International Neighbors at 50
Topless guys and snacking shoppers
by Dale Magee
"What has surprised you most about life in Ann Arbor?" I ask the women gathered in a small, drab classroom on North Campus.
"The man next door mowed his lawn without his shirt!" exclaims a young Japanese woman in dark pants and a fitted white shirt. The others-from Japan, Korea, Israel, Chile, Venezuela, Uruguay, and China-laugh, and several nod in agreement.
For the last five years, I have led a "conversation group" for International Neighbors, a group of volunteers who welcome women from other countries to Ann Arbor. Most of our "guests" are here because their husbands are studying at the U-M or have a job in the area. And they find a few things about American life surprising.
"The portions at the restaurants are so large," another woman says. This time, everyone nods in recognition.
"Workmen come into my house with dirty shoes," complains a young Japanese mother. Back home, they would either remove their shoes or cover them.
"My son says that Japanese lunch is so different. He wants American lunch for school," another mother shares. This leads to an animated discussion about what constitutes a Japanese lunch, what a typical American lunch is, and what others eat for lunch.
Back to surprises: "In the grocery store," says one guest, "people eat the food before they have paid for it."
The woman from Israel laughs and says that none of these things surprises her: "That is the way it is in Israel, especially eating in the grocery store. We do that!"
International Neighbors has operated for fifty years without an office or a telephone. Most of the women in my group are quite independent-they speak English well, have studied American customs, and drive cars. But longtime members tell me things were very different when the group was formed. Back then, foreign women were often isolated and lonely; most spoke little English and did not drive. Six women attended the first tea party. For the second, the guest list grew to seventy.
an early "hostess," had been the wife of a foreign student herself: though she spoke little French, she'd spent a year in France when her husband, Roy, was a graduate student at Cornell. She could easily identify with the women here in Ann Arbor-far from family, with limited language skills and few friends. Many other volunteers either experienced hospitality when they lived in another country, or wished for some friendly attention in a foreign situation.
Most guests soon move on, but those who stay often become hostesses themselves. Helga Schacht came to Ann Arbor from Germany in 1969. "A few days after our arrival a very friendly Italian woman from International Neighbors, Ernestina Parravano, came to take me shopping," she remembers. "At the A&P supermarket she explained the many varieties of cereals and other prepared foods to me, and I still remember her recommendation of Quaker oatmeal. She took me to a tea group meeting, and life from then on was wonderful-getting to know so many interesting American and foreign women." Not only did Helga become a hostess, she was president of the organization from 2003 to 2005.
Currently there are about 450 guests from sixty-three countries and about 350 hostesses. Though we still call our get-togethers "teas," many guests now prefer coffee. Collecting stamps, once a popular activity, has gone the way of snail mail. But women still sign up for interest groups in hiking, painting, knitting, quilting, and, of course, cooking.
Besides the women's greater independence and their use of email, longtime hostess Alice Chambers points to one other major change: tea group leaders once had to draw maps to help members find their homes; now guests make their own maps online-or just use GPS.
[Originally published in March, 2009.]