In 1958, University of Michigan faculty wives, clad in pearls and white gloves, began serving tea and support to the wives and children of U-M professors and graduate-student husbands from foreign countries. Their mission was to help their guests improve their English language skills and acclimate to the American culture. While the white gloves and pearls have disappeared, the mission of International Neighbors, the organization launched in Ann Arbor by the late Esther Dunham and her neighbors, remains intact.
Carole Wolkan and Martha Bhatia, both longtime IN members, agree that in its early years the typical “hostess” was the wife of a U-M professor. “She wasn’t employed outside the home because she periodically traveled with her husband,” says Bhatia. “She was the stereotypical housewife with kids in school, who had experienced the problems of being a foreigner, and was looking for something to give meaning to her life.”
Wolkan says IN’s original “guests” were mostly from Europe, with some hailing from Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and a few from South America. Instead of “hostesses,” IN volunteers are now called “neighbors.” “Guests” have become “newcomers.” And IN has updated its internal nomenclature as well. “Mrs. Inderpal Bhatia” and “Mrs. Bernard Banet” initiated the effort to end the tradition of members being referenced in the press and elsewhere by their husband’s names.
Who is the typical newcomer now? “She’s Asian,” says Bhatia firmly, “in her twenties or thirties, but she could be older, as people get married later now, especially Indian women.” Wolkan says three-quarters of IN’s newcomers these days are from Japan, with Korea, China, and maybe India following.
The U-M International Center used to pass on contact information for students from other countries but stopped because of privacy issues. Now many referrals come from German and Japanese auto companies with local staffs. “Almost all the people who work for Japanese auto companies hear about us before they leave Japan,” explains Bhatia. The Japan Business Society of Detroit is now one of IN’s main sources of referrals and funding.
That also means newcomers are better off financially. “When we used to have people as guests, they did not have money,” Bhatia says. “We used to say ‘Don’t have any activities that have admission because some people may feel embarrassed if they can’t pay.’ We don’t say that anymore.”
IN’s English conversation groups were once its biggest draw, but now more places are offering ways to learn English, including the companies that bring over employees and their families. While IN once had ten groups, now it has five.
The line between neighbors and newcomers has also begun to blur. Some events are now hosted by newcomers, and in 2003, Helga Schacht, who joined IN after arriving from Germany in the late sixties, became the first to have joined as a newcomer from a foreign country to serve as president.
Wolkan thinks that IN had around 100 members in its earlier years. They now have about 1,200 names in their database, though probably only half are active.
Wolkan and Bhatia both say that they would like to see more diversity in the regions represented. “We have tried to recruit women from the African countries, women from the Middle East, but haven’t been very successful,” Wolkan says. She attributes this to the women being busy as students or mothers, and possibly their reluctance to join an organization that meets in a church. (IN has no religious affiliation, but it rents space at Zion Lutheran for its monthly meeting).
Bhatia also worries about the impact of the current administration’s hostility to immigrants. “When you start to say ‘these people are taking our jobs,’ it makes people afraid of people who come from other places … It’s not good for International Neighbors. I don’t think it’s good for the country.
“We want to talk more about building bridges rather than building walls, right? … I think that’s central to our organization.”