I recently talked with learners in two of our community English classes and posed the question “What is something that has surprised you, in either a good way or a bad way, about the culture of West Michigan?”
The learners in these classes come from various parts of the world: Latin America and the Caribbean, southeast Asia, and eastern Europe. Those from countries with tropical climates like Vietnam and Haiti first remarked on Michigan’s winters (unsurprisingly fresh in everyone’s minds, as we’ve descended into sub-freezing temperatures this week), but then they also provided many insights into aspects of human interaction here in West Michigan that may be surprising to new arrivals.
One thing that surprised learners, in both positive and negative ways, is the casualness of public life in West Michigan. It’s possible to see people dressed very casually or even in pajamas in public here, whereas in many other countries, this would be unacceptable. Eating and drinking while walking or out in the street is also considered bad manners in some places but is acceptable here. A learner from eastern Europe conceded that compared to the walkable cities and short distances between points in her country, everything here is so spread out that it would be difficult to get through one's day without bringing at least a bottle of water along.
Childrearing practices also surprised some learners in different ways. One learner remarked on how children are often free to run around stores with minimal correction from their grown-ups, even to the point of getting into messes and then eating or even putting dirty things into their mouths. On the other hand, another learner mentioned that children from her area in Mexico often have to begin working from a very young age, as young as 8-10 years old, while children here are free to be children for much longer.
The aspect of culture that was most remarked upon was the friendliness of the people here. Several learners mentioned that people will smile and make small talk even with strangers, which is not a practice in many of their countries of origin. People in West Michigan are also free with suggestions on leisure and sharing the natural resources and opportunities in our area – the beaches, local attractions and food/drink, fall colors, etc. A few agreed that people they encounter when out and about are more than happy to assist someone who asks for help around a language barrier or learning how to do something. One learner from Venezuela noted that people are “polite and attentive” and show interest in the other person’s country and experiences.
While I tried to encourage discussion and comments that were not limited to only positive things, the learners had many positive things to say (weather aside) about their new home here in West Michigan.