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Diversified Vermont

07/10/03 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Having just celebrated the Fourth of July, commentator Peter Gilbert has been contemplating just what it means to be an American.

(Gilbert) I went to my friend Julia's fortieth birthday party recently. They rented the town hall and had a square dance and sing-along - a typical Vermont celebration of family and friends, love and belonging. But the evening also reflected a changing Vermont.

Julia is Korean American. Her parents came to this country a half-century ago. My wife is Chinese American, her family having emigrated to Hawaii four generations ago. Julia's husband is Caucasian, like me. Their three kids look a bit like each of them, just as our two girls are what they call in Hawaii "hapa" - meaning "half."

During a toast, Julia's father mentioned that he had to do a little extra to succeed because he is Asian, and that he taught their children that they might have to do the same. He recalled how, 20 years ago, Julia's brother, Joe, couldn't take a girl to the prom because the girl's father thought Joe didn't have the right skin color, and how another of his children had been complimented in college for speaking without an accent. Nevertheless, Julia's father emphasized, "We are all proud of being American."

Robert Frost spoke about ethnic change in Vermont in a 1923 interview. He said people think of him as a quintessential Yankee, but, he pointed out, his mother was a Scottish immigrant. Frost said, "I had an aunt in New England who used to talk long and loud about the foreigners who were taking over this country. Across the way from her house stood a French Catholic church which the new people of the village had put up. Every Sunday my aunt would stand at her window, behind the curtain, and watch the steady stream of men and women pouring into church... She would say, 'My soul!' Just that: 'My soul!'"

"And all the disapproval and indignation and disgust were concentrated in these two words... it did strike me as very funny for her to be calling upon her soul for help when this mass of industrious people were going to church to save theirs."

Frost continued, "New England is constantly going through periods of change. In Vermont... first came the Irish, then the French, and now the Poles.

"There are those of us who raise their hands in horror at this, but what does it matter? All these people are becoming, have become, Americans."

Eighty years after Frost's interview, more people see such demographic developments as par for the course. The face of Vermont continues to change. Barre, where Scottish granite workers erected a statue of Robert Burns and another statue honors the Italian-American workers who came later, is still home to new Americans - from Asia and elsewhere. Like Barre's residents, each person at Julia's party is every bit an American. Their love, generosity of spirit, and American idealism help make this nation great, help us sing the same tune, and help "crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."

This is Peter Gilbert from Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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