I am white.
I am of European descent, with names such as Wojciechowski, Dubiel and Bateman coming before me.
Polish, French, Swedish and Native American descendants feed my bloodlines as I was born into the Olson clan, the sons of old.
While I didn’t grow up with a banjo on my knee, with my heritage, you’d think I’d fit right into this Ozarks community.
As we examine cultural diversity in Springfield with a three-part series starting this week, I want to share my experiences 10 years ago moving into Springfield’s culture.
Upon graduating from Olivet Nazarene University in 2000, I relocated to Springfield chasing not my dream job but my dream girl, who I met in college. I already had spent a semester in Springfield completing an internship at KY3 under Ned Reynolds.
Still, the sudden change of surroundings in the full-time move was what I called culture shock in reverse. I quickly termed Springfield “White Bread, USA.”
I did fit in, for the most part. I was like everybody else. And that was the problem. Something deep inside me longed for less of the same. I wanted diversity.
Culture is more than family heritage; it is a fabric of your surroundings and it begins forming at a very early age.
Family history sure plays a role. For me, north-side Chicago immigrants are where it starts. It peaks with intrigue at my gangster relative Earl “Hymie Weiss” Wojciechowski, who rivaled south-sider Al Capone on the mid-1920s bootlegging streets of Chicago. Weiss was gunned down on North State Street in 1926, reportedly by Capone’s men.
And then there’s my union pipe-fitter dad, who votes Democrat, mostly for job preservation, I think. My Chicago Public School experiences, albeit short-lived before shifting to private school, opened my eyes to various people groups.
But now, in Springfield, the things that were familiar to me growing up were suddenly hard to find.
I missed following a professional sports team, taking a public train downtown or bus ride to high school, playing street basketball with my black boyhood friends Damien and Jeffrey and hearing foreign languages uttered in public places.
A way I’ve quenched my thirst for culture is by personal relationships. Through work at a local church, I’ve met hundreds of Chinese students studying at Missouri State University through the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. I serve as liaison for these students and local families who opt to host a student while they’re thousands of miles from their homes and families.
I’ve been fortunate to build relationships with my Chinese friend, Daobing, and Indian friend, Piyush, both of whom I’ve helped to earn their American driver’s licenses. They’ve taught me about their family traditions, and we’ve celebrated the annual Chinese fall Moon Festival and shared authentic Indian meals together.
The international student population at MSU is growing, but that’s just one way to tap into the diversity around us.
Sure, Springfield doesn’t offer the wide diversity of Chicago, but it’s here and it’s growing. We’ve just got to look for it.Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at email@example.com.