Saturday, November 30, 2013

Coming to America

Early this morning, after taking my in-laws to the Atlanta airport for their return trip to Boston, I was headed back north on I-85 when I decided to exit at Buford Highway in order to take a more direct route to my regular Saturday morning coffee stop in Norcross.  I have lived in Atlanta for over 30 years, and I've driven up and down Buford Highway many times, but I have to say that this trip left something of an impression on me.

For those of you who are not familiar with Atlanta, the important thing to know about Buford Highway is that it is the epicenter of what is locally called (and referred to on Interstate signs as) "International Village" due to its plethora of Hispanic, Latino and Asian restaurants, markets and services.  New places seem to spring up almost daily along this seven plus mile stretch of road, and many of these offer food which can't be found for hundreds of miles in any other direction.  It's fascinating, and I'm thinking that it's also one of the first stops for many newly arrived Atlantans.

As I exited at about 6:45 AM, it struck me that Buford Highway was effectively deserted, which offered me the opportunity to look around without having to worry about the normal heavy traffic.  In the early morning light, with so few people out and about, it was as if I had never driven this road before.  The first thing I noticed were marquees advertising English and math lessons.  That made sense, I thought, since there is undoubtedly a market for these services, and what better place to locate such signs than on this "first impression" road?  From time to time, I would see a person waiting at a bus stop or walking alone, and given the time and location, I assumed that most of these people were headed to work.  The signs along the road revealed the diverse nature of the community -- places like Little Saigon, Aloha Plaza, Pho 24 Noodle House, Taco Veloz, Tan Tan Bridal, and Los Compadres were packed in shoulder to shoulder.  

I began to think that even though Buford Highway may not be the most scenic stretch of road in the Southeast, it certainly gives us a window to the world, and driving along it in this unfamiliar early morning light made me think of what it might be like to be newly arrived in America.  We take so much for granted.  It's been years since many of us have had to start our lives over in an environment totally foreign to us -- moving from Little Rock is not the same experience as moving from Phnom Penh, leaving the family half a world away.

When I first moved to Atlanta, it was rare to see such a concentration of multiple ethnicities as exhibited along Buford Highway, and I for one am happy that our city can offer such opportunity to people from around the world.  I realize that as Americans, we are all over the board on immigration policy, but I'd like to think that when Manuel or Chia-Ling makes that first drive up Buford Highway, he or she feels a little more at home and maybe begins to think that dreams long sought after might come true.