Jan 292003
Authors: Dominic Weilminster


Synonymous with rolling hills of monotonous cornfields and an endless, often dreaded stretch of American highway. The site of small town America, a globally, if not nationally, isolated culture of cultivation, corn and country folk in America’s heartland.

Or so we think.

Bringing Happy-Meals to Mali, Coca-Cola to Kosovo and Nike to Nepal, western influence in the globalization of the developing world is a revolution that is difficult to ignore. But what about the world’s effect on the West?

With the interconnectedness of world cultures becoming more and more evident, it is safe to say that there seems to be light, or more accurately, changes on both ends of the tunnel.

Nationally acclaimed author and psychologist Mary Pipher, the next speaker in CSU’s “Bridges to the Future” lecture series, looks into the eyes of her own changing community and sees the onset of cultural confrontation between an increasingly diverse society.

“I am exploring globalization, not in the sense of America and Western culture changing the rest of the world, but the rest of the world’s impact on us,” Pipher said. “It seems, though it may not be as obvious to us, that we too are getting globalized.”

Pipher, a resident of Lincoln, Neb., has watched as what many believe is a small, white-dominated, farm town turn into a hub of cultural diversity through an influx of refugees from around the world.

“Everyone thinks of Lincoln as a flat, empty place that I-80 happens to pass through with a white, middle-class, homogenous population,” Pipher said. “What they don’t realize is that we have people from 52 language groups and refugees resettling from around the world.”

The title of her latest book, The Middle of Everywhere, plays on this generalization of Nebraska being what many would assume as ‘the middle of nowhere.’

“Over the past years, I have seen my city change from the stereotypical depiction of middle America to a place that now has to cater to a large population of unnaturalized residents,” Pipher said.

In the retail and food services alone, Pipher stated that she has noticed an increasing selection of foreign influences mirroring the cultural mixing within the population.

“What I talk about in my book and what I will be speaking on is this globalization,” Pipher said. “It is not the globalization of the rest of the world, but rather the changes we are having to make in our own communities. The fact is, we, too, are getting globalized.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, over the past 10 years the U.S. has taken in well over 1.6 million refugees primarily from Asia. And, while traditional immigration destinations such as New York and California continue to take in a majority of refugees, states such as Nebraska and Colorado are spreading the influx of refugee immigrants as a result of a greater amount of employment opportunities.

The trouble, or perhaps the lesson being learned with the spreading of refugee immigration is that places like Lincoln, Neb., that are not traditional immigration destinations are being faced with somewhat of a trans-cultural dilemma. While cities wish to give new hope to the unfortunate refugees, they must make up somehow for the lack of cultural capacity developed from years of being solely a place of American citizenry.

“Our town has really been transformed,” Pipher said. “Lincoln used to have an American-only work-force, now companies are being forced to know the language and tendencies of their employees. Services have had to make accommodations as well. Our hospitals are now facing patients that, for one, don’t understand what the doctors are saying, and two, have no concept of western medicine.”

Pipher has observed in her community a microcosmic view of what much of the United States increasingly experiences with the continually changing diversity of our population.

Such changes, it seems, are not necessarily all matters of inconvenience, but rather sources of education and understanding for the world outside of the English-speaking realm.

Part of the trouble with Americans being very culturally centered, said Pipher, is that we often cannot understand why it is so difficult for a refugee to adapt to our environment.

“In one week, we move a child from the tragic conditions of a refugee camp, place them in a new country, a new culture, and a new home, and then the next week we expect them to learn algebra,” said Pipher, who spent a year working with adolescent refugees in a Lincoln high school.

Through her observations of teenage interaction between the American-bred teens and those who have resettled from their homes, Pipher was able to witness what she called “the globalization of our teenagers.”

Her study of interactions between teens rooting from some of the world’s harshest conditions and those raised in stable, safe Middle America provided Pipher with insights into not only how people deal with tragedy and loss, but also with how refugees see Americans.

“I have met children and families recovering from extreme loss, for instance, a boy from Bosnia witnessed his father and grandfather getting beheaded directly before he was given a chance to leave to America,” Pipher said.

The difficulty with loss and a culture shock together on the refugees Pipher has worked with is tremendous and it is further harmed when faced with a callous, uninformed American populace.

Thus, according to Pipher, many of the refugees uphold their cultural traditions as a source of solstice to overcome their forced attachment with American life.

This in turn results in the globalization of communities like Lincoln and the proliferation of foreign culture within the white-bred western world.

“One of the principle things I try to focus on is how the refugees see us,” Pipher said. “In today’s difficult world, this could prove most important and it is something that we know nothing about. The amount of this understanding may result in the realization of the benefit of globalization or, oppositely, not enough could lead to polarization.”

Such seemingly universal global commonalities such as parental bonds can prove to be as different as cultures themselves.

According to Pipher, refugee adolescents despise the amount of disrespect shown by American teens to their elders.

“Refugee kids love and respect their parents and are happy to tell you that,” Pipher said. “Most of them believe, ‘should I be successful, I will want to be able to support my parents.'”

The collision of cultures seems to reach into all aspects of teen life, explained Pipher. Sexually, refugees are much more “prude” and reserved and materialistically items, food in particular, are not taken for granted.

“The kids from refugee camps usually cannot believe the amount of food wasted on lunch by their American peers,” Pipher said. “One girl whose family nearly starved to death explained this to me with disbelief. To her, the pizza thrown away by her classmate may have allowed her family to survive another day. ‘The children throw away so much food,’ she said, ‘while my family was forced to graze in the grass like cattle.'”

The cultural exchange is certainly not one-sided; while refugees are given a glimpse into American culture, people around them can see the difficulty that life can hold.

“There are some American children that are not curious about the origins of the refugees, besides asking them how to say cuss-words in other languages, but there are also many who enjoy the idea of being a cultural broker and learning of the world.”

This brokerage upon the growing cultural exchange has become Pipher’s newest goal. She has sought after the heart of the American family and now she seeks after the bond of the world’s people.

Her observances of her changing town are not merely in the physical presence of multi-lingual signs and more restaurant selection, but rather in the important lessons that can be learned from the people of the world. People who originate from places which we may call backwards, but perhaps, in terms of their values may me more of a model than we know.

In the end, it seems like boring old Nebraska, like those places we call ‘backwards,’ may be unfairly labeled as well. Certainly through the eyes of Mary Pipher, we can replace flat, empty cornfields with flourishing exchange of cultures.

“As a psychologist, I set out to see if I could aid in the mental health effects of culture on the refugees,” said Pipher. “The refugees, however, looked beyond residing in psychological traumas and carried on with the important realities in life, working, physical health, aiding family. This result, for me, was humbling.”

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