Chapel Hill has become a small United Nations, an international community.
On two streets in our area we have families from India, Mexico, China, Korea, Russia, England, Poland and Turkey. We hear many different languages on our playground. The school-aged children are all bilingual; they call to their peers in English but speak Chinese, Hindi or Spanish with their elders.
These children are growing up in a world of many colors, many languages and diverse cultures. They switch from one language to another as easily as they change their shoes. They accept their differences as a part of the rich tapestry of life in a university town. These diverse cultures make our lives richer, fuller and more interesting.
It is like a Moroccan mosaic, full of vibrant colors and different shapes that, when fitted together, make a complete picture. The more variety and color, the more alive and complex the mosaic becomes. When so many colors and shapes catch the morning sun, they seem even more brilliant and diverse.
Hanh, who works in a beauty salon in Chapel Hill, came from Vietnam 13 years ago. She knew no English when she arrived.
"It was three years before I really became fluent in English," Hanh said. "I hated written-out math problems because I had to figure out the English before I could do the work. By eighth grade, my English was good enough to manage them.
"I still hate that kind of math problem," she laughed as she washed a client's hair. "I speak Vietnamese with my friends, but I can't read or write it very well."
Hanh turned on the dryer and began to roll her client's hair. "I was in third grade when we left Vietnam and came to the States," she said. "Now I am an American citizen, and I've finished school and have a job. I married two years ago to another Vietnamese, and I consider myself an American."
Hanh speaks English with an American accent and is proud of her citizenship.
"We have a lot of space here," she said. "In Vietnam, sometimes three generations live in one small apartment."
Avi is a teenager from New Delhi, India. She came to America shortly after finishing kindergarten. In New Delhi, Avi attended an English-speaking school, as did her older brother. They both speak English with an American accent.
When she arrived in North Carolina she thought people "spoke a different, breathy-sounding, slow language that just barely resembled English. I soon realized that this was in fact English, and that was the way it was supposed to sound, without an Indian accent. I worked on my speech, and after a few months I sounded as American as all of my classmates and my newfound friends."
Avi's native language is Hindi, which she speaks at home, although she has to study with her grandmother to read and write it well enough to be fairly fluent when she visits India.
Around the corner from Avi's house live some children from the Philippines and from Burma. They all speak English together, with an American accent.
On the other side of Avi's house lives a family from Mexico. At home, little Janet, who is almost 2, speaks in her native tongue. She understands English, as does her older brother, because they watch the children's programs on television. When Janet enters school, she will become fluent in English. Then she and Maria, who lives across the street, will converse together in English.
Then there is Africa. Joseph, who comes from Kenya, works at a branch bank in Chapel Hill.
Although he and his wife are Kenyan, the children don't speak Swahili at home. Joseph has three little girls. The eldest is eight and in school and is fluent in English. She was born in Kenya, and although she understands Swahili she does not speak it.
The two younger children stay with English-speaking caregivers when Joseph's wife is at work. They are not fluent in Swahili.
"I hope to take them to Africa every two years so they will become more familiar with Kenyan culture," Joseph said. "Swahili and English are both Kenya's official languages."
The world is changing. The older generation stumbles in the new international culture. The children will guide us. They will lead the way to a better understanding of the people and diverse cultures of the world.
The children go out of their front doors and step into a world beautifully fitted with colorful pieces. The patterns are old, but the pieces are new and fit together differently. The children feel at home in Chapel Hill's new mosaic of sound.
Ariana Mangum, a former special needs teacher, volunteers at Glenwood Elementary School and teaches Irish literature at Shared Learning.
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