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alking Story 
by Polo


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 analyzing.

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 down.

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 nothing."

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 skirts, below.

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 stranger.

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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