“For two years, every Saturday evening, our Italian neighbors were our guests; entire families came. These evenings were very popular…the house became known as a place where Italians were welcome...Friday evening is devoted to Germans and is similar in purpose…There is a strong family affection between them and their English-speaking children, but their pleasures are not in common and they seldom go out together. Perhaps the greatest value of the Settlement to them is in simply placing large and pleasant rooms with musical facilities at their disposal…I have seen sons and daughters stand in complete surprise as their mother’s knitting-needles softly beat time to the song she was singing, or her worn face turned rosy under the hand-clapping as she made an old-fashioned courtesy at the end of a German poem. It was easy to fancy a growing touch of respect in her children’s manner to her, and a rising enthusiasm for German literature and reminiscence on the part of all the family, an effort to bring together the old life and the new, a respect for the older cultivation, and not quite so much assurance that the new was the best.”
-Jane Addams, “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement”
On November 16th, Benton House hosted what we called a “Wonton Social.” The premise was simple. A wonton is a Chinese dumpling, and depending on the region, the dough is folded in a variety of ornate ways. For a few weeks we handed out open invitations at our food pantry, inviting people to come make wontons with us – to share their special way of preparing this dish, but also to come together for a casual dinner and get to know us.
There was a moment during the small gathering, consisting of maybe eight people, where I was reminded of the passage I quoted above. We had laid out the ingredients on the dining room table, and everyone was proudly showing me and each other their unique wonton folding techniques. A couple had brought their two granddaughters with them, and I watched as their grandmother instructed them. “Have you made wontons before?” I asked, expecting that they had. The girls said no. They were learning for the first time.
Working at the Benton House, I am constantly thinking about our history and the history of the settlement house movement. This is the first time I had initiated this type of event. I have been reading the work of Jane Addams (of the Hull House) and trying to understand how I might be true to what inspires me about the settlement house movement. I was astounded by how immediately and exactly the scenario she described in 1892 was echoed before my eyes.
The influx of Chinese population and their challenges in America is a very real thing. The U.S. Census 2010 reported that the Chinese population in Illinois has experienced an increase of 35.4% growth between 2000 and 2010, a much higher rate than that of White, Black or Hispanic populations. The PINE Study of 2012 was conducted to identify the health and well-being of over 3,000 Chinese elderly adults in Illinois. According the PINE Report, 86% of participants lived below the poverty line, with an annual personal income of less than $10,000. It was also found that 89% only had close friends who were Chinese. Only 8% reported visiting with family and friends every day, and 26% reported only visiting close family and friends once a year.
If it weren’t for my experience working at the food pantry this past year, I’m not sure these statistics would mean as much to me as they do. Before I read the PINE Report, I would have guessed already that the aging Chinese population is expanding in number and need. Living at the Benton House means I see the same people over and over at the food pantry, but it also means I see them in the grocery store, at the laundromat, and on the bus. Over time, I have developed relationships with many of our Chinese speaking clients, and running into them usually leads to excited chatter, waves and hugs. Yet I know so little about them. When I see them, I’m usually directing them. “Keep a straight line,” “Slow down,” or “You can go in now.” I am denied the opportunity to hear their stories or even ask how their day was. Although we laugh together, clasp hands, and greet each other, watching them as they wait for their number to be called does not seem like a setting worthy of the genuine affections I’ve developed.
It’s said around the house often that we have “An economy of space.” It’s our goal to make use of that space as best we can. The Benton House, in the settlement house tradition, is dedicated to responding to the evolving needs of its community. It also has a history of focusing on providing services to isolated groups of immigrants. The needs of the aging Chinese in our community are not only economical but also personal. I, too, feel urged by my own need to develop friendships with my neighbors.
The simplicity of having a meal with friends belies its impact. After we cooked our wontons, we all sat down to eat and drink tea. In the next room a group of students were shooting a scene for a short film, and the older Chinese ladies of course barreled over with plates of food to offer them. Later, we shooed our guests away from the dirty dishes in the kitchen, and everyone bundled up and gave cheerful goodbyes, full and smiling. As I watched them go, I was already thinking of what plans I needed to make for next time.