoint. You came to England, you had, your plane had to reroute. You started a new life. You had no possessions, no houses, hardly any money. The only money they brought into the country was jew… wedding jewelry, stuffed into my brother’s diaper. They had to start life from scratch. Must’ve been really difficult.
And my dad was like, “No, Son, it was fun. It was an adventure. And you know why? Because we’re doing it together. We had a sense of community. We helped each other out.”
When they came to Britain, alls they had was minimal possessions but what they did have was the power of the stories that are passed on to them and the power of stories that they passed on to me. I’m so grateful for the stories that were passed on to me by my parents. And the strength and this belief that I believe. That to tell a story in this world is more than a human right. It’s actually an act of love that can change the world. And I’m grateful for the stories that have changed my world and made me realize the person I could be.
When former Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, war broke out across the region. Hasan, a Muslim, was a college student in 1992 when the siege against his city, Sarajevo, began. He joined the Army of Bosnia but would do anything to escape and live in peace and freedom. A few of his many adventures are detailed in this excerpt as well as his victory in studying Islam and rediscovering his identity when he came to the United States. (more…)
Searching for a resource for Japanese American experiences in World War II relocation camps? Alton Chung tells the true story of his journey and encounter with an 89 year old former internee who made her first visit after 66 years. This personal and challenging story is food for thought for all of us.
Alton Chung relates the true story of his journey to the Minidoka Relocation Camp site at Hunt, Idaho and of his encounter there with an 89 year old former internee. She was 23 years old when she left this Japanese American incarceration camp and this was her first visit back to the site after 66 years.
Touring the old camp evokes emotions and thoughts of loved ones and life at Minidoka during World War II. The internee shares personal memories of that time and how the internment affected her life. The story provides a view of relocation camps that allows us to experience the difficulties encountered and, hopefully, encourages us to think differently about others.
Create a webquest (an online scavenger hunt) for students to uncover information about incarceration camps
Visit a WWII museum
Write journal prompts for students to respond to daily.
Watch the video now
Explore our many other RaceBridges videos for
Asian American Month or any other time of the year.
Listen and move as this spoken word piece takes your mind and body through an insider’s/outsider’s understanding of immigration, identity, and family. The story began when Arianna and her now husband wanted to get married and had to prove, with evidence, that their love for each other was real. Complexity arose as they entered the immigration process better known as: K-1 Non-Immigrant Visa. As they hit barrier after barrier, they quickly learned how unpredictable the U. S. was about immigration,
Immigration Stories by David A. martin and Peter Schuck (Non-fiction)
Mama’s Nightingale: A story of Immigration and Separation, By Edwidge Danticat
Living and Traveling Abroad
My name is Arianna Ross. It was 2006. I was watching the sunset – the sky was a wash of purple and peach. I, I turned to face my boyfriend, Alexandre. He was smiling; there was a twinkle in his eye.
Right behind him was a statue of the Madonna holding baby Jesus, awash with the same colors as the sky. He looked at me, “Você quer você orar comigo? Do you want to pray with me?” We held hands and we took a deep breath in and were silent for a moment.
When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me hesitantly. And then he said to me in a very tentative voice unlike his normal voice, “Você quer ser meu noivo? Do you want to be my fiancé?”
For the next 24 hours, we were in pure wedding bliss. We discussed where we were going to get married. The kind of food we were going to eat, the type of music we were going to have and, of course, the most important part for both of us – the ceremony. We decided that my parents would say prayers in Hebrew and that his parents would say a few prayers in Portuguese. And we would have a master of ceremonies run the entire event.
We were excited until we sat down in front of the computer. We decided that we were going to spend the first half of our life in the United States and the second half of our life in Brazil, which meant that we had to get married in both places. We turned on the computer, we loaded the USCIS website, the Immigration Services website, for the United States.
We looked up the K-1 fiancé visa. There were nine pages of instructions.
Step number 1, fill out the I-129F document in dark ink. Step 2, gather evidence that proves that you are planning on getting married and staying married. That proves, essentially, that you are in love. Evidence that proves that we are in love?
I called Immigration Naturalization Services. I asked them, “What exactly do you mean by evidence? What kind of evidence or what form of evidence? I mean, I recognize that there are people who try to dupe the system. We’re not one of those people so I would appreciate clarification?”
And the man over the telephone calmly explained to me, “Excuse me, you need, essentially, to provide simple evidence, simple evidence that proves that you are in love and you are truly planning on getting married and staying married.”
“Sir, I get that. It states that in the document, in the instructions. But what do you mean by ‘proves that we’re go… in love’ in evidence? What kind of evidence?”
“Anything you deem necessary.”
All right, I went home to the United States and I started to gather evidence. I gathered photographs, receipts, letters from my parents, letters from his parents, letters from all of our friends. I had two hundred and fifty pages of evidence when I turned in our application. I crossed my fingers and I waited.
Six months passed and we received a letter. They were telling us we had made it to the next step. We needed to turn in more documentation and more evidence. I mailed in 150 more pages and we crossed our fingers and we waited. One year and two months later, we received our interview date in Rio. I got on a plane. I met my now fiancé there and we arrived at 7:45 am at the consular office. Our appointment was not until 11:30 but I didn’t want to be late. We sat and we waited patiently. Eleven o’clock rolled around, 11:30 rolled around, 11:45 rolled around, 12:25. All of the couples had gone in and out, in and out. There was only one consular office left in the entire room when he motioned us in. We sat down and the first thing I noticed was that he was behind a Plexiglas bulletproof window and then he smiled. He had his hand… a stack of papers.
“Here are three hundred and fifty of your four hundred pages of documentation. I would like to return them to you because I really don’t want them clogging up my filing cabinets. If you have more evidence with you, which I’m sure you do, please don’t give it to me. I believe that you are going to get married. I believe that you are in love. I would just love to know how the two of you met.”
“Ach! How the two of us mmmet?
I was ready to screech at the man! My hands actually balled into fists! And then, suddenly, I felt my normally nonverbal husband reach down and relax my fingers. He looked at me. He looked at the man and he began to tell our story. The story that we had documented in all those photographs and all those letters. By the time he was finished, I was surprised. He knew all those details.
The consular office reached underneath his desk. He grabbed his stamp and in one fell swoop, he stamped my husband’s passport.
“Welcome to the United States. I can’t give you your passport. I need to mail it to you. Do you have the self-addressed stamped envelope?”
“Yes.” We handed it to him.
He explained to us that it would arrive in five to six days and then he hoped my husband had an excellent journey. One year and six months later, my husband got off the plane. He looked at me and he smiled – a twinkle in his eye. He was wearing my favorite T-shirt. I knew that we were ready to bring joy into our world and to start our pre-wedding bliss.
What is it like to be so immersed in a culture that a lady on the bus becomes your adopted “Aunt” and a bus driver your “Brother? While Arianna Ross travelled alone through Indonesia, she discovered that sometimes family is defined by a connection and not blood. Many days Arianna lived with only the support of total strangers. Witness the similarities and differences between Arianna’s culture and theirs. (more…)
As the new Protestant Chaplain at the largest men’s prison in Maryland, Geraldine quickly realizes that the midweek Bible service has been overrun by the Crips – a violent, largely African-American gang – and that if something isn’t done quickly the Correctional Officers will close down the service. Going to the root of the problem, Geraldine meets with the head of Crips in her office, but she soon sees that as the two of them are so completely different she will have to establish some common ground before asking for his help with the problem. Will telling him a story of a thug-filled six-week bus trip from London, UK to Delhi, India, that she took decades before, be enough to win his trust? Can the midweek Bible service be saved?
America has more people incarcerated than any other nation in the world (both in number and per capita). Why do you think this is?
According to an FBI report, in 2011 there were approximately 1.4 million people who were part of gangs, and more than 33,000 gangs were active in the United State. These numbers have since grown rapidly. What do you think has happened in this country to allow gangs to flourish?
What do you think that you as an individual can do about both of these problems? What do you think that we as a nation can do about both of these problems?
The Outsiders by E. F. Hutton
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Geraldine. Geraldine Buckley. And in 2007, it never crossed my mind, when I was training to be the chaplain, at the largest men’s prison in Maryland, that after just a few weeks on the job, I would be sitting in my office, across my desk from the leader of the Crips, which is a largely African-American violent gang. And that I would be asking the head of the Crips for his help with a problem.
Well, when that day came, I did what I do best in those situations. After all, you’ve probably realized by now, that I was born and brought up in England. Well, I made him a cup of tea. But I really did have a problem. The midweek Bible service that had about 240 men and…, it had become a meeting place for the gangs, particularly the Crips. Now, the front of the service was fine. That’s where men were opening themselves up to the love and forgiveness of God. And so, they were able to extend that love and forgiveness to other people. Incredible things were happening. But it was just at the back of the chapel that I had such a problem. That’s where the gang members, particularly the Crips, were passing things and they were talking loudly. Well, goodness knows what they were plotting. But they were disturbing the service and I couldn’t have that. And there was another level to this problem, and that is, if the correctional officers realized what a serious gang problem we actually had, they’d close down the service and we might not get it back for months.
Well, I went to the, the head of the, the inmate leaders of the chapel. Ah, we had a church of 600 people behind the walls. And, ah, the leaders, many of them, had theological degrees and I asked them for their input and they suggested that I take all those Crip leaders off the list. In other words, ban them from the service. But I didn’t want to do that, because to my mind, unless they sat under the Word of God, what hope would they have of changing? So, that’s why I decided to go to the root of the problem, which is how I find myself in my office, across my desk from the head of the Crips. Let’s call him El Jefe. Well, he was about thirty-three years of age. He was African-American. He came from Baltimore. And I knew, I only had him in my office for 20 minutes because he’d arrived at half past two and he had to leave by 2:50 in order to get back to his cell in time for count. And if he wasn’t there, he’d be taken off to the segregation unit in chains. I thought, how am I going to establish any common ground, any mutual understanding, or any hope of cooperation, in such a short amount of time.
After all, we were so different. I mean, for a start, he was a man and I’m a woman. He’d been incarcerated for years and he’s got years to go. And I’m relatively new at all this. And then, he was a Crip and I’m a Pentecostal. And then, I had an idea. And I said, “Jefe, let me tell you a story.” I have, but first of all, I said to him, “Jefe, I think I have a really soft spot for gangs.” Well he was, at the time, he was slumped in his chair and he was gently tapping his fingers on the edge of my desk. And he was looking at me through half-closed eyes and I knew then that he was not buying it. So that’s when I said, “Jefe, let me tell you a story.”
“When I was 21, I went on a bus trip from North Finchley tube station in London to Delhi, India. It was called Budget Bus. It was bright pink. It was decrepit. It was held together with duct tape. But it was cheap. Now, I went for two reasons. First of all, I wanted something on my resume the following year, that would make me really stand out from my, my fellow graduates. And the other thing is I really wanted to irritate my mother.”
“Now, I was really concerned about who my fellow travelling companions were going to be because we would be travelling together for six weeks. We would be eating together by the side of the road. We’d be sleeping in tents together. So, we would in effect, be a mobile travelling capsule. And so, I was very concerned when I first stepped on the bus, and my immediate impression was one of a strong smell of unwashed bodies. Well, I tried hard to not let that show on my face but I looked to see where it was coming from. And it was a small group of men who were very thin, they had hollow eyes, and they had track marks up and down their arms. These were drug addicts. And one of them was going to die on a beach in Sri Lanka.”
Well, I looked over at Jefe, and I’d noticed that he’d stopped drumming his fingers, and he was sitting up straight. Good. I had his attention, so I carried on. “So,” I said, “of the other 25 or 30 other men and women on that bus, there was another man who immediately, I immediately, noticed. he was a small man. He was in his mid-20’s. He had shifty eyes. And he sat right at the back of the bus. And I knew straight away, he was Australian because of his accent, And I found out later that his name was Wayne. Well, from that very first moment of getting on the bus, he kept up a loud, continuous monologue of the filthiest language I have ever heard before or since.”
“And then, there was another group of men who stood out to me. They were wearing denim and leather and chains. They had shaved heads. They were covered in tattoos, and they had a really hard look on their faces. These were the Hell’s Angels. Now, it must be said, that these were English Hell’s Angels, so they were a little more refined than their American counterparts. But they were still Hell’s Angels, and they terrified me. Particularly, their leader who was called Grila. Now, Grila was an enormous man. He couldn’t read or write. He had his name tattooed on his knuckles. G-R-I-L-A. And he had this huge tattoo on his arm of a gravestone with the names of men in it. And I looked at those names and I thought, ‘Are they the names of the men he’s killed?’ Oh, that man, Grilla, absolutely terrified me!”
“Well, that bus was far worse than I could have ever imagined on that first day. Wayne and his new group of friends discovered that down the aisle of the bus, there was a trap door that went down to the road. And when the bus was moving, they would have urinating contests. And if anybody objected, they would turn the flow on them. And then, for some reason, Wayne thought it would be great fun to pick on me. And so, for hour after hour, he kept up another loud monologue describing, in vivid detail, what he imagined I did as extracurricular activity.”
“Well, I was only 21 and this went on for day, after day, after day. Well, one of those days, I was sitting near the back of the blus… back of the bus, playing Scrabble with Wayne’s new girlfriend. She and I shared a tent for the first few days of the bus. Well, he said something really crass to her. Really revolting. And, stupidly, I defended her. So, he pushed me back in my seat. And then, he picked up his big fist to hit me. When all of a sudden, over my shoulder, came an enormous hand and it grabbed Wayne’s wrist. And a voice said, ‘No, you don’t. You’re not hitting women. Not on my turf!’”
And Wayne just crumbled and he said, ‘No!’ He said, ‘Don’t hurt me! Don’t, don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me.’”
“Well, I looked around to see who he was, who’d come to my help. It was Grilla! Grilla had come to help me. Well, that night I was sitting on the bus by myself. All the others were setting up the camp and, and Grilla came to find me. And he was shuffling his feet a bit, and he had his cap in his hand, and he was twisting it, and he kept his eyes on the ground, And he said, ‘Geraldine, I’m really sorry I didn’t do more to help you on that bus today.’ He said, ‘But if we men start eating each other, someone’s going to get killed.’”
“Well, several things happened from that incident. The first thing, was that Wayne kept really quiet at the back of the bus, which was wonderful. And then, that was the first time that I realized that, although it’s best for men and women to work together, sometimes you need a man to stand up and do what’s right. And when that happens, it’s like a key turns in a lock and evil turns to good. And then the other thing that happened was, that Grilla and his group of Hell’s Angels friends, they took me under their wing. And I became the little sister the gang. All very innocent.”
Well, at that moment I looked over at, ah, at Jefe and his eyes were as big as the bottom of s… of buckets. And I said, “I know, isn’t that incredible, Jefe, that a woman who was not long out of a convent boarding school, would end up being the little sister of a gang of hens… Hell’s Angels. But what that meant was, that I got to spend time with them. I got to see who they really were. And I saw that they, they really cared for each other. They had each other’s backs. They were family.”
“So, one day I asked Grilla about that enormous tattoo on his arm, the one of the gravestone with the R.I.P. and the names of men. And he said, “Oh, Geraldine.’ He said, he said, ‘They’re my fallen comrades. They’re my dead friends. If we don’t look out for each other, who will?’”
Well, at that moment, a shadow came across the glass in my office door. It was the correctional officer. And he opened the door. He said, “Chaplain, you’ve got three more minutes with this man, and then he’s got to get back to his cell in time for count.”
I said, “Thank you, officer.” Three minutes. How was I going to get my last point across in such a short amount of time? Tick…tick…tick…And then, I had another idea. I said, “Jefe, you and your, your Hell’s Angels, your, you and your, your Crips friends. You’ve been teaching me such a lot since I’ve been here. You’ve been teaching me about gang warfare and streets and, and gangs. Now, tell me if this is right or not, but from what I understand, you’d never let another gang come in and take your street corner. Is that right?”
He said, “Oh, that’s right, Chaplain.” And he said, “That’s never gonna happen. Never gonna happen.”
I said, “Well, Jefe, this mid-week Bible service, this is our land. The leader of these, this chaplain and mine. And if you continue what you’re doing with your Crip friends, you’re going to draw the attention of the correctional officers. And if you carry on doing it, they’re going to take it away from us. Now, it would break my heart to take you and your fellow gang members off the list. In other words, ban you from the service. But if that’s what I’ve got to do, I’ll do it. Because no one is taking this land away from me.”
And we just stared at each other. Tick, tick. A shadow came across the door in the office and then, and then, Jefe said, “It’s all right, Chaplain.” He said, he said, “I get it. There’ll be no more trouble. I give you my word.”
And you know something? Jefe kept his word from that moment ’til the time I left, two and a half years later. There was no more gang trouble in the Protestant chapel. No more trouble on my turf.
Moving to Junior High school opens Angela’s eyes to a society and culture that she had been living in (Caracas, Venezuela), and yet one from which she was separate. Angela’s story tells a universal truth: we think we are the only ones telling ourselves “ We do not belong here.” That statement is what we have in common. (more…)
In 1972, Marsha worked for the Peace Corp in Jamaica. She became friendly with a neighbor woman named Yvonne. By casually mentioning the town she lived near – Montclair, New Jersey – Marsha set in motion a dream that Yvonne would sacrifice everything to fulfill. Although some would call her an “illegal immigrant” Yvonne accomplished the impossible. (more…)
The differences were easy to see, Catholic/Jewish, Brown/White, Spanish-Speaking/English-Speaking, Mexican/American, rural/urban. When Carrie Sue and her fiancé decided to marry there were many who thought their relationship would not last long – including the representative from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico who was handling their Visa.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: No-Aguantara
What do you judge people on when you first meet them? Have you ever made a judgment about a person only to realize when you get to know them better that you were completely wrong about them? If so, did you discover anything about yourself?
Do you think that we learn things about ourselves when we meet people who are different from us? Why do you think that?
Many people, including the American Visa Clerk objected to Carrie Sue and Facundo’s relationship. Why do you think it mattered to the other people?
Why do you think many were surprised that their families did not disapprove of the relationship?
In Their Own Words: Drama with Young English Language Learners by Dan Kelin – a resource for anyone working with 2nd language learners
The Earth Mass by Joseph Pintauro and Alicia Bay Laurel (Carrie Sue and her husband used a poem from this collection in their wedding ceremony and still try to follow its advice.)
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Carrie Sue Ayvar and just after I graduated high school, I went from Pittsburgh, PA to Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico. (No aguantará) It’ll never last! That’s what they said! (No aguantará) It’ll never last! They were like wisps of rumors, never said to us directly but rumors that wisped around and spoken always in concerned tones, mostly to our families and friends.
It was 1973. I was only 17 when I met Facundo but there could hardly have been a more romantic setting. It was a warm, sunny day that January morning and it was on a small island just off the west coast of southern Mexico. The air was filled with (breathing in fragrance) mango and coconut oil, salt sea breezes and pheromones.
I watched as a muscular, strong young man, probably about 20 years old, carried several scuba tanks up onto the beach. Oo! The salt water and the sweat made his coppery skin glisten and his long dark hair had streaks of red and gold in it from days in the sun. Oh ho… I had never seen a more beautiful, gorgeous human being in my entire life! Like an Aztec Adonis emerging from the waters! When I could finally catch my breath again, I remember thinking, “The guy’s gotta be a jerk! I mean, no one is that good looking and nice too!”
But (como dice el dicho) as the saying goes, (caras vemos el corazón no sabemos) we see the faces but we do not know the hearts. Now on the surface, Facundo and I had very little in common. He was a Spanish-speaking, Catholic, indigenous, brown-skinned Mexican from a very small fishing village and he lived on a beach while I was a fair-haired, green-eyed, English-speaking, Jewish, white American who lived in a three-story brick building in a very large city.
And our experiences growing up were completely different. I mean, while I watched Tarzan’s adventures on TV, he lived them slicing green hanging vines for cauldrons of water, climbing tall palm trees to gather coconuts, diving off cliffs into beautiful blue tropical waters. I mean, while I went ice skating, he was free diving. From my father, I learned how to make flower arrangements. From his father, he learned how to build dugout canoes.
Para cemos conocemos! But we did get to know each other. And we got to know each other’s stories and each other’s hearts. (E descubrimos) We discovered (las dos querer) that we both loved (el mar) the ocean and the feeling of weightlessness during those underwater dives. (El savor) the taste of salt on our tongues when we came up for air. (El sonido) The sound of the waves drumming against the sands. (E también descubrimos) We also discovered (los dos querer) that we both cherished (familia y mis les) family and friends (mas que) more than everything. (Nos conocíamos) we got to know each other (e nos enamoramos) and we fell in love.
Now it was amazing how many people were there to tell us, “No aguantará, it will never last!” From both sides of the border, there were so many people who disapproved. They would say things like, “Oh, you know he’s only using you to get a green card.” Or (Ay, esos gringos de como de es sabe) You know how those gringos are, man! (rico e consentido) They are rich and spoiled, (ya sabes) you know! Or “Ah, what a shame! She couldn’t find a nice Jewish doctor?”
But all of those things didn’t really phase us! Even when we finally announced our engagement and, to our surprise, we heard rumors of a pregnancy that we knew nothing about! But, as I said, all those doubts and criticisms didn’t really bother us. I mean, we were happy and, to the surprise of many, so were our families. I mean, Facundo had actually met my parents a year before I ever met him; they’re the ones who actually introduced us to each other there on the island. Jesus, his papa and his parents – (madre tomas su propia hija) they treated me like their very own daughter. Dona Christina, his mother, used to say ,”(Tenemos que cuidado de ella) We have to take good care of her. (Sus propios padres están tan lejos) Her own parents are so far away.”
So really, what did it matter to us what other people thought? I didn’t think it mattered at all… but sometimes it does. Since it was hard for my grandparents and other elderly relatives to travel to southern Mexico where we lived, we decided that we would have the wedding in my home town of Pittsburgh, PA.
Now after a 12-hour overnight bus trip, we finally arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Under a smoggy, gray sky, we waited for hours and hours to finally speak to an American visa clerk. And when we finally did, instead of helping us, instead of telling us what kind of visas we were eligible for, this unfriendly, unhelpful, unhappy little bureaucrat of a man lied to us. Lied to us repeatedly and began to make things up. Let me ask you, do you know how hard it is to get a copy of a form that doesn’t actually exist? Oh, yeah, he knew that he controlled the information and the situation.
But much to his dismay, we did not give up and go home like he wanted us to. Ah, ah, every time we went back, he looked more put out, like, like he was sucking on sour lemons or smelled something foul in the air. I mean, he was, quite frankly, openly disapproving of us. He told us that we were too different and finally, he dismissed us with an arrogant look! “Just go back to your own kind! You are young, poor, powerless and you don’t even realize that I’m doing you a favor!”
(Sigh) Well, (pobres) We were poor; we had little money. (E jóvenes) We were young! Powerless? (Las caras vemos corazones no sabe) You see the faces but you do not know the hearts! His attitude only strengthened our determination – pulled us together! Facundo and I, we found our voices and our power! We did not give up; we went back to that embassy again and again until, at last, we found someone who would listen. Though I will admit, it did take months, a career ambassador, a 3-star general and a United States senator to finally resolve our case!
But we did get a visa and we did get married. Now maybe we were naïve, I don’t know. I know as it was pointed out to us again and again, we looked different and we sounded different. We had different religions and we came from very different cultures and experiences. And (nunca sabes) you never know; there are no guarantees in life anyways. But I do know that we just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary and, yeah, we’re still happy! (Como dice el dicho) As the saying goes, “Look at the faces and see the hearts!”
When a single girl from Eastern Europe goes to the USA to study, she has to face certain assumptions made about green cards, marriages of convenience, and other things no one prepared her for. Culture shock comes in many shapes and sizes, and graduate school orientations never tell you what “the L word” really stands for… (more…)
Susan takes her young adult sons to Guatemala to be inspired by the Catholic clergy, religious and lay people working for justice there. Her own idealism is challenged as she hears stories of the atrocities people are suffering because of Guatemala’s civil war. A moment of grace and wisdom from the Mother Superior restores her sense of hope and dedication. (more…)
Charlotte Blake Alston and colleague, Steve Tunick, chaperone 12 African and Jewish American teenagers who seek common ground through a cultural immersion abroad in Senegal in Africa. An unanticipated diversion led the group to an encampment of recently expelled or escaped indigenous Mauritanians. Were Charlotte and Steve making a big mistake allowing the students to witness and be among poor, desperate people at such a low and vulnerable moment of their lives? Would the presence of Americans in the refugee camp contribute to increasing tensions between Senegal and its slave-holding northern neighbor, Mauritania? Adults and students alike receive a profound lesson about our common humanity from a group of children whom they had perceived to be the least likely to offer insight. (more…)
Noa grew up in Jerusalem, where America was the most exotic place other than Mars. In the 5th grade, Noa’s family left their home in Israel. She arrived in America speaking very little English. But miracles do happen… (more…)
In 1965, there was a war between India and Pakistan and Bilal wanted to know “Why is there all this hate?” This is the true story of a special gift Dr. Bilal Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim, received from his father when he was thirteen. He offered his story as a gift to storyteller, Noa Baum, to shape and retell and, now, having told it to you, she hopes you will pass it on. (more…)
A woman tells Jon the story of how when she was a girl a perfect stranger saved her from arrest and worse. The woman left before Jon could ask her more, but her story says that this could happen anywhere and at any time. Any of us may be called to help another.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:On-the-Bus
Brainstorm a list of things you can do for others that shows kindness.
When have you been afraid? What did or could someone have done to alleviate your fears?
Why did the perfect stranger on the bus protect the young girl? Would you have done similarly?
Hi, I’m Jon Spelman. In the mid 1990’s, I began to tell an evolving collection of stories called, “I Still Believe: The Lives of Children and Extremities.” These are stories collected from North and South America, from Europe, from Asia, and from Africa. Stories about the faith and the strength of young people as they came up against oppression, racial, political, cultural pressure and violence. One of those stories, which was told to me, seems to me, to stand in for all those other stories because it, when it was told to me, had no time, no specific place, no specific political location. The story is called, “On the Bus,” and it’s from the point of view of a young girl.
I was on a bus at a time when people like me are not allowed to be on a bus or any form of conveyance. In a place where I was not supposed to be, at a time when I was not allowed to be outside. And I was not wearing the kinds of clothes that we were told to wear. Nor did I have any of the papers which would make me officially allowed to be there. But since I looked a lot like many of the people who did those things, I was nervous but not frightened. And then suddenly, in the midst of a block, the bus was stopped by four soldiers. Two got on the front, two got on the back, and immediately began to ask everyone for their papers.
Now I was frightened. And then a man near the front, who had apparently not had any papers, was taken out into the street and shot. And the soldiers got back onto the bus and I was terrified. They were coming closer and closer to me, closing in on both sides. And when they asked for my papers I knew that I would be destroyed.
And then, a man sitting next to me, I had not even looked at him, I certainly did not know him, he suddenly stood up and he started screaming at me, “You stupid, stupid girl! How many times do I have to tell you! What am I supposed to do about this?”
And at that, the four officers all came over and that they looked at us and, and he said to them, “Every time we leave the house. This morning when I left, I told her three times. I said, ‘Bring your papers.’ But does she remember to bring her papers. No, she does not. What is a father to do?”
The soldiers looked at him and they looked at me. They looked at each other and laughed. Then they quickly checked his papers, and the papers of a few more people, got off the bus, and we continued on our way.
I sat there staring at the floor. I dared not reveal in my face what I was feeling for this, this angel who had saved my life. I was still staring at the floor when several stops later, the man got up and started for the exit. But before he went through that door, he turned back to me and he said, “Oh, and today please, when you go home, help your mother with the baby.” And he was gone. And I was alive.
Can you see antennas on this middle aged white woman? “Aliens” (the word used for people from other countries) come from places other than Mars. During the McCarthy witch-hunts (a period of anti-communism intensity), the Cold War and the Space Race, we all learned to “blend” our ethnic identities.
Why was Yvonne’s family able to legally become naturalized citizens while other people came to the U.S. as “illegals”?
How old do you think Yvonne needed to be before she understood what it meant to become a U.S. citizen?
The Irish in America by Michael Coffey
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Hi, my name is Yvonne. And I’m seven years old and the Pittsburgh Federal Building reaches right up to the sky, for real! There are bars on the windows. There may be daffodils blooming on the lawn but the entrance looms like a great, big mouth ready to swallow us up. Awe…it looks an awful lot like the wicked fortress of the Wicked Witch of the West. But…really… it’s the Pittsburgh Federal Building and this is the Steel City, not the Emerald City of Oz.
“Come on in. Come along,” says Mummy. “Let’s go.” So we go inside. And we’re going inside the Federal Building. Now, you see, I may be seven years old but I know what a federal building is. We have a federal building in our own little town in Pennsylvania. We go there, my dad and I, to mail packages back home to Ireland. And our whole family goes there all together once a year for something special. We go and we stand right up to the counter and then we hold our hands up, and out loud, we say the alien promise. And then we sign our names. Mine’s in block cursive. And all the other people buying stamps, they’re staring at us because we’re aliens. Well, that night we go home and watch TV and on the TV, there are the McCarthy Witch Trials. And on that show, there are people who…who are getting yelled at and jailed because they’re aliens.
Well, I go to the mirror afterwards and I’m looking through my black hair for my antennae. Because aliens have antenna. I know that because I watch TV. I watched Chiller Science Fiction Theater. And aliens have antennae, Martians have antennae. So I must have antennae. The only time I see aliens is on TV because there are no other aliens in my town. Everybody else is a real American. But, you know, I don’t think antennae can come out. They’re kind of stuck in there. Because my… my teacher, Sister Camella, she likes to hit me on the head with the big, thick Geography book. She does that whenever I accidentally use the language that we speak at home, Gaelic Irish. She says, “Blend! Why don’t you blend? Why don’t you speak like your friend, Star? She’s a real American! But you, you’re always going to be just alien!” Star is a real American. She speaks nicely. And she has blonde hair and blue eyes. And she doesn’t have to go down to the post office. And she doesn’t cook funny food. That’s what my friends say when they come over.
But anyway, so this is a special day! (I don’t want to think about that.) This is a special day. This is the day I’m gonna be naturalized. I didn’t know I wasn’t natural but now I know. It’s going to be ok, ’cause today, I’m going to be naturalized. So… I’ve been practicing my cursive.
And now Daddy and Mummy and my big sister and I are sitting in a bench right beside these big wooden doors. One after another, our names are called in. They go in separately because Daddy, Daddy thinks that… if Ireland declares war on the United States we’re gonna each need our own papers so we don’t get deported. Tá mé na hÉireann agus tá mé Meiriceánach. I’m Irish and I’m American. Then they called my name. And there are these black pants and a blue shirt and a yellow badge and a strange face. And my mum pushes me. “Go on, go on.” I can’t believe that my mum is telling me to go with this stranger after she’s always going on about never going with strangers. And now she’s making me go off into this big scary building with this scary man that I’ve never seen before! And he smells bad! We’re walking through those doors and we’re in a courtroom. Only… only it’s not like the courtroom one on the TV show Perry Mason. It’s got all the benches. But this one’s dark and empty. And my patent leather shoes are going, “whap, whap, whap,” as I go down the aisle following that stranger. We get to the end, he gives me a little push. And in front of me there’s this big, black tower of wood…I don’t want to go. He says, “Go to the Judge’s Bench.” …I don’t say it but I’m, like, that’s not a bench, that’s not a seat, that’s not a desk. That’s a tower! He gives me another push and I get a little further and I see there are little steps going up the side. So, ok, I go up the steps. And then it turns a corner and now I’m surrounded by black wood. Heavy, thick, black wood. I am all alone. And the black wood just gets closer and closer and the air is getting squeezed out. And I’m alone in this big black tower and then I hear, “Hey!” And there’s a man, an old man’s face kind of poking out around the corner. Is it the wizard? Or the judge? He motions to come closer. So, he says, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’m sure you remember the answers.”
And he says, “Who’s the president of the United States?”
I think to myself, “Oh my gosh, everybody knows that it’s the man with the shiny head.” But I say, like a lady, I say, “General Eisenhower.”
And he says, “Who discovered America?”
And I say, “Christopher Columbus but it was named after the matchmaker, Amerigo Vespucci.”
And then he says, “Alright, this is a tricky one but you look like a smart little girl, how many states are there?”
“Forty-nine, Alaska just got in.”
“Congratulations,” he says. “You are now an American citizen. You may sign the book and repeat after me.”
And I hold my hand up like him, and just like you probably remember, I say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” I sign my name in big round cursive letters. Now, I’m an American, a real American and I’m Irish too!
The true story of a Vietnamese teenager who makes it to America after a harrowing boat journey and refugee camp. At a commemorative storytelling event honoring Vietnamese Americans, Sue witnesses the transformative power of story as this young man shares his American immigrant story. The community of listeners that storytelling creates makes a new country feel like home. (more…)
Linda’s grandmother lived in what her sisters and she called “The Plastic Palace.” Her grandmother covered everything with plastic. Everything … chairs, tables, lampshades … and, of course, her living room couch, including the throw pillows. Plastic is fun, right? But who would suspect that it could also set off a painful memory of the Vietnam War for Linda’s father?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Plastic-Glory
What intrigues you about the home of your grandparents or other older people? What do you smell, taste, hear, or touch when you visit their homes?
How does the description of food add to the visual image of the dining room scene?
Were you surprised at the twist near the end of the story? How did her father’s reaction to the popping sound affect you?
Do you know someone who has fought overseas in a war? Have you ever talked with them about their experiences? If you could, what would you ask?
The term ‘shell shock’ has been changed to ‘post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What do you know about it?
The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won’t Tell You about What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War by Kevin Sites
Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and MTBI by Charles Hoge
What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Hi, I’m Linda Gorham and I remember my grandmother’s obsession with plastic. She covered everything with it: furniture, accessories. Now, I know this was universal. I meet a lot of people tell me that their family covered things with plastic. When I was young though, back in the 60’s, actually, I thought it was a black thing. But I learned that it’s pretty universal. I loved visiting my grandparents’ house because there was no dust. There was no dirt. There was no stain in her house, at least not under the plastic, you know what I mean.
But when I would go there, well, I would go on plastic hunts to discover all the ways that she had used plastic. It was really, really cool. In the living room, there were white lamps, you know. Regular lamps with big white shades? Those white shades were covered in plastic, of course. In the hall closet there were wooden hangers, all of those wooden hangers were covered with a plastic bag from the cleaners. I remember the hallway to my grandparents’ house. It was a long hallway that started at the foyer and it went all the way back to the kitchen. And covering that hallway was a gray hallway rug but to protect the rug it was covered in plastic. You see where I’m going with this, right?
In the dining room, there were dining room chairs. They were gorgeous and they had cushions on them that were kind of paisley. But to protect the cushions, they were covered in plastic. You know something cool about plastic cover,s dining room chairs when you sit down on them? They exhale. Aah. then, when you get up they inhale. Ooh. It’s kind of cool jumping up and down on them. Aah. Ooh. Aah. Ooh.
But the thing I remember that was the most fun, was the living room couch in my grandparents’ house. Yes, it was covered in plastic but this part I will never know how this happened, the pillows, throw pillows, they were covered in plastic too. But…I figured out a way to jump on that couch and to make a loud noise like POP. And I called it the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. I loved making the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. I love saying the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. My grandmother didn’t approve. But that’s another story.
Well, when I was about 12 or so, my father, who was in the military, announced that he was being transferred. No actually, when I think about it, I was probably more like eight. And so, we moved from New Jersey, where he was stationed, up to Alaska, and then to Fort Benning, Georgia – two transfers. And then while we were in Georgia, my father said to me that he was being, well, not transferred. He used the word I had never heard before – deployed. He was being sent to Vietnam and while he was gone, he told my mother and my two sisters that I had at that point, he said, “You’re all going to go back and live with my parents,” he said. My grandparents, his parents, my grandparents. And the next thing I knew, my father was shipped off to Vietnam and I was back in the plastic palace. That’s what I called it.
Now, I was a little bit older – that’s when I was about 12. But my sisters, well, they didn’t really remember all the plastic stuff so I took them on a hunt, you know, to show them that the things; the, the chairs and the, the plastic on the hangers and all the things that my grandmother covered in plastic. The best thing was that couch because you know what I taught them. How to make the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. My youngest sister, Carol loves being able to say “fart” out loud. But I was older, and truthfully, I was the only one who really understood where my father went. And I guess, it’s also fair to say, I was the only one of the children who realized that he may not come back or he may not come back the same. So, plastic took on a different, it just it was different for me. I wasn’t interested in all the other things that Gail and Carol liked.
I remember before my father left, he gave me a plastic globe and he showed all of us where Vietnam was. And I remember sitting in my room, at night, trying to put my finger approximately on New Jersey and try to stretch my thumb to Vietnam. It was a long way away. But somehow, just touching that plastic globe made me feel closer to my father.
I can remember every night, at 6 o’clock, my mother and I would sit on the living room couch, our bodies stuck to the plastic, and our eyes glued to the television set. Because every day at 6 o’clock, on the news, we’d watch. We’d watch to see if my father’s unit had been in battle. And we watched those names of fallen soldiers scroll down the screen. More names after more names after more names; too many names.
I can remember the day that my father came home. The doorbell rang his special code, three rings. And my sisters and I screamed, “Daddy’s home!” And we went running and slipping down that long hallway runner and into his arms. I think, and I don’t really remember, but I, re, kind of think he picked all of us up at the same time. And there was so much laughter and joy and tears in that foyer. It must’ve lasted forever. But I remember when he finally put us down, and did all the kissing and hugging, he, he walked down the hallway runner hung, his coat up in the closet. And then he walked over to the dining room table ’cause there was lots of food on that table. macaroni and cheese. My grandmother made the best macaroni and cheese in the world! I didn’t know back then, the most fattening macaroni and cheese in the world. But hey, who cared. And a whole stack of steaks. My father sat down on those plastic cover dining room chair cushions. And cushions, exhaled. Aah. Daddy’s home.
We had so much fun that day! At the dining room table, we ate, we talked, we laughed. And when Gail and Carol were finished eating, I remember, they excused themselves, which is a good thing to do, you know, and went into the living room. Now I wasn’t going to go over there where that couch was… you know, what I’m saying? And it wasn’t long before we heard it. POP, the ultimate plastic couch fart. I started to laugh and a few other people did too. But I looked at my father. He had jumped up from his seat. His eyes had just grown in size and his head was gyrating from side to side and his whole body was shaking. And I was scared for him. And I was scared for me. I learned a new word that day, shellshock. And I learned that, well, my father had come home from the war, but, unexpectedly, the war had come home with my father.
Now, I don’t remember how long we had to be quiet around him. It was weeks or months. I don’t remember but he did recover. That’s the good news. But I will tell you that, that night after everybody went to sleep, I helped my grandmother take the plastic off that living room couch and those dining room chairs. Because at my grandmother’s house, even though plastic used to be cool, now, plastic took a back seat when it came all too real.
Storyteller, Connie Regan-Blake, was invited to come to Uganda by “Bead For Life”(www.beadforlife.org), an NGO helping women lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Many of them are displaced people from the horrors and atrocities of civil war in northern Uganda and are dealing with the ravages of AIDS. Connie was welcomed into their homes and hearts as if she was family and she listened to their profound and transformative stories. This is Namakasa Rose’s story. (more…)
Storyteller, Kate Dudding, tells the story of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old boy in Pakistan who led thousands of children to freedom from 1993-1995. Even after his death, Iqbal went on to inspire other children and show that even the youngest among us can make a difference. (more…)
Storyteller Jim Stowell tells how an immigrant woman is faced with trials and hardships, and how she established a sense of pride and dignity for herself and her family.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Spring
What is an “illegal immigrant?”
Why is a first home a dream come true? How does owning a home possibly change a family? A community?
What is the difference between hope and dignity? How are they the similar? How does “hope” and “dignity” show up in the story? In your life?
Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants by David Bacon
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Jim Stowell. And the story, “Spring,” is from an evening of stories I did entitled, “Joe,” that was produced by the great American history theater.
Spring. See a woman’s face. See her face. Hmm, late 30’s early 40’s, dark skin. At one point in her life, she was an immigrant. At one point in her life, she was an illegal immigrant. Oh, illegal immigrants much maligned these days.
See her face as she looks at her first house. She’s never owned a house before. She’s never owned anything like this before. See her face as she looks at her first house and you will see joy. A joy that’s so intense it makes her cry. Now watch, as she walks up to the front door of her house and the door opens and we see the empty rooms of the house. See her face as she sees her first home.
See her face and you will see pride. But this is not the kind of pride that goes before the fall. This is the kind of pride she has earned and has every right to. When she crossed the Rio Grande, she was carrying the baby and her husband helped with the two younger children. And they crossed from Mexico into Texas, and, somehow, they ended up in Minnesota. And then, alas, as too often happens, the husband was the one that had the most trouble making the adjustments and he started to drink. He became a drunk. This was not him in Mexico. And then, he started to hit her. And he beat her, and he threatened her, and he threatened the lives of her children.
She made another decision and she left. And she went from house to house, to keep her children safe. And she was desperately poor, living in an apartment with friends, selling tortillas. And one of her friends came to her and said, “You know, there’s this place in Minneapolis called, “Project for Pride and Living,” PPL, maybe you should go there because they have a job training program. She went. She took the program. And when it was over, the people at PPL said, “Well, you know, we don’t just train you how to work. We help you get a job. How can we help you?”
And she said, “I’m going to work here.”
And the people at PPL said, “We love that, we do. We like you. But we feel there’s no jobs there. So, how can we help you?”
And she said, “I’m going to work here. If you’re putting me out the front door, I’m coming in the back. If you put me out the back door, I’m coming in the front. I’m going to keep coming in the door until you finally hire me. Because I have to work here. Because I want to help other people the way you helped me.” They hired her as the receptionist.
Now I see her face as she sees her first home. Her first home as an American citizen. See her face and you will see pride.
Now hear the voices of her children as they run past her into the empty rooms of the house, filling the rooms with life. See the face of that little boy or that little girl as they look in their own room, now no longer sleeping three to a bed. They not only have their own bed, they have their own room. See that child’s face. You’ll see joy all right. Their own room, oh, you’ll see joy all right. But…You’ll see pride there as well.
Now see that woman’s face as she sees the look on her child’s face and, oh, you’ll see joy. A joy so intense…it makes her cry again. See her face as she sees the look on her child’s face.
See her face…and you’ll know what dignity looks like.
This is the true story of storyteller, Laura Simms, telling a deeply traumatized boy – an ex- child soldier from Sierra Leone, West Africa – a story in a taxicab in New York City. The story within this story relieves his misery and, in the process, Laura discovers the power of the tale and the boy’s innate and potent resilience.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sudden-Story
Would you have tried to keep the young man from Sierra Leone with you?
Why was a story and this particular story helpful to the young man who was about to get on a plane to go back to his war-torn country?
Did you expect the ending to the story? Why was this young man able to go on to have a family, an education and career success? How do you think he was able to rise above his experience as a child soldier?
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen
Website – The Children Bill of Rights, 1996 http://www.newciv.org/ncn/cbor.html
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
name is Laura Simms. I’m from New York and this story takes place in New York, in 1996.
I was hired by UNICEF and Norwegian Peoples Aid to be a facilitator for a conference called Young Voices. And there were 53 kids from 23 third world countries there to create a Children’s Bill of Rights. So, my job, of course, as a storyteller was to listen to stories and help kids tell stories. And I heard stories that, literally, changed my life.
So, I became really close to two boys from Sierra Leone, West Africa, who, on meeting them, their voices were gentle and sweet. They were skinny. It was snowing out and they’re wearing summer clothes. When I heard their stories, it was something else. They were ex-child soldiers. They had committed atrocities. It was an amazing experience. And one boy, Aluzin Bah, fantastically, beautiful boy asked me to keep him in New York. And I was up every night, “Could I keep him in New York? How could I send a child back to war?”
I thought about if it was 50 years ago and I was in the Holocaust and somebody brought me out and then sent me back. At any rate, UNICEF heard about this. The boy told me, “Don’t tell anybody,” but he was 15, so, he told everybody. And ha ha. So, I, um, was told, “No conditions could I keep him in New York.” Actually, both boys, I’m still very close to. And the other boy Ishmael is now my adopted son.
We were in the last day of the conference. In the morning, the kids were getting ready to get on the bus to go to JFK. And Aluzin was furious with me for not letting him stay, suddenly began to sob. But it wasn’t just sobbing, it was a kind of, almost like, an earthquake in his heart. And I begged someone at UNICEF to just let me take him to JFK on my own, in a taxicab. And, of course, he didn’t trust me. So, I was side by side with a tall, Norwegian, sort of Viking, humanitarian. So, the three of us were in the taxi. And Aluzin was crying. And I thought to myself, “If he can’t get on the plane, he can’t go back to war in this way because it would make him in danger.” So finally, when he was heaving and heaving, I just said, “Aluzin, I’ll do everything I can. Everything. To stay in touch with you, to see if I could get you out of Sierra Leone. But I have to take you back. Tell me what can I do for you now? I can’t keep you here. What can I? You can’t go on a plane, traumatized.”
And he stopped crying. And he looked at me and he said, “Tell me a story.”
It was as if every story that I knew just sort of flooded out of my body. And I was…”What do you, what do you do?”
You have like five minutes. It has to be a story that means something. And then a story just arrived up the back of my legs and I had no idea if this was appropriate or not but I thought, just go for it. And I tell this story.
It’s about a boy, a poor boy who had no money. It’s a story from Morocco. And he went to market place he saw everything in the market. He wanted everything. He couldn’t have anything. But in the middle of the market, there was a magician performing a magic act. The magician had a magic finger. Anything he touched, turned to gold. Everybody came, applauded, left. But the boy was like, Wha! The magician said, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. You like my magic.”
And the boy said, “Yeah.”
Magician said, “Do you want some gold?”
The boy said, “Yeah.”
A little mouse came by, the magician touched it, turned to gold. He said, “Here.”
The boy said, “No, I want more.”
The magician looked. There was a huge table with, with plates and brass objects he turned to gold. He said, “Here.”
The boy said, “I want more.”
“Oh.” The magician said, “Come with me.” He took him. There was a field filled with cows. He turned all the cows to gold. “Here.”
The boy said, “No! I want more.”
The magician said, “What do you want?”
The boy said, “I want a magic finger.”
Shuli, my Viking guard, said, “Why did you tell that story?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure I knew. But Aluzin said, “I know. Because that’s what I want.” And I knew, that if this boy survived, he would more than survive. He would live because he wanted his own life force.
We got to JFK. He got on the plane. He went back to Sierra Leone. I called him every Friday morning, as I could, until the rebels attacked and it was hard to reach him. And then I called him again.
And I’ll tell you one tiny incident more, which is so beautiful about these kids. It was one Tuesday, I called him, was actually my birthday, and, selfishly, what I really wanted to do was have a cappuccino and get back into bed. So I, with my cappuccino, did get into bed and did make the call and I wasn’t going to tell him it was my birthday. I thought how lucky I am.
And when I called and, you know, there were two phones in Freetown through Sierratel, and I would say, “Aluzin Bah.” And everybody would call out Aluzin!”
And then I would hear people calling, “Hello, hello.” Hundreds of people waiting just in case somebody might call them. And he got on the phone. He said, “Laura, how are you?”
And I blurted out, “It’s my birthday!” And Aluzin, crying and laughing, called out to hundreds of people and said, “It’s Laura’s birthday!” And in the middle of the war, all these people sang “Happy Birthday.” And I realized that it would have been the most selfish thing if I hadn’t told him and given them the opportunity for joy.
Then the story… I’ll just tell you the great thing. That Aluzin graduated from college this year. He’s working in a bank so he could bring his childhood sweetheart to Montreal, where he lives. And he’s working for the benefit of children. And to me that’s a great story.
In this story a Jewish girl and her friend sneak away from the forced walk of the Nazis toward… they don’t really know. They hide in a haystack and a farmer helps them until the drums toll. In the face of this innocence, what motivates the Nazi soldier? What compels the farmer to help? What does this story say about the capacity of human beings for good and evil? (more…)
After her Grandmother passes, Sue searches for her Grandmother’s story. Her exploration takes her into Irish American history and, eventually, to Ireland to find her Grandmother’s childhood home.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Grandmas-Story
Have you ever interviewed a family member to collect family stories? Is there someone in your family you wish you had talked to more who is no longer with us?
How would you feel if you had to support a family who lived somewhere else?
Why did the British hate the Irish? How do groups who are Insiders justify their exclusion of the Outsider?
Do you think it’s a positive or negative thing that so many groups lost their culture in becoming American?
The Irish Americans: A History by Jay P. Dolan
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
My grandmother never wanted to come to America. That’s the story I heard over and over again. Her older sister, Mary, was the one who should have gone. But on that early morning of departure 1887 Mary woke up sick or so she said. She took to her bed crying, moaning. She couldn’t possibly go. Now my grandmother was just 13 years old. Hard enough to go to bed and know that you would never see your older sister again. You got to understand, there were no airplanes back then people didn’t fly back and forth. Hard enough to go to bed that way, but instead she was woken up and told, “No, you’re the one to leave. You’re the one who’s never going to see her family again.” Now back then, you see, you couldn’t waste a ticket. It has taken the family years to save up enough money for one ticket. So, my grandma had to wake up, quick, hurry around pack a few things in the carpet bag suitcase her mother had made for Mary and say goodbye to her three sisters and her younger brother Patrick, her mom, and her dad. Because somebody had to go get work in America, send money back home because the family was starving.
My grandmother set out for Dublin, a two-week journey by foot, with another aunt who was supposed to have watched Mary. And as they went down the road, there would have been hundreds of people joining them because millions left Ireland in the 1800s. And all the time they walked, these, these horse-drawn caravans, these carts piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, would have passed them by. Because the British who were running Ireland at the time, were taking all the food for themselves.
Now, you may have heard of the Great Famine in Ireland. But I found out when I went to visit Ireland, a lot of people call it the Great Starvation because there was food. The Irish just weren’t allowed to grow the food, I mean, to eat the food they were growing. The food they grew had to go to the British. They would ship it over to England. So, all the time my grandma’s walking; of course, there were no fast food restaurants back then, nor did anybody have any money if there were any restaurants. So, they started eating weeds and cabbage leaves and grass to try to stay alive. By time they got to the docks in Dublin, some British writers wrote that their faces were stained green. Their mouths were stained green. And this showed just how subhuman, animal-like the Irish really were.
Well, my grandma, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. She sailed in what they called coffin ships, like caskets because so many people died on those voyages. Hundreds of people were packed in the bottom of the boat. And there were so many diseases back then… diphtheria, typhus; things like that… cholera. See, the people could only be allowed up on board for maybe an hour or so because they couldn’t let people be getting in the crew’s way. So, they had to be down below and you can imagine the stench because there were no toilets back then. They used tin cans or buckets for chamber pots. And there was no electricity and you certainly wouldn’t want to light a candle; that would be too dangerous. So you just sat in the dark and all this stench. And then people would sleep on these little narrow bunks – three or four people to a bunk. Sometimes sleeping with somebody you didn’t know. Nobody could shower and there was lice and all that.
And I tried to imagine my grandmother just 13 years old with this, this aunt and we don’t know too many details, but we found out this aunt got sick who was supposed to be taking care of my grandmother. My grandma was taking care of her. And I just think of here sitting in dark like 23 hours a day. Sick people all around us like… six, seven, eight weeks like this. Well, she got to America. Thank goodness! And she worked day and night. And all the time she would send money back home. Now, when she left, her parents said, “Now, don’t worry we’ll save up some money. We’ll send one of the other sisters to help you out.” But no sister ever, ever came. My grandma was just alone doing all of that work. And I think about what people have gone through to get to this country, or what they’re still going through to get to this country or people who were captured and brought to this country, or people who already lived here but their lands and their way of life were taken. And I think about what a huge debt of gratitude we owe them. I know that my life could not be the way it was if it wasn’t for my grandmother’s sacrifices. So sometimes I find myself whispering a little prayer. Thank you, Grandma. Thank you.