Sunday, December 8, 2002

Cultures come together on holiday driving tour

Immigrants get warm welcome

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Steve Uible (right) of the Cincinnati Area Returned Volunteers shows Feng-feng Zhou of Clifton a Christmas ornament - Santa Claus dressed as Uncle Sam - at the Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park on Saturday.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
Christmas is a word that does not translate very well into Chinese.

At least not for Feng-feng Zhou, a civil engineering student at the University of Cincinnati who arrived in the United States six years ago. He came to Cincinnati with his wife, Ying Shao, and their 12-year-old son four months ago. In his native China, even simple religious devotion, much less religious celebration, was forbidden. .

"Holidays were not something we gave much thought to,'' Mr. Zhou said Saturday morning as he and his wife drove through Cincinnati's Eden Park as part of an annual holiday tour hosted by former Peace Corps volunteers for recent immigrants.

"My mother, she was a soldier in the Red Army,'' said Mr. Zhou to his tour guide, Steve Uible of Bethel, who served in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s in the tiny South Pacific island kingdom of Tongo.

"She always said every day can be a holiday,'' Mr. Zhou said in clear but halting English, "if you live with good humor.''

Mr. Uible smiled as he guided his SUV through the Eden Park traffic circle.

"Your mother,'' he said, "was a very wise woman.''

It was one of many such moments of cultures coming together Saturday as 20 volunteer drivers from the Cincinnati Area Returned Volunteers (CARV) organization drove 50 recent immigrants around the city in small groups to give them a look at how the holidays are celebrated in America and make them more familiar with the place they now call home.

They walked through Eden Park's Krohn Conservatory and its outdoor live manger display and visited the shops of Covington's MainStrasse Village to see the Christmas decorations before heading to Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church for a holiday lunch.

Pam Dixon, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia who organized Saturday's tour, said CARV has been doing this each holiday season since 1996. This year, the recent immigrants were from such far-flung places as Mauritania, Afghanistan, Senegal, Peru, India and the Sudan.

Most of the immigrants, she said, are students learning English at Cincinnati's International Family Center.

"All of us have experience helping others overseas,'' said Ms. Dixon of Price Hill. "Now, we help others who have come to our country.''

Mr. Uible, who has been a volunteer tour guide for several years, has made some lasting friendships from the holiday tours.

Saturday, he said that anyone who has served in the Peace Corps understands what it is like to land suddenly in a far-away country with unfamiliar customs and culture.

"It can be frightening, unsettling,'' he said. "We want these people to know there are people here who welcome them and want to learn from them.''

Saturday morning, after visiting the conservatory, where Mr. Uible and his new Chinese friends laughed over his insistence that they learn the word "poinsettia,'' they drove across the river to Covington, where they parked in MainStrasse Village and walked snow-packed sidewalks to the tiny Magic Shop owned by Artie Kidwell. He volunteers each year to entertain the immigrants with some counter-top acts of legerdemain.

"Step right up; don't be shy,'' said Mr. Kidwell as Mr. Zhou and Ms. Shao leaned in to watch a bit of sleight-of-hand where he made metal disks seemingly change color before their very eyes and coins disappear into thin air.

Ms. Shao, who speaks little English, laughed loudly and tried to reach over the counter and up Mr. Kidwell's jacket sleeve in search of a magician's secret.

The couple's 12-year-old son didn't want to come on the tour, Mr. Zhou said. He preferred staying at their Clifton home playing video games.

"He will be sorry he missed this,'' Mr. Zhou said, laughing.

As the Chinese couple looked around the store, Mr. Kidwell said he looks forward to the annual holiday visit by the CARV groups.

"They are a wonderful audience,'' Mr. Kidwell said. "Magic is the one performance art where language is no barrier. You can be amazed in any language.''

After leaving the shop, Mr. Uible and his friends walked down the street to the Chez Nora restaurant, where they stopped for coffee and green tea.

Mr. Uible had spent $8 in the Magic Shop for "Sylvester the Spirit Hankie,'' a colorful silk handkerchief that, with some practice, can be spread on a table and made to levitate.

He opened the package and Ms. Shao eagerly spread it across the table. In a few minutes, she had learned the secret and was showing off her new trick to the server.

As the laughter died down, Mr. Zhou sipped his coffee and talked of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Communist China, of how his impressions of America were formed, and how they changed when he finally came here to make a new life.

"We were taught that America had a few very rich people and everyone suffered,'' he said. "We were told there were no good people here.

"But, of course,'' he said, smiling at his wife, "we know that not to be true.''


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