From The Asian Reporter, V28, #3 (February 5, 2018), pages 6 & 7.
Better blending West and East (Portlanders)
Bhakta and Yanuka’s apartment block is hard to find at night. Harder still
when Oregon rain’s blurring your vision and East Portland’s awful neon is
distorting your windshield.
But really, the biggest reason their little household is hard to find is on
account of how far they and their pretty babies live from River City’s
public-policy and business leaders. I mean this as much a measure of social
distance, as a matter of actual miles.
To be clear — because clarity is necessary when navigating winter nights —
what follows is not an essay on the disparities between Portland’s first-world
urban core and our outer eastside’s underdevelopment. Not at all. Not in the
conventional ways our policy and business leaders are already adept at
And to be fair — because sharing is so core to those traditional communities
living parallel to our city’s robust mainstream — in trade for eight minutes of
reading, I offer three things Portland’s ethnic streams bank in great abundance.
Three kinds of capital absolutely essential for happy households, for healthy
neighborhoods and nations. Assets mainstream America likely longs for as much as
our ethnic streamers desire of our dominant society’s political and financial
assets. We’re talking about fair trade.
My downtown colleague Joanne and I finally found Yanuka and Bhakta’s place
that night. The night of their birthday party. Auspiciously, both were born that
day in their beloved Kingdom of Bhutan. Less blessed was their king expelling
their entire minority community. Bhakta and Yanuka were raised two countries
over, in Nepal, in a sprawling refugee hovel. Twenty-one years later a generous
United States of America accepted them for resettlement.
From the moment their jumbo jet taxied to a stop at PDX, an oddly
asymmetrical alliance of determined East Portland ethnic associations and
community organizations plus public agencies governed from our town’s center,
rapidly integrated them into the accelerated life of our city. Despite
consequently lumpy outcomes, it’s all gone pretty well.
Precious cargo we carried here
I knocked at an apartment I thought was our friends’ place, but an Iraqi dad
in a saggy white T answered. With Arab hospitality typical in Raffa and Aleppo
and even in Sana’a, he opened wide his household’s door. Joanne and I did a
universal "so sorry, sir" smile and reverse shuffle. He smiled some more. So did
we. Evidently, our birthday people and their pretty kids had moved several doors
Bhakta, sockless in rubber silapahs (slippers), stepped outside waving his
arms. In Old World neighborhoods, back home and right here, news radiates
quicker than Xfinity’s tip-top speeds. And surer than Mr. Trump’s tweets.
Once inside, heavenly Lotsampa curry scent soothed us. Elegant elders and
hardworking parents and everyone’s squirrelly kids embraced us as if we’re
familia. Because in our bones and in deeds, we are.
"We HAPPY you here," Bhakta and Yanuka said — well, not exactly said,
because neither can hear, which makes learning and speaking Nepali or English
hard. Real hard. "Happy you here" came from Grandma Mangali, trying her best to
be gay though her lovely daughter just passed away, leaving a grandbaby boy in
her arms. And Grandma’s translation came via kind teacher Shukun, recently
arrived from China, who volunteers priceless hours and hours reshaping refugee
camp hand-signing into standard American Sign Language.
Our evening got warmer and fuller. More and more Bhutanese Portlanders
arrived by bus and MAX transfers, soaked but happy after walks from dark TriMet
stops. Also in rubber silapahs. Also no socks.
"Hey, why don’t your families do socks, saudara saya (dear brother)?" I
elbowed my thrift-store couchmate — a young guy who earned his way off REI’s
shipping dock onto its sales floor, serving cool Portlanders; a bright guapo who
used his quickly acquired English skills and his natty northwest outdoor wear,
to rocket into Oregon bio tech. Not to do assembly, mind you. He’s an upwardly
mobile quality-control krotjong (non-translatable slang).
"Well you know," he said, "we’re mountain people. Himalayas. Like, the Roof
of the World. Compared to back home —" his pause took him to that place all
immigrants go, conversations like this "— compared to back home, this is
And this comparison might lead into contrasting a New American’s half-full
glass with a settled Portlanders’ bad weather banter. But not in this essay. Not
in a ridiculously optimistic newcomer’s narrative.
Sharing better our wealth, both kinds
America’s story, our immigrant nation’s story, is more about the beautiful
music of our mix. Sure there are some awful notes, with some regularity. Some of
it right now. But our ugliness gets relatively rapidly reduced into the dark
pages of our kids’ U.S. history textbooks — those India ink renderings of
slave-ship cargo holds; that image of Andrew Jackson presiding over death
marches of entire nations; those pictures of cops atop tall black horses, clubs
high over their heads, immigrant Irish working men and working women in long
What that Bhutanese family, their Iraqi neighbors, and their Chinese teacher
actually bring to our robust mix, is connectedness. Those millennia
tried-and-true ways. What white lab-jacketed social scientists call "culture."
Meaning those duties binding women and men, older and younger, host and
Meaning loyalty to place, to community — our love of river matriarchs and
moody mountains; our emotional investment in our neighbors; the interdependence
of all this.
And finally, meaning our awe for this grand production those science guys
call the universe; our reverence for this grand mystery that our wisest
translators and our wayward physicists call Great Spirit or God.
So much, Portland already owns. First world-city core and Old-World outer
edges, each in their place. Substantially unshared. We now need only to properly
valuate our two distinct kinds of wealth: The institutionally secured assets of
our robust mainstream and the at-risk cultural capital our immigrants
bring by the boatloads. Then spread both around.
April 2017, Bhakta took an oath to love America. He is now a U.S. citizen.
That same spring he graduated from a City of Portland civic-leadership academy.
We should all celebrate.
* * *
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