The Power of the Narrative

It is the function of Art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.~ Anais Nin

While living internationally, we rarely went a day without having a story to tell that demonstrated our clumsy negotiations in a country where we were guests. Whether it was wrong translations on birth certificates, getting completely lost in a city of millions, or using the wrong word when communicating, there was always a story. At parties a game favorite was Two Truths and a Lie. While many in the United States may have played this, the responses are totally different when you live overseas. Responses such as “My maid of honor was a Nigerian gentleman”I had dinner with Yasser Arafat’s brother” “My appendix were taken out by a CIA operative” “I grew up with the Ambassador to Mongolia” and more are just a few of the interesting responses that are given. Contrast that to the first time I played this game in Massachusetts where the most exciting response was “I’ve been to Connecticut” (that was the lie…)

A few years ago my husband was talking to a friend from college years. This friend had come to the US from Iran for university and has since made his home here. He was relaying a story of his cousin coming to the US from Iran. She arrived in Michigan for a brief visit before moving on to Toronto. For three days, he said, they listened to her stories and laughed. At the end of three days, she turned to them and said “What are your stories? Tell me your stories?” My husband’s friend and his wife looked at her blankly. “We don’t have stories.” “How can you not have stories? Of course you have stories!” They explained to her that they really didn’t. Life was efficient and rarely brought surprises. They had no stories to tell. She was aghast.

How can you not have stories?

She left soon after and settled with her family in Toronto. A couple of years later another relative from Iran visited her in Toronto. For three days they listened to her stories. And then she turned to them, in the same way that they had turned to our friend and the same question was asked “Now tell me your stories!”. They were blank. They had no stories.

While I know that there are stories in this part of the world, I completely get the response of having no stories in comparison to our lives overseas. The best stories are ones that involve people. People are what make life infinitely interesting. In cultures that are more relationship oriented, there are more opportunities for interaction, whether positive or negative. When human interaction is limited by our high value of individualism and efficiency we can lose some of what makes a good story.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and we have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.

So bring on the stories – tell your story! Think about the life you’ve lived and what your story offers others.  I guarantee it will be worth the telling.

Immigrant Communities – What Works?

I had a fascinating conversation a few weeks ago with a woman whose parents are Sikhs from the Punjab region of India. As a young couple they immigrated to Canada and raised their family in a suburb of Toronto. She grew up in a multicultural neighborhood with native-born Canadians, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Bangladeshis, and more. No one talked about diversity, they lived it.

What made this community work? What is the make-up necessary for an immigrant community to work? What are the policies that support this – or are there any? What is the attitude of those who are native to the community? How does that affect the experience of the immigrant? I’ve asked a lot of questions because there is a complexity to the issue that makes it difficult to dissect.

In September of this year a report came out called “All Immigration is Local: Receiving Communities and Their Role in Successful Immigrant Integration,”. The report challenges the traditional approach that focuses on “immigrant behavior” and the focus on immigrants to assimilate and take on a new role as “Americans” by learning the language and diving into life in America.  How can immigrants take on this role if they are unaccepted by the “receiving” community? And how can the community receiving them welcome immigrants if there is confusion and fear about a neighborhood changing and no dialogue to reassure?

A while ago while working as a visiting nurse in Lynn, Massachusetts I had an experience that illustrated this issue. Lynn is an industrial city located about 20 minutes from Boston to the north along the Atlantic ocean. Lynn has been a depressed community for some time. It’s population and industry peaked in the early 1900’s and has since lost steam. It is known to have a high crime rate and a little rhyme characterizes the city: “Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin, you’ll never go out the way you came in.” I saw patients during the week in Lynn and on Saturdays worked in an office in another city triaging calls from patients.

One Saturday I received a call from a patient. The patient was from Lynn “I’m calling to complain about my nurse” she said. “Oh, I’m so sorry, can you tell me a bit about what’s going on?” “Well, I don’t think she knows what she’s doing. You see, she was raised in Pakistan…..” Great! The patient was calling to complain about me. The humor of the situation struck me and I had to muffle my giggling. I also knew that I had an ethical dilemma: I knew I was me, but she didn’t. I could just take her call and soothe her, or switch the call over to  my supervisor (the right thing to do). I put her on hold and in a stealthy whisper shouted over to my supervisor “Jill! I’ve transferred this patient to you because she’s calling to complain….about me!

But I knew instinctively what the problem was. This elderly white woman, who had never lived elsewhere, was watching a neighborhood change before her eyes. Immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic were becoming an integral part of the city and her neighborhood. Lynn was rapidly becoming what is termed a “majority, minority” city. This woman was terrified. She had no tools to feel secure in the changes and then along comes a white nurse who proudly lets her know “I’m not from here! I was raised in Pakistan“. It was one more symbol to her that the home and community she had known her entire life was changing and she didn’t feel a part of that change.

I tell the story because I think it illustrates well the fear and confusion that can be present in the “receiving” community. I don’t think this woman was inherently prejudiced or mean-spirited, I think she was grieving the loss of a community she had been a part of and had no tools to welcome and engage newcomers.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a big fan of immigrant communities. I live in a largely immigrant community, I interact with newcomers to the United States regularly. But I am also a big fan of wanting to bring others on board in the process and I’ve found that it’s not always easy. This report was written to help communities come on board and face the challenges that come as immigrants arrive and struggle to create a new home and a new life.

So what are some of the solutions to what works? Relationships, addressing misconceptions, and personalizing both parties is key to building  successful communities. In the words of the report:

“A major step in reinforcing a sense of commonality and community between foreign-born and native-born residents is to create opportunities for contact and communication. Evidence shows that having direct contact with immigrants changes people’s perceptions of immigrants and immigration. Immigrants themselves also look to their native-born neighbors for cues on how to fit in and how to behave in American society. Creating spaces for immigrants and native-born to interact, and to recognize their common goals for the community and future, is critical to the success of receiving communities.” from  All Immigration is Local: Receiving Communities and Their Role in Successful Immigrant Integration.

Immigrant communities in the United States are as old as the country itself and no group has been immune from prejudice. Unfortunately that history is not always passed down through the generations as a way to teach others that the hurt of prejudice should not be passed on to others. Someone has to stop the vicious cycle.  I am convinced that a part of breaking this cycle is hearing real people and real stories. It’s hard to hate someone who is sitting right in front of you, telling their story.

So back to the original question: What do you think makes an immigrant community work? Would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comment section!