November 20, 2004
Diversity is Great, Unity is Better
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- Geri Critchley moved to Rochester a few years after having
spent a year in Senegal for the Peace Corps, and she found the two experiences
similar. Actually, she found life in Rochester even stranger than in Senegal.
“I found myself as a doctor’s wife,” she wrote. “I
felt more out of place in Rochester at first than I had felt in a small
village in West Africa. In Africa I looked different and the villagers
looked different. We expected differences and it was easy to deal with.
In Rochester I looked like everyone else, but I didn’t feel like
everyone else. There was something missing.”
The recollections are part of an amazing document, Critchley’s
memoir of experiencing “reverse culture shock” after arriving
in Rochester in 1979, and starting the Rochester International Association
as a result. The group exists to this day, sponsoring World Festival
Day, the multicultural extravaganza at Century High School, as well as
a monthly international lecture series and occasional internationally-themed
dances and musical shows in town.
Written for her master’s thesis, the memoir records a whirlwind
of interviews, organizational activities, and research Critchley did
to get the RIA off the ground. She spoke with 75 people in three months
gathering statistics, listening to people’s thoughts and experiences
of Rochester as a cosmopolitan town, and creating her own mental picture
of the place.
“Rochester was an incredibly international community but hadn’t
been consciously and publicly acknowledged as such,” wrote Critchley,
who lives today in Washington, D.C. “There were students studying
different countries in Social Studies classes yet not aware of the local
human capital from these countries in their home town.
“There were Mayo Clinic physicians who were going to developing
countries on projects yet did not know there were returned Peace Corps
Volunteers living nearby who had lived in these countries, knew the
language and culture, who could inform and orient them.
“There were patients from around the world visiting the Mayo
Clinic, staying for lonely weeks at a time in hotels. And Rochester
from other countries had no mechanism through which to share their
culture with the community. Their cultural groups were almost invisible.” Rochester has come a long way towards developing a greater international
sense since 1979, in large part thanks to Critchley. The hospitality
of the RIA, through the World Festival and other programs, certainly
has made Rochester a more welcoming place.
Our elementary and high schools have special classes for language
and acculturation skills; the Diversity Council does great work with
sensitivity seminars; and no one could say that that the city’s
largest immigrant and ethnic groups are invisible.
And yet, I am constantly amazed at the intensity of foreign cultures
that I experience visiting private homes in Rochester, compared to the
absence of authentic foreign culture in most public settings.
I have shared sambusa pastries with Somali friends in Rochester; admired
the giant golden Buddha statue at the local Cambodian temple; lit candles
for the Diwali festival with Indian friends; and seen tables laid out
with fresh-cut grass, rosewater, and mirrors for the Iranian New Year.
Yet the Rochester Fest, our biggest annual celebration of local identity,
is still 100% corn dogs, mini-doughnuts, and cheese-on-a-stick. No matter
how many times I’ve been in the downtown mosque, I have never seen
another American-born American there, to the best of my knowledge. I
see Indians shopping at Rice-‘n-Spice, and Cambodians at the many
Asian food stores.
This is neither surprising nor in any way a criticism. Culture takes
a long time to change, adapt, accept, and mix to accommodate new members
and new points of view. As previous waves of immigrants attest, it takes
generations. And yet Critchley’s carefully-observed memoir of Rochester
in 1979 does give us a chance to ask “How much have we really changed?”
Are we knitting together in Rochester as much as we could? Are the
vast international resources of this city – not the medical or
computer resources but the human experience of foreign cultures embedded
-- benefiting Rochester and indeed Minnesota as much as they could?
Unity of Purpose
Are we addressing in Rochester not only the need to accept diversity,
but also the need to foster unity of purpose and understanding in such
a diverse community? Are we learning the lessons we need to learn from
places like China and India and the Middle East, about the dangers of
failing to unify?
Her work in Rochester allowed Geri Critchely “to discover society
on a human scale,” she said. Twenty-five years later, are we doing
all that we can to ensure that everyone in our community shares a taste
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report