Off the beaten path or where in the world is Zumbrota

Last week there was an article in TIME magazine how Europe is overwhelmed with tourists. Particularly Italy, France, Spain and specifically some of the popular cities like Barcelona, Venice, Rome and Dubrovnik in Croatia. “Of the 1.3 billion international arrivals counted by the U.N. worldwide last year, 51% were in Europe. Americans, in particular, seem drawn to the perceived glamour and sophistication of the Old Continent. More than 15.7 million U.S. tourists crossed the Atlantic in 2017”, said TIME. “France received 87 million tourists last year.”

That is a lot of people. I read an article like this and become very self-conscious. Conscious of how convinced myself that I blend in better than most tourists. Conscious of being privileged one because of my European passport and income while I meet so many people around the world who cannot even dream  of such travel. Conscious that I want to see these famous cities and places, too, but do not want to be one of the millions.  (Certainly do not want to compete with crowds to take a photo with a view) Conscious of all the times I have searched for low-cost flights while some of my friends choose not to travel by air because of environmental concerns.

Many of us who travel for work or pleasure have these thoughts. I know how many places and countries build their whole economy on tourism but what about the ugly side of it? Local businesses and vendors compete for the money and people start harming their own land, environment and historical heritage. And what about the environmental print of all these millions on the move every year? Including my own? It is perplexing.

While living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I often heard the frustration and dilemma of my local Thai friends who wanted to have a business but were weary of visitor’s attitudes and behavior and the big changes happening in their city. One time I witnessed how Chinese visitors expected the Thai staff to speak Chinese and practically yelled at them. “We have the money and so many of us are coming and why are you too slow to learn our language”.

I stood there thinking how dare this Chinese guy be so rude. And then I remembered that I speak English and I kind of expect to go places and to be understood. (Without the yelling, though 🙂 ) Plus, Thai culture is so polite and accommodating that an average visitor will never know how many times a day he or she may be breaking the cultural taboos. I have seen what my fellow countrymen, Latvians, will do and say in places like Thailand while I hesitated to open my mouth to confront them for  promoting the “ugly European” stereotype. Since I am the polite and culturally sensitive one, right?

Anyways… this summer you can call me a European tourist in America! Besides a busy schedule with meetings, I get to explore. Some small towns and communities. Have you ever heard of Zumbrota, Minnesota? Well, I had not but now I can say “I was there”. What a hidden gem with a typical main street, art shops, beautiful small state theater, best fish and chips I have had in Minnesota and even a unique, old covered bridge!

The lady at the art gallery who sold us tickets to go and see two great local bands, was very friendly. “Latvia? You certainly have come a far way to hear them :)”, she exclaimed. I was equally impressed ’cause she knew exactly where Latvia was. After receiving another compliment how good my English was (that always makes me even more conscious to speak), the lady directed us to Coffee Mill cafe where we had the delicious battered cod.

Don’t know how many visitors a year come to Zumbrota but in 2018 I was one of them! Hopefully not as a statistic but as a Latvian charmed by rural Minnesota.

 

Minnesota diary: Refugees speak about their dreams, struggles and marginalization

I was sitting in the shade under a tree in Loring Park and watching the Twin Cities World Refugee Day performances. Stories, poetry, songs, dances, more stories… Many thoughts were going through my head. First of all, I felt bad for the young Hmong dance group who performed four beautiful dances but were visibly exhausted. All that make-up, changing of costumes, waiting for the next turn. All that during a very hot and humid afternoon (many people would have no idea how hot it gets in Minnesota during the summer).

Secondly, I wished the audience and the attendance was bigger. Maybe the heat, maybe lack of promotion, maybe lack of interest – there could be so many reasons. But many people who knew and who cared, came and supported the immigrant and refugee community of Minneapolis and St Paul metropolis.

There were some refugee groups highly represented – Southeast Asians from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) and Africans from Somalia and Liberia. Just now I looked up the statistics and read that in the last three decades (1979-2016), more than 100,000 refugees have come to Minnesota. This state has welcomed some of the largest communities of Somali (23,400), Hmong (22,000), Karen (14,000), Vietnamese (15,000) and many others, including Ethiopian, Bosnian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Bhutanese.

I remember when I lived in Thailand – Burma border teaching English in refugee schools and talked with many of my Karen friends whose families were hoping to relocate to the United States. Minnesota had one of the most welcoming programs but I was wondering how would someone from Burma, a tropical Asian country, resettle in a new life in northern Midwest. It seemed like the craziest idea and the most unlikely place. But when you are a refugee, you are not picky. You are grateful for the chance to start a new life in peace and security.

And worry about the freezing temperatures later. One winter I saw elderly Karen women walking down the street wearing winter coats but only sandals on their feet. At the event on Sunday my husband mentioned it to one of the Karen volunteers. “We had no idea what to wear in the winter”, she laughed. “We put many layers on our upper bodies but did not know what to wear on our legs. It was a long time before someone local introduced me to the leggings.”

Who were the locals these refugees met when they started living here? How many of the refugees feel ‘local’ even after being here for many years? What makes you a local? What makes you belong? Where are your roots? So many of the refugees feel like nomads and wanderers the rest of their lives and this feeling passes from generation to generation.

Many of the artists on the stage were super talented communicators and the spoken word was exceptional. Many were highly educated second generation immigrants and still they had this incredible deep need to tell their parents heartbreaking story and their own struggles growing up in America as children of refugees.

The richness and beauty of all these cultures meeting, mingling and bonding in this one big country is something to behold. And the annual Twin Cities Refugee Day is truly a day of gratitude and acceptance but also a reminder that this beautiful social fabric is very fragile and vulnerable. And needs to be cherished and nourished as a special gift. And someone always needs to be the good neighbor who says “Welcome to your new home! Welcome to Minnesota! Let me show you what to wear in the winter 🙂 ”

 

My Minnesota diary: Indians and cowboys

Every writer needs a break. After a busy year of university studies, I was deflated. Emotionally and mentally. Who wants to write a blog after staring at the computer screen for days and weeks and months? After a one month hiatus ‘peaceroads’ is back… the world keeps spinning and there is too much happening to keep thoughts to myself (or for my poor husband to be the sounding board 🙂 ).

And let me start with ‘Minnesota diary’ since I am spending summer in the US, mostly in the beautiful Midwest. The name ‘Minnesota’ is based on the Dakota Sioux word “Mini sota“, the native name for the Minnesota River which means “cloudy water” or “sky-tinted water.” Many locations in Minnesota are derived from native American languages including Cree, Sioux and Dakota.

I must admit that on first visits I took it for granted. Well, just some strange American names! Minneapolis sounds cool and that’s it! Minnehaha… haha… But then I started to wonder about these names of streets, neighborhoods, counties while driving through cities. What a unique and interesting name is Minnetonka or Chippewa or Shakopee… where it comes from and what it means.

Quite obvious that these were not typical European/Scandinavian/Anglo names so common in the area. I figured it must be Native American heritage. Ever present even if the people whose language was used are marginalized.

I love maps. I have scoured the map of Minnesota, the land of thousand lakes, and find it so fascinating. And my eyes are always drawn to the Native American tribes and their territories. To me, a foreigner and visitor, this is like a movie. Reservations! The name always raises so many questions in my head. Reserved for what? Reserved from what?

Nowadays most Native Americans (78 %) live in urban centers, not on the reservations. But even in the cities I rarely meet someone from First Nations. My one ‘token’ friend is from the Lakota tribe with relatives in South Dakota and she has invited me to “powwow”, a traditional community gathering with food, dance and song. Sad to admit I still have not taken up this offer because the time is always too short.

Here is the thing… most of my American friends would be totally surprised to find out that I grew up with movies about the cowboys and the Indians. In USSR? In communist Latvia? Did they show American movies? No, these were made in East Germany and undoubtedly used as anti-American propaganda. Guess what?! In our movies Indians were always the good guys and the cowboys were the bad ones. The cowboys were greedy and powerful and wanted to rip off the Indians who were brave and honorable and oppressed.

And we wanted to be Indians! I wanted to be an Indian girl, my brother wanted to be an Indian boy and so did the other kids in our neighborhood. The justice was on the side of the Indians who were treated unjustly and we, the children, wanted justice. We would find bird feathers and put in our hair. Sometimes the shops would sell ‘Indian’ head covers with paper feathers and my brother was lucky to get one of those. I was so jealous…

Recently I had a conversation in Duluth, MN. I was describing some of the tensions and historic ethnic fault lines in Latvia and one young woman commented, “This sounds so strange and foreign to me to have these kind of historical grievances and prejudices between groups of people. Here in northern Minnesota we do not have anything like it.”  Not wanting to be the know-it-all but I had to point out the reservations, legacy of boarding schools and the general Native American experience. What if I asked them about grievances and prejudices? I have a feeling their answer would be quite different.

Do not mean to judge. Just to point out that we get so blindsided because of our cultural bubbles. The ‘other’ story and experience is out of sight and out of mind and simply ceases to be important. Or becomes a page in history book and makes for a good movie. Of course, today and yesterday is not black and white like American or East German movies where we were told two opposing versions who the bad and the good guys were. It is much more complicated but still relevant.

I read a thought provoking and challenging book “Rescuing The Gospel From The Cowboys: A Native American Expression Of The Jesus Way” by Richard Twiss (1954-2013), a minister and theologian from Lakota tribe. Sadly he passed away few years ago but left tremendous legacy for his people and for the whole church in America. One of his observations: “After hundreds of years of missionary efforts, an extremely low number of native people are actively engaged in a life of faith in Jesus and participation in some Christian tradition. This is largely reflective of Euro-American colonial cultural forms, expressions and worldview values.”

As a Lakota man who worshiped Creator and followed Jesus, he knew his stuff…

 

Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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