I’m against assimilation: Teachings from Africa

What are you learning from each other?
What are you learning from each other?

Why am I against assimilation? If the African immigrants had “fit in” to the norm here in Minnesota, they could not have taught me many valuable lessons. And if it wasn’t for pursuing their non-English languages, I may not have met as many of these wise people.

I’ve learned a lot from my African neighbors in the Twin Cities

Staring is perfectly acceptable.

Everything starts with networking.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves.

These are a couple of items I’ve learned from East African friends. They’re sinking more deeply into my thinking as I see them in action all around me. For example,

Staring is perfectly acceptable. If I want to know if someone is from Africa, I look a little longer at the person than I would at a white Minnesotan. If the person looks back at me or smiles, the person is likely African.

Everything starts with networking. If I friend an Ethiopian or Somali on Facebook, I know that five people will request to be my friend shortly after. Every time I look for news about Somalis, I learn about another community organizer. I learned that if you ever need to get in contact with a given Somali person, ask a room of 50 Somalis—someone will have that person in their phone.

I’ve learned from my African neighbors that neighbors should not be feared but embraced. Barriers provide only so much usefulness. I love interacting with them.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves. Here’s a great example of what I learned last week.

I chatted with a complete stranger.

Leaving my Oromo lesson, I was waiting at a crosswalk for the light to change. The young man standing next to me looked Somali. Maad ku hadashaa afka soomaaliga? “Do you speak Somali?” I had to repeat a couple times before he understood what I was asking.

“Where are you going?” he asked me next.

Why does he want to know? I said to myself with some suspicion aroused. Minnesotans would consider this “prying.”

“To the light rail station.”

Then I though for a moment. “Where are you going?” I asked in kind.

“I’m going to the park to play soccer,” he answered.

Aha! He wanted to make conversation. A white Minnesotan stranger would not ask a stranger where they’re going. It’s too nosey. They would talk about the weather or the Twins. It seems this rule was foreign to the young man I chatted with. Neither his question nor mine made him uncomfortable.

* * *One beautiful thing I’ve learned from getting to know Africans: frankness, but never with malice. If an African asks where you are going, he’s showing interest in you as a person. If a person wonders why you’re learning Oromo, he’ll ask, “Why are you learning Oromo?” If you’re not married, “Why aren’t you married?” If they want to know more English: “Teach me English!” Connection is essential, and they connect by speaking their mind and by asking you what’s on yours.

* * *My new acquaintance and I walked for a while until we got to the soccer field. We talked about the different terms for “soccer” in Somali, and he helped me put together a sentence about playing soccer.

“What’s your name?” he asked as we neared the park where the soccer game was taking place.

“Richard,” I answered. If I had been sitting on a trans-Atlantic flight next to a white Minnesotan, we never would have gotten around to asking for names.

But I’m talking to a Somali. “What’s your name?”


“Nice to meet you. Ramadan kareem!” I answered.

“Ramadan kareem!”

And I walked on, more connected and more open, thanks to a random connection with a Somali neighbor.

What have you learned from your immigrant neighbors?

Photo from CollegeDegrees360

2 thoughts on “I’m against assimilation: Teachings from Africa

  1. Pingback: Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful – Loving Language

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