Storm Lake is one of the most culturally diverse cities in Iowa – according to the old 2000 census data, 2,186 of the area’s 10,150 residents (21.5%) are foreign-born, with 64% arriving by way of Latin America and 30% hailing from Asia. I’m guessing the results from 2010 – when they are available in more detail – will show this trend has increased, and that a lot of Iowa’s marginal 4.1% population growth will be attributed to people born outside the US. There are interesting historical and contemporary threads that contribute to Storm Lake’s present, among them the post-Vietnam War relocation of the Tai Dam people to Iowa – which I hope to research and write about at greater length sometime in the next few months – and employment opportunities offered by the local Tyson plant. Though many challenges are associated with the changing demographics and economics of the area (and the globe, for that matter), I find a lot heartening in the idea that even as many natives of the region eventually leave (and I expect I will, eventually), people still want to come from afar to build lives in the rural Midwest.
In the case of my own family and one great-great-great (give or take a few ‘greats’) grandfather on my dad’s mom’s side, the impetus to seek a new life came under circumstances into which I will attempt to spin civic-minded motives: after a carousing night of contributions to the local economy and cultural scene at an area drinking establishment, Grandpa felt it was the social sector’s responsibility to help him back home safely. When the postal wagon he flagged disagreed, Grandpa pulled a knife, panicked, and hopped the next ship for America. There, he reunited with Great Great Great Grandma – who Great Great Great Great Grandpa & Grandma had sent to the New World in part to keep away from Gramps – and the rest is family history. My grandma, currently age 90, grew up in Eastern Iowa attending German-language church services and speaking German at home, a resilient cultural trait which ended after it was crippled by one world war and finally killed by a second. Or so the family narrative goes, more or less.
The image of the Midwestern small town has largely descended, like most of its residents, from north and central European roots. While I’m grateful for many parts of the small town as I experienced it growing up, as Richard Longworth also wrote about in his 2008 book Caught in the Middle, the Iowa we grew up with isn’t built to last our lifetimes.
This is, of course, not all that related to why I wrote the copy for an ad for to be placed in a Korean-language publication. Though I have occasionally received versions of news stories and press releases I’ve written that have been translated for the two Spanish-language newspapers in town, writing specifically for translation is new to me, as is the BV-Korean study abroad initiative the ad supports. The language is a little rougher (allowing for production considerations) and more explicit than for an ad that would stay in English. Nonetheless, whether it encourages students to come and stay for a semester, year, four, or longer, I’m glad there are individuals, cultures, culture, and food that make trips from far away to take up the charge of continuing to develop the next phase of the small town.