Not to mention the humidity.
by Lynn Ashby
Tan Tan, Dynasty Plaza, Fu Fu, lots of signs in Chinese that I can’t read. No, this is not downtown Hong Kong or Shanghai. It’s that wild and exotic bastion of mystery, noted for its international intrigue, crossroads of the world and multi-dialects: Bellaire Boulevard. In other neighborhoods you can see signs and hear languages in Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic and even English. Austin may host the University of Texas. Houston hosts the Diversity of Texas, and the world. We have heard so much about our city’s diversity, maybe it’s getting to be old hat—or sombrero, yarmulke, Stetson. We have almost 12,000 Indians and Eskimos. Okay, to be PC, they’re Native-Americans and Alaska Natives, plus 304 Hispanic Hawaiians and Hispanic Pacific Islanders. Eleven of our 32 skyscrapers are fully or partially owned, or financed by foreign investors. We have more Muslims than Jews; at home 5,895 of us speak Tagalog (Filipinos).
Not to get bogged down by statistics, but Houston leads the Southwest with 19 foreign banks from nine nations. In addition, 14 foreign nations maintain trade and commercial offices here. We have 32 active foreign chambers of commerce and trade associations. Almost a quarter (24 percent) of Harris County residents were born not in a different Texas county, not in a different state, but in a different country. In this eight-county region, almost half of the foreign residents are relative newcomers, having entered the U.S. in the 1990s.
They have to live somewhere, so our new arrivals can search the Houston Assn. of Realtors’ properties database (har.com) in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Italian and Vietnamese. The association’s more than 5,600 multilingual members can even tell you that if the house is dry, it’s underwater, a fixer-upper or on a fault line, and tell you that in 99 different languages. Students in the Houston school district speak 124 native languages at home, and at Bellaire High School, a language magnet school, the students can be taught any of 11 languages from Arabic to Hebrew, from Japanese to Mandarin Chinese. The main campus of UH last fall had 3,995 temporary foreign students. Of the total enrollment, 25 percent were white and 31 percent were Hispanic, and although Houston is 6 percent Asian-American, they make up 20 percent of the UH student body. Another good example of Houston’s role in the international scene is the Texas Medical Center. People come from all over the world to die in Houston. And most of them need translators to say, “Yes, I have health insurance.”
One reason for so many foreigners coming to Houston is that refugees like it here, and have for a long time. They arrive from everywhere: Syria, Nigeria, Brooklyn, Buffalo. Some 75,000 refugees have come to Houston in the past 35 years, which makes Houston the number-one city in the nation for these newcomers. Among the States, Texas leads the nation in refugee resettlement. It is home to 2,677 refugees who have been settled in the state since October 2015. Of these, a third were settled in Houston. Indeed, Houston is the U.N. General Assembly South. During a visit here in early June, Kelly T. Clements, of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, called Houston’s open-arms approach, “a testament to the diversity and progressive nature of Houston.”
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, Harris County received refugees from 40 different countries in the fiscal year of 2014. We don’t have any current data, since Texas ended its participation in the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in 2016 due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s fear that the feds couldn’t adequately guarantee that none of the newcomers would pose a security threat. To our surprise, the number of terrorist suicide bombings, lethal truck drivers and nightclub shootings within the Loop has been held to a relative minimum. Gov. Abbott released his statement withdrawing from the refugee program with a financial plea: “Will you support my campaign with a contribution to help fight the attacks on me coming from Washington?” So much for the state motto: friendship. One aspect of all this internationalism that’s especially appealing is the restaurant scene. It used to be the closest we could get to foreign food was the International House of Pancakes. Now in the Houston area there are 10,286 eating and drinking establishments, with 70 national categories. Houston is not so much a melting pot as a cafeteria.
LICENSED TO PARK FREE
What with the Port of Houston, NASA, the Texas Medical Center and the awl bidness, Houston hosts the nation’s third-largest consular corps—behind New York City and Los Angeles—with 94 nations represented. The diplomats deal with their worried fellow citizens, more so now that the Trump Immigration Doctrine is in play. Some nations have full-time, career diplomats, and 43 are represented by noncareer, or honorary, diplomats. This brings us to all those consular license plates we see on cars around town. If the owner of the vehicle is a career diplomat then he or she files the proper papers with the U.S. State Dept., which authorizes the plate. Honorary consuls go through the Texas Dept. of Transportation. In either case, they pay what our diplomats pay in the country the consul represents. It’s called reciprocity. Sporting theses license plates does not give the consuls immunity from traffic tickets, but one benefit is they can park free at the short-term airport parking lots.
Over the years foreign counsels have said that Houston is considered good duty, although the job is mostly commercial work. There had long been a rumor that the British government considered Houston to be a hardship post because the city’s temperatures were similar to those of Bombay (now Mumbai), India, and Accra, Ghana. Actually, the diplomats here did not get hardship pay, but three years in Houston counted as four toward retirement. I broached this matter some time ago with the British consul general who said, “That’s true until I called Whitehall and said, ‘My, God. Haven’t you people ever heard of air conditioning?’” Incidentally, the British consulate here would put up a little sign in late June each year, “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we will be closed on the Fourth of July.”
Finally on this international matter, adopt a consul. You may need the protection. When Houston was the capital of the Republic of Texas, across from where the Rice Lofts now stands was the U.S. Embassy. On Christmas Eve 1837, the town received a bulletin: 1,500 Mexican soldiers had retaken Bexar. Invasion was imminent. Mrs. Mary Austin Holly wrote: “We were at the house of Mr. Labranche (the U.S. minister), a good cabin—he promised us the protection of the flag if necessary.” The invaders never appeared, but you never know when you’ll need to flee to the safety of a foreign consulate, as I was telling Julian Assange.
Closer to home, it’s estimated that 250,000 Katrinians fled to Texas, mostly to the Houston area. Today, 40,000 of them are still here. Meanwhile, immigrants from south of the border have always come—and stayed. But Texas holds a particularly warm spot for youngsters from ravaged lands. They have fled the gangs, the drug lords, extortion, the midnight shootings and kidnappings, to ford the river and arrive in Texas. I wouldn’t want to live in Chicago, either. Youngsters also poured in from Central America, and of the estimated 58,000 who came to the U.S. in recent years, 40 percent arrived in Texas.
COWBOYS AND INDIANS
We like to call this sleepy fishing village on the bayou a “World Class City,” but maybe a “World City with Class” is better. Where else does the mayor’s office rent out flags for another country’s national day, or the birthday of your spouse from Croatia or maybe a visiting Saudi sheik? Daily fee rental is $10 per flag, or you can rent all of them for $500. “Please treat the flags with respect and courtesy,” the mayor warns, otherwise you will be hunted down by the French Foreign Legion, Scotland Yard or Canadian Mounties, depending on which nation you offend. When you drive along Will Clayton Parkway to the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport and Trans-Galactic Star Terminal, can you spot the speed limit signs: “50 mph,” and below that, “80 km.” A nice touch for that visiting sheik anxious to make the last Emirate flight to Dubai.
WHO WAS THAT MOSQUE MAN?
An interesting sideshow of our changing population is our religions. Stephen L. Klineberg, founding director of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, reports in his latest survey: “In all of the 35 consecutive surveys, the percentage of Protestants in the Harris County population has dropped from almost two thirds (63 percent) in 1982 to less than half (46 percent) in the most recent years.” Our Catholic percentage—bolstered by the influx of Hispanics, Filipinos and Vietnamese—has grown from 25 percent in the early 1980s to 31 percent. In recent years, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus have also grown. Despite these many different sounds, smells and religions, we tend to get along. Sometime after World War I Houston Post columnist Hubert Mewhinney wrote, “Houston is a whiskey and trombone town.” Today Houston is more like a full bar and a multiethnic orchestra, all playing the same song. H
Sources: Kinder Houston Area Survey, U.S. Census, Houston Facts and my own ethnic restaurant hopping.
Ashby is 100 percent at email@example.com.