Barbara G. Howell

Cleveland Tables

West · Downtown · Essay

It’s not like all the other places and programs. The women and men from Niger, China, Brazil or the Netherlands may have had all of their orientation questions answered during the four days in Washington, DC, but their experience in Cleveland puts them in a new position.

Yes, just like in all the other workplace cities, they will visit in their State Department sponsored weeks in the United States. They will walk around the tourist spots and meet together at coffee shops and local pubs near their hotel on Prospect Avenue. They will even go to Progressive Field or Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse for an Indians or Cavaliers game just like they might in their days in Chicago or Las Vegas. From the Huron Road office of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA), the more than 400 foreign professionals from more than 90 countries each year will meet and shadow young local leaders in all levels of government, at hospitals, schools and industries in Cleveland. It’s what they do in cities all over the United States in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). But, for these young men and women who visit, Cleveland is unique and uniquely engaging.

In Cleveland, and usually ONLY in Cleveland, they get a chance to visit my house for dinner. Or the houses and dinner tables of some seventy other “citizen diplomats” who choose to bring peace one person at a time. At these dinners, the IVLP participants will get a chance to interact with each and with us, in Cleveland, in our homes, on our porches, in our kitchens. Whether they have a home visit, a home-cooked meal, served at our dining tables with our kids, friends, grandkids, and pets. If they are lucky, they will get to clear the table and wash the dishes! Whether the “home” to which they are invited is in Shaker Heights, Lakewood, University Circle, or Detroit-Shoreway, it is probably the first (and maybe the only) time in their lives that these young people—who will soon lead their governments, their countries, businesses and their social service agencies—will see what a basement looks like in a US home. And maybe they will get to see the rooms where people sleep and dream.

Cleveland is different. The young people will visit hotels, bars, sports venues, museums, businesses and government offices all over the United States, but only in Cleveland will they get picked up at their hotels, be driven, four or five of them in a group, maybe, at Edgewater Park for a photo op with the Cleveland sign. They can ask how a home here in Cleveland can be over 100 years old when, in their countries, houses are typical destroyed when old, so new, “better” ones can be put up. They can ask questions to just normal people about uncomfortable cultural differences. Sometimes they will want to help cook and pose with babies. They can tell stories about their kids, sisters and boyfriends.

To be sure, many of Cleveland’s “citizen diplomats” have grown their worlds and their “extended” families from these opportunities to host dinners. I can only speak for myself. Two young men from Holland were, at different times, around my table. Since then, both they and their parents have exchanged visits with me and my daughter in the US and in Holland. Bushra, my Pakistani “daughter,” insisted she should be part of the cooking for the meal to be hosted around my dinner table after our group’s visit to Edgewater Park. From her, I learned a great deal about the importance and methods of Halal food preparations as well as the way the government runs in Pakistan where her father was the Minister of Information. Whether the occasion is a tragedy like the 9/11 destruction or a holiday like Eid or Christmas, we send messages of support back and forth. Thank you, technology; she now gets to talk to and see my two-year-old granddaughter, and Bushra takes me out to celebrate with her friends when she gets a new skill certificate or new job. Someday, I hope to travel to the Far East where two dinner guests—from Timor-Leste and Sri Lanka—await an opportunity to repay my dinner hospitality and to show off their friends from a now “famous” place called Cleveland. The staff at CCWA regularly write that the dinner opportunity is often cited as the IVLP’s favorite activity and memory, not just from Cleveland but from the entire four-week rotation through CLE and four other US cities.

What happens across these dinner tables? None of these table conversations stand out as much to me as one that took place even before those Cleveland scripts dotted our lakefront. It was a warm fall afternoon as I drove down the Residence Inn. It would be almost midnight before I would take the four professionals back to their hotel. We clearly and very happily exceeded our 9 p.m. curfew.

Stuffed into my little hybrid were four beautifully dressed but rather silent members of the IVLP delegation from the Indian subcontinent who had been, they politely answered, to three meetings with three sets of representatives from social welfare agencies and bureaus in Cleveland already that day. When it was their turn to ask questions on the short trip west, they asked me, “Why they do this?” The questioner had a tired, uneasy edge to his voice as he explained they been to two other cities earlier in the city rotation and had not gone to anyone’s home for dinner.

“You’re right,” I began. “Cleveland is, maybe, the only one of the State Department host cities which uses citizen diplomats to allow our international visitors to see real people and home life here in the United States. The informal nature of the visit gives everyone—guests and hosts—to know each other in a more natural way. Tonight, you won’t be special visitors being received and honored; you will be just like any of my other friends who would come to my house for dinner.”

Realizing that such casual intimacy was unexpected and a bit unsettling (since most cultures, especially in the government and agency circles in which these three men and one woman ran, were definitely not as informal as to invite prestigious strangers out to dinner let alone to their houses), I sensed I needed to lighten the mood.

“Besides,” I cheerfully chimed, “you get to see my basement!”

That promise seemed to turn things in the right direction; they had never dreamed they would be able to see anything in the US besides the “official” side. I have since learned that taking my prestigious foreign visitors to my basement and through the bedrooms is a game changer. They would have the chance they never imagined: to see a real house and how real people lived.

I needed that lightening up as much as my visitors did that September evening. I was actually worried about the mix. Two of the men were from India, one man from Pakistan and the woman from Afghanistan. Tensions were high in the region, and I hoped that those politics would not spill over my dining room table. Two friends were also joining us for dinner, and I was confident that they could sense any rumblings and help me steer the conversation into safe waters.

It turned out that I had nothing to worry about. When we got to my house, they were so tickled about being at someone’s home and in someone’s neighborhood that the mood turned jovial. The four immediately wanted to have their photo taken together on my front yard, in front of this almost 100-year-old house. Then they wanted me to be in the picture, so the selfie poses started up. We talked about the working-class neighborhood, the age and history of the house, and what a “double” meant. By the time they were choosing seats on my porch, meeting my friends, and munching on carrot sticks and pear slices, they were sharing stories about their homes and neighborhoods, the multi-story apartment buildings and the pollution. Reaching across the table to refresh their appetizer plates and glasses of iced tea, it was obvious that they had discovered they had a lot in common with each other, something they really hadn’t recognized even though they had already been together for two weeks.

They talked about need and plans for redevelopment, for improving the plight and education of females in their societies. My friends and I shared our similar concerns. Jokes began to circulate about one of the four talks too much and tries to ingratiate himself with every official he met. I taught them the term “kissing up,” and worked in a few other slang points. They began using the terms randomly, even if they really didn’t describe the current situation, just because they thought they were “cool.”

The clock was ticking. While I was relieved and invigorated about how well everyone was getting along and how much we were sharing and learning from each other, it was time for dinner. I mentioned that I was going inside to put the final touches on our vegetarian meal and rose to leave them with my friends on the porch and the carrot sticks. It was at that moment that I absolutely lost control. In a very good way.

One man from India assured us he was a great cook and proffered his services to “flavor up” the rice dish. Not to be left out, the Afghani woman insisted she could help, too. I did not NEED any help, but, suddenly, the dinner preparation was out of my hands with the Indian official demanding more spices and the woman literally raiding my refrigerator! My hundred-year-old, eight-by-twelve-foot kitchen was now overflowing with five people from four countries bumping elbows and butts.

The laughing continued as the dinner was finally pronounced—NOT by me—to be ready. There were lots more family stories and lots of familiar grousing about the ineffectiveness of each and every one of our governments. They proposed ideas and built off of each other’s situations and suggestions. There were many more pictures taken of the IVLP participants, of me and my friends, of the house as they walked through the bedrooms and basement. Of the antique doors, of photos of families which were shared from wallets. Business cards were passed around along with exhortations of, “Let me write this guy’s contact information. He’s the one you need to talk to about how we do it in my country. Or how we can work together between our countries since we have the same problems. Proposals for business partnerships and vacations. There was a lot happening over the dinner table in Cleveland that night.

During the dinner courses, there were incoming phone calls. I was becoming very nervous. It was after 9 p.m. and the calls had been from other groups of participants already back at the hotel. I called my upstairs neighbor and suggested, LOUDLY, that he come down to take a picture of the group before I TOOK THEM BACK TO THE HOTEL! Pictures were taken; we moved back into the living room, but the conversation remained animated with plans being made for a dinner the next night away from the group. I continued to follow up such good suggestions with “Great! So I can take you back now and you can make plans in the car.”

Finally, I resorted to threats. I declared, “I am going out to my car now. Anyone who is going back to the hotel, meet me in the car.” No one moved until I actually got into the car and started driving away.

They waved me back, gave my friends and me souvenirs they had brought from their countries, and, the second time I went to get into my car, one man followed me. We waited; the others finally joined us. Conversation on the way back to the Residence Inn was full of fun and appreciation. We five made a plan to get together again before they left Cleveland. Invitations to visit and stay at homes and apartments and meet people who we “needed” to meet were extended. The car didn’t seem so crowded. The sidewalk in front of the hotel was filled with hugs and promises.

That’s how we do it here in Cleveland. Not peace by governments. Peace, one person at a time.

Barbara G. Howell

As a writer and international educator, Barbara G. Howell loves coming home and relishing the wealth of international programs like the ones from Cleveland Council on World Affairs which brings professionals who become friends to homes and neighborhoods all across the city.


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