Young Americans

Nine scenes from the lives of new Minnesotans

Philip Nyangai

Philip Nyangai thinks it is human nature to create communities wherever you go. "You do it," he laughs, "to minimize your miseries in life." We are sitting at Simba Auto Works on East Hennepin. The reception area is like any other auto-repair lobby, except for all the Kenyan newspapers scattered about. Business is good; a constant stream of people drop off, pick up or inquire into the status of their cars without ever having to explain who they are or why they are there. Philip, in fact, doesn't work in the shop. He works at Good Samaritan Hospital, where he is a licensed practical nurse. He comes to Simba, he says, to see friends and to help with whatever needs doing. (Margaret Delehanty)

Loring Bar, Thursday night

You could hearthe accordion all the way across Loring Park last Thursday evening, breathing in and out the minor chords of some gypsy folk tune like a fire bellows. The heat had lifted hours earlier, turning into cloud cover that set a surreal silver light over the Loring Bar on the corner of the green. The crowd spilled out the door and onto the patio. Two women were squatting down and pissing behind a Landcruiser parked at the curb, juggling a bottle of wine between them and stripping off their fishnet stockings. You know, one said to the other in Russian as she stuffed the hose into her purse, "Dancing's no good with my legs in prison."

Inside, it's the regular Thursday night scene--a packed house of the young and chic, most of them first-generation Eastern Europeans just off the evening shift or night school. The music, accordion and drum and singer Francine doing torch, is a mix of folk tunes and ballads so familiar that one of the few older patrons, a Hungarian man in his early 70s seated in an elegant wing chair by the window, whips out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes. "This used to be sung in the trenches to make the bullets dance," he tells me in broken English. "Now the kids here think it's a love song."

Out of the body crush, Yuliya Vayner jumps on stage and breaks into a full body shimmy, her nimble fingers stitching an invisible lace out of air while friends horse whistle and catcall in Ukrainian from the pit. Like many of them, Yuliya came from Eastern Europe--Minsk, in her case--on a green card with her family several years ago. The empty-nest syndrome, it seems, is an American ill: As a rule, everyone I talked to lives with parents, an uncle, the third cousin by marriage who sponsored them. As for getting out with friends, a Belorussian guy sucking on a vodka-soaked lime reports, it's either here or church. Take your pick. He gives the sign of the cross, swallows the rind, squats and leaps into a flying split that would put Baryshnikov to shame. Church it's not.

By midnight, the place is all sweat and perfume. While the band takes fives, several women a capella their way through a round of lyrics and throaty yelps that sounds like the Bulgarian Women's Choir in an echo chamber. Taking a breather on the patio, Olga Mikhailenko offers her quick wrap on the scene that apart from certain details could be told by nearly everyone here. "My family came partly to get away from discrimination--we're Jewish. But more than that, we lived close to Chernobyl. After the catastrophe, my father took a reading in the sand of our beach and it was off the scale. A lot of people started dying from leukemia, the economy sucked, and a lot of families like mine headed to the west. Now it's our turn, as the children of Eastern European immigrants, to translate and make sense of new manners, food, television, American stuff for our parents. And it's their turn to keep us together, to help us remember what we left. We move around with one foot in our history and one in this new world. I trip up a lot, but sometimes, like tonight, I can dance." (Josie Rawson)

Julia Peker

"Aaaaggghhh! Ten o'clock on a weekend? What do you say we make it 11 or 12?" Julia Peker is vice president of a club for management-information-systems majors at the U and their Friday evening barbecue out on Nicollet Island isn't about to be circumscribed by an early-morning interview. Besides, Fridays frequently finish with dancing at First Avenue, Barney's Underground, or, best of all, the Gay 90's. "In the Soviet Union," she explains, "we didn't have gay people. As far as we knew, they didn't exist." But her first night at the 90's, a guy told her she was beautiful "just for fun. He didn't want anything from me. That's my kind of place."

Julia was 11, one of about 3.5 million people living in Kiev, when the Chernobyl reactor melted down 90 miles to the north. Her mother tested water for the state and knew more than most Soviet citizens about the deadly levels of radiation, and, later, about the rising incidence of nosebleeds, fainting spells, and cancer among the children in the small towns near the crippled nuclear plant. It was nearly seven years before Julia's stepfather got a job with NSP that allowed the family to leave the country.

But that's not why Julia hits the dance floor whenever the DJs cue up Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." She prefers caprice to cheap irony. Graduating from high school in a splintered nation, she discovered that Ukrainian, not Russian, was suddenly the preferred language for those trying to go to college. As for Chernobyl, "My mom was scared; people were saying all the children would get sick and die in 10 years. But when you are a teenager you don't worry about your health."

At 22, she's still not worrying, peppering her conversations with laughter and a giddy incredulity ("What, you don't like Boney M?!" she says, after professing admiration for that particular 1970s Euro-disco demigod) that makes her almond eyes open wider. It is the sparkle of the charmed, of someone aware she is on permanent clemency. "In the Soviet Union, if you get your diploma as an engineer, you are going to be an engineer for the rest of your life. People don't change. Here, change is normal," she says. This summer, Julia is doing a management-systems internship at United Health Care. In the fall, she'll go back to the U for her senior year, and resume her part-time work as a customer-service rep for Norwest Banks. Does she know what she wants to be doing five or 10 years from now? "Sure," she says. "I want to travel." (Britt Robson)

Rishi Ragoonananis

Rishi Ragoonananis the seventh and youngest batsman in the lineup for the International Cricket Club. The ICC is one of the oldest and most amiable teams in Minneapolis's 20-year-old cricket league, and with a record of 2-5, includes some of the most gracious losers. Rishi is not one of them. In Trinidad, where he lived until last year, he served as captain of the Marabelle Senior Comprehensive School's club and he tried out for the under-18 national team; playing in a recreational league in the U.S. represents a rather precipitous step down. "I love cricket," Rishi says. "At home, all I do is play cricket. I live in front of the field and I play every day."

In Trinidad, Rishi hoped to become a professional player--however long the odds against it--but upon leaving school, the more immediate probability was a job clearing cane on a small family sugar plantation. The word "plantation" itself might be misleading, though; Rishi's father works the plot his father left him alongside a few hired hands. While Rishi's grandparents were born in Trinidad, his great-grandparents--or great-great-grandparents, maybe--were themselves migrants. "After the end of slavery, the British brought [East] Indians to work the fields as indentured laborers," Rishi explains. "My family's been there now for like 1,000 years." Which explains the traces of Rishi's Afro-Caribbean patois--or what he calls "the broken English" he spoke before entering secondary school. While Rishi paces the boundary of the field in marshmallow-like leg pads, waiting for his turn at bat, he sings along to a dancehall tune with a Guinean spectator: "I'm a black man living in a white man's world."

While many of Rishi's teammates have already established themselves in the states--Systems Analyst seems to be the most common job description here--Rishi works long hours as a chef at the Hickory Hut while attending Normandale Community College as a full-time student. He studies computers there and also acting; he recently appeared in a skit "about two guys in a bar, talking about broads and ho's and stuff."

"Everyone else comes here, they want to be a doctor or a lawyer," Rishi says, smiling. "I want something else."

Then a man named Charles goes down to the Cavaliers on a fly ball, and Rishi steps up to the wicket. The bowler takes his hurried steps toward the batter and releases the heavy red ball with a snap of the wrist. Rishi strokes it into the air where an infielder makes a catch; in a sport where a single player's at-bat can last a few hours, this is more than a modest disappointment. Rishi shuffles back to the sideline, nodding his head. Tomorrow, it's back to work at the Hickory Hut. No cricket until next Saturday afternoon. "That bowler is shit," Rishi says then, and he covers his face with a still-gloved hand. (Michael Tortorello)

Virgilio Brodas Ramirez

This past Christmas Eve, Virgilio Brodas Ramirez was sick in bed when he learned that back home, his father had died. An Indian from Guatemala's altiplano, the elder Brodas was a gentle man who worked ceaselessly but was never very productive. When Brodas was small, his father fixed watches and clocks in the hamlet where the family lived in the mountains outside the town of Chichicastenango. His mother and grandmother grew corn, beans, and squash and scraped together the money to send Brodas and his siblings to school. No road connected the village to the town five miles east; the region was too poor and the trip would go straight down one mountainside and up another. But that was okay with his father, who was perpetually uncomfortable with the macho standards set by the crilollos.

In 1982, paramilitary death squads killed one of Brodas's brothers. Feeling endangered, the rest of the family moved to a city. There, his mother opened a small store. But his father never worked again. Instead, he walked the streets looking for bits of gold and silver he could sell. In 1985, Brodas fell in love with a woman from Robbinsdale. She had, he says, the most distinctive outlook he'd ever encountered: She was the same person no matter where she was. They got married and lived in Quetzaltenango for about a year before moving to Minnesota, a decision that was wrenching for Brodas because it meant leaving his family.

The couple eventually divorced, but Brodas has stayed here. He earned a degree in civil engineering at the U and is looking for work. But his father's death helped him to see something new about the arc of his life. Straddling three cultures, he now feels that in many ways his 34 years have been about paradox. He has come to believe that the stereotype of a Latino as a strutting womanizer with control over his brood is wrong. Life in Latin America is really defined by women, he says, women like his mother and grandmother: They grow crops, run stores, provide for everyone around them, and, no matter where they are, have a tendency to see themselves clearly.

"My whole existence has been about women," he notes, "and the faith of women." Recently, a woman friend gave him a broken-down motorcycle that had been killing grass in her backyard for 10 years. He set about painstakingly rebuilding it, all the while talking to friends about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When he gets the bike running smoothly, he'd like to drive it to Guatemala and give it to someone in one of those rural villages--where, he figures, it could mean the difference between life and death for someone trying to get to a hospital in the city.

"Every time some part of you dies," he says, "there's an internal struggle. Something's born within this struggle. Something beautiful, something objective and yet optimistic." (Beth Hawkins)

Igor and Diana Jankovic

The Jankovics aremoving to Roseville. They've lived in graduate-student family housing for a few years now, and Igor just got his Ph.D. in civil engineering and now it's time to leave. The boxes are stacked in high piles near the door--there's a wooden rocking horse that Igor made and a Nordic Track and a Cardio-Glider too--flanking a new set of white leather couches. Igor worries that movers might scuff these, and is planning on hauling them himself: Standing a shade under two meters and some 260 pounds, he appears game for the task. Luka, who is three years old but looks big enough to be five, sits in the middle of this cardboard horseshoe watching Scooby Doo.

Diana Vakante Jankovic, Igor's wife and Luka's mother, appears slight by comparison. She wears blush low on the cheekbones, and she has come to the point in her English fluency where she is starting to insert articles where Croatian grammar would omit them. "We had the choice to come here," Diana says of her family's decision to leave the coastal city of Split in 1991--in contrast, she says, to the poorer Hmong patients she treats in the Model City Health Center. The clinic is in a low-income and "medically under-served area," and by working there and in the St. Paul Public Health Department, Diana is able to extend her work visa in the United States.

Also at the Model City Health Center are a Pakistani and a Trinidadian; while native-born medical students cluster in the specialized fields with their specialized salaries, it is the immigrant doctors who often staff the messy frontline of American health care. "I see mainly women," Diana says. "I see also children and few elderly. And big prenatal practice. The patients want to get good care and they don't care if you're U.S. citizen or you're foreigner." About a quarter of the patients have no health insurance, and Diana says they appreciate it when she can give them pharmaceutical samples instead of prescriptions they can't afford to fill. When Diana first followed Igor to America she would ask him to make phone calls for her, but she has since overtaken him in a familiarity with the culture. Igor spends the better part of the work day in the computer lab, talking hydro engineering with Dutch grad students; Diana keeps pepper spray in a vinyl case on her key chain.

Igor brings a cup of cappuccino in from the kitchen ("It's my domain," he says) along with a box of hazelnut chocolates, then picks Luka up by his feet and pokes his belly. When Luka gets too rambunctious--as he is now, trying, affectionately, to cover Igor's head with a piece of cellophane--they scold him in English, as does his day-care provider. But Luka will learn more Croatian when they visit Split and the sea for a month this summer; in five or six years, after the Jankovics have saved enough to buy a house there, they'll return for good. They'd like to be back before either hits 40; Diana is 30 now, Igor, 32. "In Split it's the Mediterranean. We work 6 to 2 p.m.," Igor explains. "On a big day, maybe 3 p.m." "Here, you work and you work," Diana adds, "and then six years have gone by and you've been working the whole time." (Michael Tortorello)

GaaFu, Ja'aFar, and Amiin

For the firstsix months after he came to Minnesota, Amiin never left the house. "I heard," he confides, "that people are sick in the United States, and what they do is, they grab you and take a knife and rip your body and take your kidney or something out and give it to someone who's sick." He translates what he's just said for his two buddies, and they all crack up. We're sitting on the concrete steps in front of my house (they don't like to be inside, they say).

At least I'm sitting. Amiin, GaaFu, and Ja'aFar (all nicknames) walk, kick, lunge and generally jump around with the spring-loaded energy of 15-year-olds in summer. Amiin was going to take his friends to soccer practice this morning, but the coach wouldn't let them play, so they all left. Now they're waiting for the afternoon game. GaaFu, sporting professional shorts and a White Sox cap, chatters intermittently in Somali, regardless of whether anyone else happens to be speaking at the same time. Ja'aFar, the curly-haired, bright-eyed one, mostly smiles. Amiin alternates between beaming innocence, grown-man seriousness (he could, after all, have been fighting a war right now), and an ironic sense of humor almost too sophisticated for his age.

Amiin is the oldest of the three, and he speaks the most English, partly because he's smart and partly because he spent two of his four years in the States in shelters and foster homes for reasons he wants kept private. "At St. Joe's [Home for Children], I was translating all the time," he remembers. "They would bring in kids and call me, thinking that I would speak their language." Often he didn't--Somalia alone is home to more than a dozen languages--but "I tried to understand what they were saying, at least a little bit, and sometimes I could." At Sanford Middle School, he was called away from class to interpret so often, "I got good grades just for translating." Now he's at Roosevelt High, which has some 700 Somali students and several native speakers on staff. "I don't tell everybody that I'm Somali. Because some of the older kids, they don't speak English yet, but they're stronger than me and they would beat me up."

Amiin has lived with his latest foster mom for six months. He's been trying to meet people in the new neighborhood, but without too much luck. He's already learned not to chat people up in the street; one woman, he says, ran to her front door and slammed it when he approached. He's the only black kid on the block.

So he hangs out with white adults--one guy has been taking him fishing--and other Somali kids. It took him three years to find GaaFu and Ja'aFar, and the trio has been inseparable pretty much ever since. They bike together, eat together, play soccer and a game called "hurting" that involves a bag filled with dirt or rocks. They get into fights--"someone tries to mess with one of us, we all get in there and beat them up," Amiin says, and that odd irony creeps into his voice. "We don't do killings, though."

There's a pause as all three fall uncharacteristically silent; then Amiin gives GaaFu a mock punch. "He really likes white girls, and Arabic," Amiin grins as GaaFu launches into a rapid-fire protest. "I swear. Every time we see one from the car he's 'excuse me, let me see, excuse me!'" "But Amiin, he likes Somalis," Ja'aFar jumps in. "This one girl, he went after her three times"--he dodges Amiin--"'hello, excuse me, hello!'" GaaFu has picked up a wood chip from the flower bed and is kicking it around artfully. Amiin turns to me, serious again. "I only talk to people who I think are going to talk to me," he says. "A lot of people just ignore you." (Monika Bauerlein)

Hong Kong night at the Riverview

It's 11:20 on a Friday night, and three Chinese kids are hanging around on the corner. They're waiting for the Riverview Theater to open its doors, pacing with a loose, adolescent bravado, their Cantonese ringing in the still night. A half-hour later, the trio's inside, and they're not alone. Amid the Riverview's '50s deco, a patron gets a box of popcorn while another contemplates a bag of shrimp chips. Some teenagers are looking through the movie-poster books Ange Hwang is selling, pointing out whenever they come across a picture of Jet Li or Jackie Chan. One of them looks up and asks Hwang, "What's the movie tonight?"

Hwang should know: For a few years now, she's been the one running Cinema With Passion, a seat-of-the-pants operation that brings Hong Kong films to the Riverview every weekend. Although the occasional Jackie Chan flick can pack the house at upwards of 500 heads, average attendance looks a little more like a couple hundred, with a steadily growing core of Asian-immigrant regulars. Like the kid who asks Ange what tonight's film is, even though he's already paid for it.

As it turns out, tonight's film is God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage. And although it doesn't star Chow Yun-Fat--the baby-faced superstar who played the original God of Gamblers--it's still a crowd pleaser. The audience is hooked on every frame of the hyperkinetic melodrama, laughing heartily at the lovesick humor and whooping it up at the fight scenes. This is film as community, as a raucous, participatory event. Even when there are problems with the projection, the audience isn't quiet and discontented; they shout at the image and cheer its correction, playfully demanding the movie they more or less came to see.

What many of them really came for, of course, is the experience. The crowd is hardly exclusively Asian, nor is it monolithic. These kids take on the challenges of immigration and integration in their own ways, from the teen-age Laotians dressed in baggy pants, Fila shoes, and Nike golf caps to the 20-year-old Korean with his mostly white friends. But even if Hong Kong film can't speak for the entire Pacific Rim, there is a definitely pan-Asian aesthetic to its mix of over-the-top stunts, ethereal pop songs, and broken hearts. Then, too, it's probably a relief to see a world where Asian women are independent, Asian men are sexy as hell, and the occasional white American is, for once, the tokenized stranger.

On the way out, people compare notes with their friends, sharing their favorite jokes and fight sequences. Even as the staff locks up the Riverview for the night, a few stragglers linger under the marquee, gossiping and laughing in their own cliques. They take off when the conversation wanes; some of them will go out for a late dinner, others are calling it a night. When exactly they say goodnight doesn't really matter much; next week, they'll be back. (Francis Hwang)

Barbara Ryan

The luck ofthe Irish is legendary. But three years ago native Dubliner Barbara Ryan traded her faith in fortune for more solid stock in the twin American virtues of ambition and hard work. "There was so much opportunity for employment and advancement over here that just wasn't possible in Ireland," the 26-year-old recalls, reflecting on her move to Minneapolis in 1994.

The second-youngest of five children, Ryan grew up in a middle-class home just outside of Dublin. The flickering television provided myriad images of life in America: a nation of movie stars and capitalism, success and excess. "The U.S. was always this huge country," Ryan says. But as large as the landscape was the vast range of possibilities regarding employment. If an immigrant could make it anywhere, it was the States--a nation driven by, as Ryan puts it, "work, work, work."

Studying English and sociology at Maynooth College in Dublin, Ryan watched many of her well-educated peers exit the state university system only to find that there were no jobs. Ryan dallied. She pursued a postgraduate degree in sociology and social research, but as her academic work drew to a close in 1994, she still faced uncertainty regarding employment. Her boyfriend, Fiacre, had applied for a visa to work in the U.S., and Ryan reluctantly cast her lot with his. Of the approximately 60,000 Irish citizens who annually apply for U.S. visas, both Ryan and Fiacre were among the mere 5,000 who were granted official permissions.

America wasn't altogether unfamiliar territory for Ryan. She'd spent a summer as a line cook in Boston earning money for college ("I lied my way into the job," she recalls. "I burned everything.") The same employer wrote a letter promising her a job, but Ryan had no intention of returning to Boston. On Sept. 4, 1994, she left Ireland, bound for Minneapolis. "I cried for 18 hours straight," she says. Fiacre had arrived in Minnesota two weeks earlier and was living with his sister and her husband.

To American employers her degrees meant nothing, and her Irish accent was offputting, but within a week, she had a temp job as a data-entry clerk. A second placement with the advertising agency Martin/Williams eventually led to a full-time job. "I saw the department that I wanted to work in--account planning--and told the director I'd be willing to take on extra projects," Ryan says. "Literally I was working round the clock."

These days, Ryan works at Campbell Mithun Esty. Her boyfriend has a job at Pillsbury. The two share an apartment in a downtown Minneapolis highrise and have tapped into the close-knit circle of Irish immigrants that inhabit the Twin Cities. Ryan, an amateur actress, has joined a local theater company and has worked with such locally based Irish troupes as the Titanic Players, Na Fianna, and the Cracked Looking Glass. "I've found that my best friends are immigrants," she says. "Although I didn't plan it that way."

Her enthusiasm for the United States is bereft of cynicism. "America is a land that provides opportunity for a lot of people. If you have the determination, ambition, and the desire to go forward, you can go anywhere," she says. "I know in terms of where I am in advertising, I would never have achieved that where I am right now if I was back in Dublin. Mainly because it's on a much smaller scale.

"Everything here is bigger. Bigger companies, bigger opportunities--the economic situation is so much better that the only place you can go is up. If you're willing to work hard, you can go that way." (Joel Hoekstra)

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