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Countywide : Cultural Exchange in a Living Room

Pat and Ken sat side by side on a living room sofa in Stanton on Wednesday night and candidly told six other people how their lives changed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

For Kenneth Inouye, it meant his family would be forced to move from Los Angeles to Colorado to avoid being interned in a camp. For Pat Krone, it meant her family would benefit by occupying a ranch that had belonged to a Japanese-American family imprisoned during the war.

The two Orange County residents talked about their different cultural experiences, poignantly but without bitterness, as part of the county’s first “Living Room Dialogue.”

Organizers of the talks are hoping this will be the first of many such forums in which eight to 12 people of different races and cultures come together to discuss their life stories.

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At the meeting in the home of organizer Becky Esparza on Wednesday night, the five men and three women discussed the origin of their surnames, the languages that are most important to them, their favorite recipes and how their parents met. And they talked about both world wars, the Mexican Revolution and the Vietnam War.

“I grew up in Vietnam. All I knew was war. I never knew what peace was,” said Bonnie Lam, a housing specialist with the city of Santa Ana. Coming to the United States in 1975 was like being “born again,” she said.

Others said they felt sad that language barriers had separated them from their own family.

“My grandmother doesn’t speak English,” Inouye said. “To this day, I can’t talk to her. We just smile at each other.”

Al Chavez, a general manager of a manufacturing plant in Fountain Valley, grew up in Norwalk and told the others that as a child he was not allowed to speak Spanish in school. And he said that is why he has a moderate command of the language of his parents and grandparents.

In contrast, Garden Grove Mayor Pro Tem Ho Chung recognized that the inability to speak English left many Koreans open to being misunderstood and hated by their neighbors.

“Koreans have very high self-esteem and are slow to learn English because they are scared of making a mistake,” he said.

“On our side, we have to change . . . but Americans . . . they have to open their hearts and try to listen to us too,” he said.

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The group members grappled with the degree to which people have to assimilate.

Stanton City Councilman Harry Dotson said he wanted more than anything else to understand different cultures, but he is uncomfortable when people use the word diversity.

Holding his hands high and interlacing his fingers in a symbol of unity, he said, “I hope we do this. Where nobody is any different from anybody else.”

Irvine Valley College Prof. Frank Marmolejo said he hoped to foster an alternative notion of unity, where differences are recognized and celebrated and people are not asked to abandon parts of their culture to be accepted.

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The dialogues are sponsored by the Orange County Human Relations Commission and Orange County Together, an organization formed after the Los Angeles riots to promote cultural understanding and tolerance in Orange County.

Four dialogues are scheduled in the next month, and 40 more people have volunteered to host talks in their homes, said Orange County Together executive director Pat Calahan.


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