Seeing the world without leaving Pittsburgh
I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh during the 1980s. Going downtown was a special occasion, a rare opportunity to escape the boredom of suburbia and take in the site of the glittering PPG building and browse the lady’s purse section of Horne’s Department store where my grandmother worked part-time.
I had never met a foreigner until we moved to Los Angeles before high school. It was there that I got the bug to travel and to meet people from other countries. Soon after I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2000, I got involved with what was then Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors (PCIV). The name has since been changed to Global Pittsburgh
, but the heart of the non-profit organization hasn’t changed in over 50 years.
The first people I met through the organization were a family from Peru. Some of the women had lived here since they were very young, but their roots were undoubtedly Peruvian. The sisters offered their homes and apartments for parties and gatherings, always welcoming anyone no matter their background. At one party, a member from India motivated everyone to participate in a Bangra
circle in the living room. Someone turned off the salsa music while Sartaj raised his right hand up in the air and lowered his left arm to his side. He began to move his arms in different directions. Everyone followed, although a little awkwardly. The music started and the sound of the tabla
drum filled the small room. A large circle began to form. A pair of lanky German guys moved their bodies in an out of the circle, laughing and waving their arms around. A stocky Columbian man clapped his hands together and moved to the drums. I mimicked Sartaj’s movements and watched as this group of international students and workers from Columbia, Germany, Peru, Mexico and Turkey danced to Bangra
I saw many parts of Pittsburgh and experienced so many culturally diverse events because of PCIV, now Global Pittsburgh, that I never would have sought out on my own. My friends and I used to joke that many native Pittsburghers don’t know much beyond their own neighborhood or suburb. We can be so insular because of the terrain here.
From 2000 when I moved back here after college to when I left again in 2006, I met people from China, Peru, Germany, Russia, Romania, the Middle East and a host of other countries. Some of the international members hosted dinners at their houses and put on movie nights. People would bring food from their home countries and we’d sit around the table, sharing stories and eating our way through a handful of cultural cuisines. I didn’t have to leave the city to feel like a world traveler. It certainly was cheaper than backpacking through Europe, especially on my graduate student budget.
Recently, I looked through a photo album from that period. There was me and a group of international visitors walking llamas near McConnells Mill State Park. One bright eyed Chinese girl and I posed for the cameras at a downtown nightclub at Global Beats night. Another photo shows me with a group of German grad exchange students. Their tall blondness certainly supported the German stereotype, but becoming friends with them also dispelled some of the most stubborn stereotypes I had. That’s one of the most important aspects of getting to know internationals here. It’s simply impossible to hold on to ignorant cultural stereotypes once you really get to know people from other countries as individuals.
Many of these members have moved back to their countries or found jobs in other U.S. cities, but quite a few remained in Pittsburgh. One of the first German friends I met through Global Pittsburgh worked at the Bayer Corporation. After his contract expired, he moved back to Germany to finish his degree, but returned to Pittsburgh a year or two later because he felt at home here. He met his current wife at a Global Pittsburgh event.
When I left Pittsburgh again in 2006 to move to Scotland for grad school, I hoped that I would find a similar organization in Edinburgh. I was wrong. Although Scottish culture and American culture aren’t so different, I still felt like an outsider. Every time I ordered a tomato sandwich, I became keenly aware of my foreignness—my American accent. I visited the international student center on campus and signed up for a weekend trip to a castle that had been turned into a youth hostel. I had high hopes for this trip because I remembered how I felt on Global Pittsburgh trips to maple syrup farms, petting zoos, and even backyard bar-b-ques. That feeling was one of inclusiveness and fun. Everyone shared stories of their travels, their favorite movies, their favorite American junk food. People posed for pictures, draping an arm around someone they had just met, all smiles. Although I’m an American and a native Pittsburgher, I began to see this city through new eyes.
My trip to the youth hostel in Scotland was not like these events. Everyone formed a clique from the beginning of the semester. There was no sense of inclusiveness. When I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2010 after living four years overseas, I immediately joined Global Pittsburgh. I paid my $40 dollars for the year and signed up for a networking event. The first Thursday of every month is a free networking event that takes place at local restaurants around the city. This is an invaluable source of contacts for international students looking to find work in Pittsburgh after graduation or for Americans to mingle with people from diverse cultures. One of my favorite perks of membership is getting to see performances at the O’Reilly Theater. Members are offered tickets, first-come-first-served, for almost all of the season’s performances.
The membership fee is very low for what the organization offers its members, not only to internationals, but also to Americans living in the city. It’s a way to explore Pittsburgh with new eyes, and to meet people from all over the world who have chosen this city to study or work, sometimes staying to buy homes and raise families.