Last summer, after I was married, we lived for a few months with my in-laws in Connecticut. Now, I’d been a bit of a City Mouse before. I’d lived in a couple areas in and around Tokyo, I’d lived in a city of 400,000 in Taiwan, and I’d lived for 4 years in Provo, Utah, which my Montana friends referred to as “the city” and my California friends referred to as “a small town.” But this was my first time experiencing the city life of the US East Coast, and I was loving it.
My in-laws live in the little tail of Connecticut, about 30 miles from the heart of New York City. The first thing I was surprised by was how close everything there seems. You get in the car and six miles later you’re in New York and if you’re not careful and you miss your highway exit you end up in New Jersey and it’s not even lunch time. Public transportation there is amazing (if a bit pricey) and you feel like the Indiana Jones of the urban jungle as you hop on a commuter train to Grand Central Station, swing your way over to a subway stop, and adventure your way all over the five boroughs of New York City. My husband and I trekked around Chinatown and Little Italy, funky art museums and music festivals in Brooklyn, and to every major museum in Manhattan. I even made him take me to the Uniqlo flagship store once I found out it existed. It’s one of my favorite clothing companies – I like to call it the Japanese Gap. And finding out there was one in America was almost as exciting as finding out it was right next to the original Macy’s. Like, you know, the giant department store that spawned all those parades that you imagine as being the world’s largest repository of funky silk scarves and pretentious rich-lady hats. Turns out husbands aren’t nearly excited about Japanese flagship stores or Macy’s locations, no matter how historic they are, but the beauty of it all is that after you bore them to death in one part of town you just hop on a subway and zip them off to another.
But the other interesting thing I observed living on the East Coast was how it was all so close, but it was fragmented into tiny little worlds. It’s like they were overlapping each other, all kind of existing in the same space. Inside each little world life for the people was extremely unique and distinct from the others. I’ve seen this before as a hallmark of the American experience but nowhere had I seen it so clearly as during those few months on the East Coast.
In the West, we’ve got plenty of room for things. And we see an array of people and societies but they’re all a bit more geographically distinct. I guess I really developed a mindset like this coming from a place where the most distinct ethnic groups were the “whites” and the “Indians,” but where their spheres were largely divided along actual borders and announced with signs. I wasn’t used to the neighborhood you lived in determining who you were, where your ancestors were from or what language you spoke. And I definitely wasn’t used to the expectations that changed as you crossed these subtle lines.
My in-laws attend a Spanish ward. In the LDS church, congregations are usually determined geographically, and living within a certain set of boundaries determines where and when and with whom you’ll attend church. But sometimes, based on the needs of certain areas, congregations (which are called wards or branches) are provided for speakers of different languages. Here in China, we attend an English-speaking ward. There were English and Portuguese wards where I lived in Japan. And all over the United States you’ll find wards and branches for speakers of Non-English languages. My husband served as a missionary in Dallas, Texas, in the Chinese branch, teaching Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants and students in their native language. It’s a really neat thing, I think, to see the diversity of backgrounds and lifestyles among church members, especially to those whose understanding of what Mormons are like may be based on stereotypes or their own experience with people in a certain socio-economic group.
And Spanish wards are something else. All the things I’d grown up with as a Mormon in the Western United States were still there. There was still a bishop and his counselors, still a women’s organization, a youth organization, still talks given every Sunday by three or four of the ward members on topics like charity or forgiveness or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And there was still a feeling of love and acceptance even for the newcomers. In fact, you walk in the door of a Spanish ward and you feel like everyone’s long-lost cousin. Ladies who’ve never met you are kissing and hugging you, latching on to your arm and telling you what a lovely princess you are. But then there are the ways in which the Spanish ward is different from the English wards you grew up in, and they can be an absolute riot.
One of the things that stands out to me about my couple months in the Spanish ward is how many parties there were. Now granted, we were there during a particularly festive time of year – just as students were graduating and people were getting married. We kicked it all off with our own wedding. We had told my mother-in-law that we didn’t have a lot of money to spend so after the temple ceremony we just wanted to have maybe some punch, maybe a casual get-together for our friends. Erick said “a stereo and a bag of chips. Really, what else do you need?” But she looked at us with the “seriously, guys, come on” look. She said. “We are Spanish. It’s a wedding. We dance. We eat.”
And oh man, was that true. We danced. And we ATE. And we DANCED. And my mother-in-law hired a surprise mariachi band. They were in the middle of one of the old songs that everyone in the extended family knew and the mariachi singer shouted “¡Viva México!” Then everyone in the family glared and he leaned over to my father-in-law and asked “Where are you guys from?”
And I thought the wedding was easily the biggest party of the year, but that was only one weekend. In the weeks that followed we had quinceañera parties, graduation parties, Relief Society parties. And my personal favorite was the ward Mothers’ Day party.
All the Mothers’ Days at church that I could remember growing up consisted of all the speakers that day talking about Moms, and all the Moms in the congregation getting a rose or a carnation. Then individual families went home and had dinners or spoil-mom days. I wasn’t aware that people had parties, or that those parties, like every other party every weekend, consisted of really huge meals and then a really huge dance. It was super fancy – the church gym was all decorated and set up with round tables and tablecloths and the men and the boys were the waiters. And then there was lots of loud Spanish music and my mother-in-law and all her lady friends had to get up and get down. It was so much fun and such a memorable party – it’s no surprise to me that Hispanic communities remain so tightly knit, even several generations after immigrating to the US.
And I easily felt a part of this new community. I really felt that I was genuinely appreciated and accepted. But it’s such a funny thing seeing how little worlds like this interact. And it’s interesting to see where the fracture lines still lie. The Spanish ward is part of a larger organization – a stake – made up of the other wards and congregations in the area. All of the other wards are English-speaking, and it just happens to be one of the most affluent areas in the country, so most of the “white” families that my in-laws and their friends interact with are very wealthy and very well-off. In fact, for most people, it’s easy to assume that all white people are rich, are Republicans, and hire people to clean their houses and trim their hedges. That is what they see in the “white” world around them. And it’s hard to understand the huge, complex realities of American society with such a limited snapshot.
And that’s all I really got too – snapshots of all these other little worlds. In my in-laws’ apartment building just about everyone is Hispanic. There’s a “Tabernaculo Real” around the corner which is where the Spanish Pentecostals meet on Sunday, another little world that overlaps with our own. Then down the street is a Haitian church. The local medical clinic had signs up in Haitian Creole which I realized I could read because it looks like French as sounded out by a child or a foreigner. If you go down a block the other way, there’s a huge Catholic church and a school where the services are in Polish. The Polish and the Italians are the “white” people here, and they built a lot of the houses on this side of town, though their demographic is moving out little by little each year.
Walking down the street to the train station, under the freeway into downtown, a white girl will start to feel like the odd one out, however Spanish her last name is, as a lot of the people she passes are black. I even had a funny moment as I took a long walk to get my hair and nails done one day. I’m definitely in the minority out in the “commuter towns” as being one of the people who doesn’t drive everywhere. I walked up to the west end of town to get my nails fixed by the Chinese ladies who had done them for my wedding and I had passed a hair salon on my way up. Realizing I really needed a trim, I decided to stop there on my way back home. An hour or so and one Dunkin’ donut later (it’s a long walk out to the Chinese ladies’ salon!) I stopped in the little hair salon, opening the door and looking around.
There wasn’t a desk with a receptionist and though there were a couple of chairs, only one was occupied by a customer and a stylist. The stylist was a middle-aged black lady; her customer was an older black lady getting a complicated dye job.
“Can I help you?” the stylist asked, looking me over and clearly wondering what on earth I was doing in this part of town.
“I was just wondering if you had any slots today to do a trim.”
“Do I look like I have time?” She continued whatever process the foil and bottles entailed.
“Do you have any free openings later?” I asked.
“I’ll be done with this one in a couple hours,” she answered.
“Ok – I’ll just come back,” I said, trying to sound pleasant and closing the door.
I didn’t go back. I still wonder if that was the best choice. I certainly didn’t feel like she knew what to do with me and wondered if it was just in everyone’s own interest to stay on our own sides of town. I’d grown up believing there were no differences between any of us, and was still a little bewildered that maybe there were certain businesses in certain parts of town that certain people just didn’t go to. I imagined the older lady getting her hair done would probably have felt just as uncomfortable walking into a nice upscale salon in Greenwich full of white ladies and gay men with spikey hair as I had felt upon realizing that maybe I wasn’t the average customer on that side of town. I was sad about it, in a way, because it really shouldn’t make any difference apart from whether or not the stylist knows how to manage different textures of hair. But it does, and though we as a nation think of ourselves as a melting pot we’re still, in a large way, more of a big chunky stew.
And the big challenge of our age is to learn how to deal with that.