Cultures for Longer and Happier lives
Inspired by her culturally diverse life in Houston, award winning journalist and author Claudia Kolker investigates the attitudes and traditions towards education, hard work and health that have been imported into the United States by immigrants from different nations. She addresses the fact that natives to the United States have so much to learn from foreigners and that they should not be viewed form only an outsider point of view but should instead be embraced for the diversity they introduce to America. She argues that it is meaningless to fuss over their exploding population when they are in essence present legally and are part and parcel of the American nation, but instead more attention should be directed to their diverse skills and practices.
In her experiments she discovers the Vietnamese tradition called a ‘hui’, a form of money-club that provides a social incentive for saving money as well as an alternative to costly loans, a practice she later on attempted with a group of her Texan friends that helped them save for their vacations and taxes. She also discovers how the Mexican Little Villages practice a tradition that makes them better neighbors and friends just by hanging out near barrios and going to market places together. She similarly explores the Mexican ‘cuarantena’ practice whereby for a period of 40 days after child birth, mothers have to observe a period of companionship and rest to help protect them against postpartum depression. She also investigates and implements the South Korean practice of hagwons, which are demanding after school programs where students are tutored to help them better understand concepts in school work. This helps her daughter learn math. Some of the other topical issues she explores include the Vietnamese ‘com-thang’ tradition, also called the ‘monthly rice’ as part of a fresh, inexpensive and delicious guide to good culinary practices. Lastly, she introduces the Jamaican multigenerational living that helps in home ownership and the South Asian practice of matchmaking that is different from the American freedom of choice. Kolker’s explorations help to not only teach, but also to entertain and involve her readers in her expositions.
I found Kolker's book a much-needed guide in trying to understand the immigrant community that is now part and parcel of the American nation. The issues addressed and raised are especially a significant insight in some of the most important stages of our lives. As she attempted to get solid answers, Kohler would approach her subjects with the question on what the smartest thing is back in their home country that they would continue doing.
The Mexican practice of guarantee is perhaps the most outstanding practice that intrigued me due to its healing ability. ‘Cuarantena’ is also practiced by some traditional Indian homes whereby mothers are emotionally and physically taken care of for 40 days after they give birth to a child. During this time, they are not expected to work on anything completely because it is believed it may have an impact on their post-partum depression. Although it is yet to be confirmed scientifically, it has been observed that depression in these cultures is much more reduced. What struck me is the length of time taken for the rest, 40 days that is also significant in Hindu traditions and is used as an insight to Mandala which is the time the body takes to take in energy and rejuvenate. It is particularly used in Yogic Sadhana together with treatments of Ayurveda. Post-partum stress has extreme repercussion to numerous Americans, causing ill health to either the mother or the child and even death in some extreme cases. According to statistics, babies both to Mexican immigrants have an average record of lower infant mortality in the first days, weeks and months of their lives as compared to those of non-Hispanic white women. Guarantee should indeed be practiced by American mothers who have 15 percent of their total population suffering from post-partum depression. Although 40-day practice seems unrealistic especially to the professional women in America today who are always working round the clock. If every mother was to be pampered the same way six weeks after they give birth by their entire community and family then, there might be a high probability of an even healthier family system. It is known that mothers bring a family together, when they are weak and unhealthy, their family also suffers. In the end, the baby will also be healthy.
The Vietnamese hui lesson on how to save was particularly insightful on the essence of investing and saving. Hui has helped numerous Vietnamese refugees who after the fall of Saigon poured into the country penniless, but were later on able to launch successful businesses. Hui allows for members of the savings group who are almost a dozen, to offer loans to their friends from their monthly savings. During the monthly gathering, they each bring a set sum, and the whole pool is given to each of the members in order each month. The tradition has a lot to teach Native Americans on the how they can turn their close group of friends into a moving bank that is much friendlier and lenient, but most importantly reliable.
The pressure to have a decent meal after a long day weighs on many Americans who most often end up eating unhealthy food. The monthly rice from the Vietnamese, therefore, comes in as a healthy option paid at an affordable monthly subscription of approximately $ 10 and cooked by some of the very talented chefs from Houston to California. The meal is usually delivered to homes fresh and delightful made with simple ingredients. The fact that the subscriptions are affordable and the food is fresh, healthy and can be served in several courses completes the package and makes it a culture every American would cherish practicing.
Another significant lesson is from the challenge faced by most Americans on the educational front and particularly school systems, whereby the educational culture in the United States is different from those of immigrant communities. Students from Asia in Korea, Vietnam and Chine, are known for their good average grades in public schools. This good performance is never from luck but from supplementary classes called ‘hagwons’ that are usually led by older students who teach new skills to children and makes them familiar before their classes with teachers. The lesson teaches the significance of prior preparation that helps to not only increasing confidence, but also improve overall performance.
Although most Americans do not believe in match making and prefer to exercise their freedom of choice down to some of the most critical stages of their lives, relationships and marriages, South Asians and Indians have become specialized in the art. It is welcoming when after dating and one is unable to get the right person; they got a helping hand from close and trusted family members who help to make their work not only easier, but better. This is called “assisted marriage” that is spearheaded by parents who are passionate enough to look for the perfect mates for their children. It is important to note that all the eligible candidates are usually passed through numerous tests to ensure they are the best choices and most significantly, have chemistry with the child being matched.
On how to be a good neighbor, Kolker addresses the concern for security and friendship and explores the practice by The Little Village barrio found in Chicago that is mostly Hispanic and poor. The fact that it has one of the lowest crime rates when compared to its income level explains the significance of its secret of street culture. In their different social groups, the Hispanics hangout on the stoop and walk together to market places and shops. This works to keep their social ties strong as they also exercise vigilance of their community. The traditions also improve their health when the walk enough times. They ironically have the lowest levels of asthma rates of 5% compared 19-22.2% in black and white neighborhoods.
Another significant lesson from the immigrants is the lesson on how to shelter, save and at the same time find happiness which can be borrowed from the Caribbean immigrants who still stay with their parents well into their 40s even after they have found stable jobs. Such intergenerational homes not only boost the family income but also ensure that they live in good neighborhoods and acquire high quality education, their young adults also save their money for later use in depositing cash for their homes or to pay for advanced degrees
The significant question, therefore, is, do Americans learn and appreciate the culture and presence of immigrants in their country and are they benefiting from them? Immigration in the U.S is mostly associated with xenophobia and racism as the American population seeks to keep at bay the exploding numbers of foreigners they believe the move in to get free passes and easy life. There have been particularly growing cases of xenophobia towards Hispanics specifically from the political and religious groups. Hispanics are also associated with high rates of poverty, in the ability to access health, high school drop-out cases and in every other economic measure. The same is applied for Asians and Africans and hence a general stereotype that prevents any positive growth and relationship with the immigrant nations. The U.S has strict policies against illegal immigration into the country and there are even more policies on foreigners who live legally in the country and hence the need to address some of the basic issues that affect not only the lives of foreigners but that of citizens of America as well. The book, therefore, helps to address how Americans can embrace the growing diversity and learn some life skills from the immigrants.