It doesn’t take long for a traveler to realize that she’s not in Maine anymore.

A rest area on the Connecticut Turnpike is far enough.

It’s a multicultural world out there, and that realization always jolts me. I’m not surprised; I grew up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and have traveled plenty. But after a long white winter in Maine, it’s startling to walk into a large service area to see that everyone behind a fast-food counter is a person of color, and, when interactions begin, to learn that nobody seems to speak English very well. If at all.

Which, I have to admit, is a bit scary when said person is cooking your lunch.

Three of my grandparents were immigrants, and my maternal grandfather spoke very little English. He was able to rise to the position of foreman in a cotton mill because the language barrier was not a major issue in dealing with the spinning and weaving machines, plus the people he supervised spoke his native language of Portuguese.

This is my way of saying that while I truly support immigrants, I also truly believe they need to learn to speak English. Newcomers may have been able to get by with their native language in a manufacturing economy, but today “service” and “information” are the buzzwords, and both of those fields require the ability to communicate.

In Washington, D.C., I needed an answer to a question about my dinner bill. This was in a casual restaurant in a food court. The three Spanish speakers out front had no idea what I was talking about. One then brought out a tiny, elderly Asian man who studied my bill and conferred with the Hispanic fellow (I’m not sure in what language). The end result was a response of “no,” and some pointing at the bill to show where I was wrong.

Remarkably, I understood what they were getting at, and they were right. But the absurdity of the situation was not lost on me.

When we moved on to Maryland, I had another interesting moment. I was seated in a hotel dining area with my large traveling group which, being from Maine, was almost entirely Caucasian. Yet every single server save one was African-American.

I felt like I’d traveled 50 years back in time. Literally. My grandparents moved to Maryland in 1965, and we visited them almost immediately. Even as a child, I knew there was something wrong, in terms of limited job opportunities, when every time we went to a restaurant we were waited on by African-Americans. Why wasn’t that the case when we shopped in a nice department store?

Maine is the least diversified state in the union (95% white, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation). Since Vermont and New Hampshire are numbers three and four, respectively, a Mainer has to get out of northern New England to understand what the rest of America is experiencing. The country as a whole is only 62 percent white. From our perch here, it may sometimes be hard to comprehend what is going on in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore.

Diversity brings its own problems, but it is the reality of our nation. It always has been, in one way or another. I grew up in a town that was virtually all white. But I was surrounded by the first- and second-generation children of European immigrants. My father told me how, as a boy in the 1930s, he would fight “the French kids” (though he was half French-Canadian himself). I knew how people could discriminate against those they thought were different, even if the “others” were fast becoming the majority.

But I also knew that my dad’s Uncle Manuel, an immigrant from Brazil, was a star player on a Massachusetts soccer team called “The Raffertys.”

I feel diversity enriches my life, whenever I am privileged to experience it. Some of my helpers in the school library have taught me much about their culture. How would I ever know what a banh mi sandwich was if I hadn’t spent time exchanging foodie stories with a Vietnamese-American student? Our student helpers from Iraq have explained Muslim holidays and customs to me, and showed me how they fasten their hijabs.

But because we are so overwhelmingly white and Christian in Maine, minorities who come here adapt, while retaining their culture and religion. That is really what makes Maine so different from most of the rest of the country. Out there, the differences among people remain vast, and grave and deep.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]


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