A few decades ago the most unusual accent you may have heard in Indianapolis was the slow drawl of a visiting Texan or the broad tones of a Bostonian. Today the outlook of Indianapolis is infinitely varied.
Professor Ulla Connor is director of the Indiana Center for Intercultural Communication.
According to the 2000 census, there are 187,000 foreign-born residents living in Indiana. That number includes 43,000 from Europe, 77,000 from Latin America and more than 7,000 from Africa. Even more remarkable is the fact that over half arrived in the last decade. Foreign accents are now relatively commonplace in Indianapolis and over 7 percent of Marion County residents speak a foreign language at home. Even your author sports the twang of his native Australia. But why are so many internationals coming to Indianapolis? To fill the void left by the much-publicized “brain drain” may be one answer. Less than 20 percent of Hoosiers have college degrees and many who graduate from Indiana colleges leave the state to pursue jobs elsewhere. In the last decade, nearly 100,000 graduates of Indiana colleges have left the state to seek work out of state. Although the Lilly Endowment recently offered $40 million to Indiana universities to stop the brain drain, one could conclude that it’s well-educated internationals that are happy to work here whereas many Hoosiers are not. What do internationals think of Indianapolis? What is it like to settle here? Why are they important to the city? And what do they bring to enhance the feel of Indianapolis? Director of the Indiana Center for Intercultural Communication (ICIC) professor Ulla Connor has some of the answers. “They bring much needed diversity,” she says. “When I came here 20 years ago it was very different. We didn’t have many international students in schools, we didn’t have any international families — big businesses like Lilly have become so international. Their own people work internationally and they bring internationals here.” A native of Finland, Connor says economic reasons are the main reason behind the new multicultural Indianapolis. “Four years ago we had very low unemployment in Indianapolis and our immigrant population grew substantially,” she says. “Maybe people from Indiana are becoming more cosmopolitan and they travel more and are interested in diversity, but it [immigration] was also a necessity. Not only for diversity is it important for the state, but also for economic reasons. “We were so busy at ICIC offering English instruction for Hispanic workers in car manufacturing because companies could not get enough workers. It was important to promote and keep these hard-working Hispanics.” When Indianapolis was chosen to host its first Formula One Grand Prix in 2000, the city was understandably concerned about how to cope with the glut of international visitors the race brings. “There was a lack of confidence on how to deal with internationals,” Connor says. “When we had the Formula One race here for the first time, locals felt they needed to learn how to handle these people from overseas. “So ICIC was asked to give workshops for hospitality workers in Indianapolis and teach intercultural communication. We trained 750 hospitality workers in Indianapolis, hotel workers and taxi drivers some basic concepts on how you deal with people from overseas — how to understand them, how to be polite, how you don’t get mad if you don’t get a tip because these people are not used to tipping. Just your basic rules of intercultural communication.” By hosting events like the Grand Prix, the World Police and Fire Games and the World Basketball Championships, Indianapolis has styled itself as a hotspot for international visitors. Combined with the effect of internationals already living and working here, the influence of visiting internationals has become vital in creating a city that exudes multiculturalism.
The life of an international newcomer
Although there are thousands of professional internationals working in Indiana, foreign students are also plentiful. Last year there were some 873 at IUPUI, 3,325 at IU and a total of 12,871 statewide. According to the Institute of Education’s “Open Doors 2002” report, there were nearly 600,000 foreigners studying in the USA in 2001-’02. Their contribution to the national economy was a staggering $11.95 billion and they made up 4.3 percent of total university enrolments. The most well-represented countries are China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Foreign students’ contributions to the state economy are also significant — some $271 million going towards tuition, housing, the general cost of living and contributions made by the families of students. One foreign student who now calls Indianapolis home is Xiaoan Li. Last summer Xiaoan left his job, his girlfriend, his family and his native China to live and study in Indianapolis. “Going abroad to the USA was my dream,” Xiaoan, 27, says. “It is also the dream of a lot of Chinese students. Now I am living it.” Growing up in the southern Chinese province of Hunan was an insular experience for an academic whose goal was to become fluent in English. Before he moved to Beijing, Xiaoan had never seen a foreigner or practiced his English with a native speaker. Yet for four years Xiaoan taught the language at a college. With his dreams still on the other side of the Pacific, he accepted a fellowship at IUPUI to study for a master’s degree specializing in teaching English as a second language. Understandably, he was a little nervous upon his arrival. “This was the first time I was in a foreign country,” he says. “I was afraid that people couldn’t understand my English. I hoped to make some progress here because it’s the perfect environment for a non-native speaker to learn.” A year in from his arrival, Xiaoan has made himself comfortable in Indianapolis. He is the president of the 400-strong Chinese Students and Scholars Association at IUPUI, he volunteered to work as a translator for the Chinese National Basketball team during the 2002 World Championships and he plays on an amateur Chinese basketball team every weekend. “My first impression about Indy is that it looks like the countryside of Beijing,” he says. “I was told Indianapolis was the 12th biggest city in America, but compared with Beijing, which is one of the largest cities in the world, it looks like the countryside. There are only a couple of tall buildings downtown. Beijing has three or four thousand.” Although disappointed about the size of the city, Xiaoan says the Indianapolis air and water are much cleaner than in Beijing. “We are facing a serious environment in Beijing,” he laments. “In Beijing there are too many people and too much traffic, which is not the case here. Everything about America is done in a very efficient way. They [Americans] are very friendly to me. They are even better than what I expected.” Xiaoan calls his parents once a week and his girlfriend “almost every day.” “I miss my family very much, that’s for sure,” he says. “I really wanted to go back this summer but I cancelled my ticket because of SARS.”
One of the thousands of international professionals working in Indianapolis is Peter Jorgensen. The 34-year-old Dane grew up in Africa, spent several years in Asia and now enjoys living in the American Midwest. Jorgensen moved to Indianapolis two years ago through a company transfer. Despite having a passport full of stamps and being able to work all over the world, Jorgensen is content to call Indianapolis home, at least for the next few years anyway. “I definitely enjoy Indianapolis during the summertime,” he says. “Some of the things I like are the lack of traffic jams, everything seems to be within a 20 minute drive, you have got the metropolis of Chicago relatively close and you get good value for money for housing. “There is a pretty diverse international group here, and it’s easy to meet new people. I also like how you can always get separate checks at restaurants.” Not being much of a winter person, Jorgensen is glad his job allows him to travel abroad during the colder months. “Indianapolis has weather very similar to Denmark,” he says. “So you have to live for the summers.”
Back home in Indiana
Unlike numerous internationals who come to work or study in the U.S., both Xiaoan Li and Peter Jorgensen have made a conscious effort to assimilate into American culture. Having grown up in Kenya where English is prevalent, Jorgensen has had an easier time adjusting than Xiaoan. “Most of the Chinese in Indianapolis share a room with other Chinese and speak Chinese more than 90 percent of the time, which is bad,” Xiaoan says. “I don’t like American food that much. I am very reserved about food. I eat a lot of Chinese food that I cook for myself.” When Xiaoan completes his master’s in two years time, he plans to buy a car and travel across the USA. What was once a Hollywood-inspired fantasy is now within Xiaoan’s grasp. “Indianapolis is the only place I have been in the United States,” he says. “I want to see the whole country in a car and drive from East to West. Because I watch a lot of movies there are a lot of different sceneries. It must be amazing. I’m planning to do that soon, but not until after I graduate.” Although he misses his homeland and his loved ones, Xiaoan intends to further his studies in the USA after leaving IUPUI. “I want to do a Ph.D. in higher education administration at Yale, Minnesota or Columbia,” he says. But in the meantime, like nearly 200,000 other internationals, he is happy to call Indiana home. For more details about programs offered by the ICIC call 274-2555 or visit their Web site at www.iupui.edu/~icic/.
Guidance for internationals Settling in to a new country is never easy. Learning local languages, culture and social etiquette is a difficult and time-consuming process. Every year thousands of internationals make Indianapolis their new home, many of whom know little about our town and what it has to offer. To assist with the transition to American life, the International Center of Indianapolis is updating their publication designed to welcome and orient foreign newcomers, The International Guide to Greater Indianapolis: Passport to our World Class Region. Written by Christine Dowdeswell and Janet Fischer, the guide includes chapters on transportation, banking and finance, housing, insurance, law and education to name but a few. International Center Executive Director Caterina Cregor Blitzer says funding was recently donated for a 2003 edition that will greatly improve on the last version. “It was very important for us to take it one big step further than in 2001 and create the forum to develop a concise version in Spanish,” she says. “Our vision now and our goal with the 2003 edition is that it becomes a combination — a mirror image of the text in Spanish, as well as seeking to dispel the myth that Indianapolis doesn’t have much of an ethnic flavor and culture, that there is a lot more than meets the eye.” Cregor Blitzer says the guide assumes readers have little or no prior knowledge of the USA. “It also envisages an audience which would include individuals who are coming here to stay for good,” she says. “We have made quite a creative approach to presenting our cultural diversity in this new edition of the guide. “We feel a sense of commitment to connect new internationals with resources sooner rather than later.” The 2003 edition is the fourth incarnation of the guide. The first was published in the late 1980s, and the second in 1998. A basic Spanish version was released in 2001. In that time more than 10,000 copies have been distributed to hospitals, multinational firms, universities and service providers. Although some of the topics and answers may seem simple to native Hoosiers, they are undoubtedly useful for international newcomers. The explanation of road rules like “right on red,” seat belt laws and subjects as simple as reminding internationals to drive on the right-hand side of the road are just a few examples. There is also a step-by-step guide on how to obtain an Indiana drivers license. Important matters that U.S. citizens take for granted, like obtaining a social security number, bank account or credit history, are also explained in detail. Internationals from non-Western nations may welcome the chapter on American social customs and etiquette — tips such as allowing several feet of personal space during conversations and going outside to smoke. Even clarifying what to wear to social gatherings is addressed. For example: “Casual: jeans or shorts, shirts, sweatshirts, sneakers. Black-tie: very formal, including tuxedos for men and long fancy dresses for women.” A list of public holidays, a comprehensive guide to the state’s ethnic festivals, international organizations and fairs celebrating American culture are also included. The 2003 edition of The International Guide to Greater Indianapolis will be released in September and will be available from the Circle Centre Mall and the airport, as well as many businesses that helped finance the publication. The guide costs $7.95. For more information call the International Center of Indianapolis, 955-5150, or visit their Web site at www.icenterindy.org. —MW