There are several new initiatives in the Pittsburgh region that focus on welcoming newcomers: Mayor Bill Peduto’s Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative, the ¡Hola Pittsburgh! Partnership aimed at attracting U.S. Latinos to the region, and of course ImaginePittsburgh.com, a virtual concierge of LIVE-WORK-PLAY options across the 10 county region.
Considering these various efforts underscores for me something I sometimes forget: being comfortable with people from different cultures is an acquired trait.
I was born in Karlsdorf (now Karlovac) in Yugoslavia, a region once populated by Germans. Despite the challenges, my country was for generations a relatively peaceful melting: Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs – like me – lived in relative harmony, and intermarriages were common. I loved the street signs in dual languages, two alphabets and the lovely dialects. Later, while living in London, I rediscovered how awesome and complete feels to live among people from all around world.
My next cosmopolitan embrace was marring a Pittsburgher, and raising our children in four countries. I loved providing them with the eye-opening privilege of living abroad. While living in Harare, Zimbabwe our sons celebrated United Nations day each October, with a parade of local residents decked out in their traditional costumes representing 62 nations under 62 different flags! Our sons’ precious friends Khizar, Olle, Maka, Madhavi, Max, Bojan and Ousmane opened our hearts forever.
More recently, I was delighted to be a part of the crowd in downtown Pittsburgh for the El Gran Combo / Hola Pittsburgh concert. I was moved by the warmth and enthusiasm I felt all around me as Latinos from southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond reveled in rhythm and spirit of the day. I admit I lost my voice to happy cries a few times. In short, multicultural environments make me happy.
Yet I understand that for some Pittsburghers, welcoming those of us with accents takes some practice. Lucy from England couldn’t buy butter, Clare from Welles couldn’t order water, or Daniella from Brazil burrito. I know this city I’ve happily called home for the past seven years suffered mightily after the collapse of the region’s steel industry. But now, as our region is growing younger and more diverse, inevitably Pittsburghers will be extending a friendly hand to newcomers, even ones who don’t speak the Queen’s English (though frankly, neither do yinz).
So what we can do? I propose we each try to strengthen our cross-cultural skills. Perhaps one place to start is by recalling and reconnecting with our own immigrant past and all that was positive about it. The many old churches and synagogues that have writing in foreign languages on their stained glass windows reminds us that desire to cherish ones native language and culture is not new; but it doesn’t mean we don’t embrace the new culture and language, too. Develop the habit of walking around Oakland and on college campuses. Come to the city concerts, and skip the folding chairs, the better to move around, meet and communicate with people.
If we can each open our hearts and more warmly and loudly embrace our immigrant neighbors and other newcomers as we do our close-knit, long-time friends, if we can free ourselves to be a little more forthcoming with bonding and warmth and hugs, it will be good not only for our region’s prosperity, but our hearts will be bigger, too.
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