International Opinion

We ask local immigrants to tell us what they really think of Knoxville with essays of their experiences here

Share Your Knox Experiences

If you're an international living in Knoxville, send us your observations about the city, whether positive or negative. You can either e-mail your essays to editor@metropulse.com, or add your thoughts to the comments section of this story.

TIM HARTMANN is a native of Recklinghausen, Germany. He is an alumnus of the University of Tennessee and works as a project manager for Alstom Power Inc. He met his Singaporean wife at UT, got married downtown, and both his sons were born at UT Memorial Hospital.

The customer desk lady at the Target on Ray Mears Boulevard looks at me and asks, seemingly sincere: “Was there something wrong with it?” My mind starts racing. Is this a trick question? Where is she going with this? That was in 1998. I had just arrived in Knoxville and didn’t know any better. You see, in my native Germany, you only and exclusively take things back to the store when they don’t work. Otherwise, it will go something like this:

Me: “I am very sorry, I picked the wrong size T-shirt…”

Service desk attendant: “You should have tried it on. Not our fault.”

Me: “My nephew doesn’t like the color of the bike I bought for his birthday.”

Attendant: “You should have brought him along to pick it out himself. Not our fault.”

If something is indeed broken, there is still no guarantee.

Attendant: “This looks like you broke it yourself. Not our fault.”

Or: “This clearly is a manufacturing error. But we can’t take it back. You threw out the box!”

It takes nerves of steel, determination, and thorough preparation to get something, anything, returned. Nobody wins their first try. Over time, you learn to intelligently argue your case, present all the evidence, deflect all objections, and sometimes you emerge victorious. Service desk attendant: “OK, I see your point. You can go and get yourself a replacement toaster from the shelf.”

Did you think I was going to get my money back? It’s as fundamental and unchangeable as a law of physics. When a German cash register closes with your money in it, the money is gone. Forever.

Back to the Target on Ray Mears: When the lady realizes this poor foreigner is overwhelmed by her simple question, she smiles, speaks extra slowly, and says: “Never mind. It really doesn’t matter. Do you take cash, or do you want your money back on your card?” I’m dumbfounded. Never before have I seen a law of physics get repealed right in front of my eyes. It doesn’t take long though, and I am proficient. They call it “culturally adjusted.” I have the process down. At Home Depot: “Sorry, I didn’t bring the receipt. Can you put the amount on a gift card?” At the GAP: “I need my money back. These jeans are too long. I tried shrinking them in the dryer but it didn’t work.”

LING ZHANG is a Chinese native who arrived in Knoxville in 2004 for his job as a process engineer at Alstom Power Inc.

I originally came from mainland China. I didn’t choose to move to Knoxville, but it was a “package deal” of the job offer I received at the right time. So I moved here from Atlanta, Ga., after finishing my master’s degree. There was no specific expectation at all. It’s my first job so I just tried to adapt to everything as it happened. Now it has been three and a half years since then and it has been great. I love so many things about Knoxville—the climate, the surroundings, the town, and the people.

If I have to single out one aspect that I love the most, I’d say it’s the fact that there are so many waters in this city: rivers, lakes, and so on. Each and every one of them is beautiful. I love places with water. It feels peaceful and alive. It just adds so much life to it, whatever you think this “it” means. You see the beauty in so many parks, in downtown, on Northshore Drive, on the way to the airport, on the way to Oak Ridge, and so many other places.

And of course, the water activities or sports are a lot of fun. But I just thought of one thing that can be better—this is something that’s quite different from China. In China, there are always largely commercially operated rental shops by a river or lake good or allowable for such recreations. While here, probably because people often have their own boats or something, a rental shop is not so easy to find. Or maybe it was just me.

Anyway, Knoxville is a beautiful place, thanks to the waters and everything. I think people just tend to smile more in places like Knoxville; at least I do!

HARI HARIHARAN, from Coimbatore, India, is a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant at the UT Imaging, Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) Lab.

I don’t write articles a whole lot. So I am just going to pretend that I am blessed with the gift of writing and make this as blotchy and discontinuous as possible. I came to Knoxville five years ago to quench my thirst for knowledge... and after that really dramatic statement I’ll just say that, I am... um... still drinking. In other words, I came here to learn how to process images and make them better. I am learning well and I like what I do. I whistle while I work, so I must be doing something right.

Driving into Knoxville, I liked the hills arriving through Asheville. It was all fun until I realized the campus was the same way. Every place I needed to go to was on some hill. Big guys and hilly campuses don’t make good friends. Once I accepted that my sulking would not change the local geography, I huffed and puffed my way around town and made a lot of friends.

I don’t really remember much of the first few semesters here. All I remember is a blur—seriously, one giant orange blur ('til I got married to a hippie). I had a great view of the Neyland Stadium and watched the Vols do their thing, though I can’t honestly say that I understood the nuances of the game entirely. I just learned to cheer or cuss when everyone else did. I learned very easily and quickly that the people here were really laid back and friendly. They stopped and talked to you. I felt welcomed pretty much everywhere. One could safely start any conversation on any topic and exchange fairly liberal views with people, as long as one doesn’t bring up biscuits and gravy in a lighter vein. That whole positive energy and good karma stuff that the hippies keep talking about all the time... There’s a lot of it around here.

Knoxville has its share of interesting and unique people. They complete this fine little town. I think the first person that I grew to appreciate was Ray. To me, he is a symbol of self confidence and the champion of the blind. He runs a sandwich shop and claims to be a robot sometimes. He taps his glass eye with a quarter and claims to be made of plastic. He is very inspiring. No story of mine about Knoxville is complete without mentioning two main characters, Randy and Alice. I drive a car that runs on gas and prayer. I had a problem that no one else could solve and Randy fixed it with much happiness and efficiency. I called him a year later to thank him and we became fast friends. Alice and he became a huge part of our lives and offered to be the American grandparents to our yet-to-be-born kids. They have been there always. It feels nice to know that.

My gross approximation of the boys of Knoxville is based on Derek, Scott and Chris, and that is: friendly, honest, and cheerful. Sometimes surprisingly honest. I spent ample time with the contra-dancing ladies of Laurel theater; Chad, the friendly bouncer (that’s a nice paradox); Natasha, the yogurt expert; Jack, the keeper of wolves; Myk, the biker big brother; Jessie Turnbull, the soft natured giant who was on the UT football team 30 years ago; James, the talkative and talented karate machismo who rides a little yellow girlie bike; Alicia, Alexis, and Alyssa, our little neighbors who greet us with hearty hugs. All good people.

I made many international friends being a UT student and I learned a lot about other cultures and peoples of the world. I think I will just have to write another article on my international friends some day, but I will stop to mention a few. We got a very pleasurable taste of Africa due to many of our African friends here, especially Lydia and Victoria who gave us our braids amidst accompanying giggles. The confidence that Yao Yi of China instilled in me will see me through a lot of rough weather. I came to know my own (Indian) culture much better here. I have made many good and lasting friends. On a slightly heavier note is the tale of Dr. Malik, the professor of arts, painter of strange paintings, and collector of masks and elephant figurines. I met him a few days before his death. He was really weak. My mother and I fixed him one of his last meals. I learned from him that all will be well if we keep dancing. We dance... we are doing fine. As I said, all good people.

The Old City and Market Square have been some of our favorite places to hang out. They have the right music and the right attitude. The Old City offers a portal to many kinds of music through establishments like Barley’s. We have listened to the charmingly naughty voice of Candye Kane, the mind boggling music of Something-Japanese, the rhythm of the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and the insightful songs of Marc Jeffares. The Mirage, Koi, and Grotto offer unique atmospheres with their “international-ness.” I do have to say that there is a general deficiency of international music. International music around here means a lot of Latino songs and few random songs from other cultures. No offense to the spirit of salsa, but big guys like me need the bhangra and reggae once in a while. Speaking of music, and getting slightly off-topic, the best beat that Knoxville rocks to is the deafening grand finale of Boomsday.

The geography of Knoxville allows us to do quite a few things that we like. I love to ride and the Tail of the Dragon was a pleasant surprise. It’s a great stretch of riding—11 miles long and it has 318 curves and 318 cops, one of the greatest paradoxes of nature. There are still many unexplored roads around Knoxville that make it ambient for such activities. As quoted in the biker world commonly, so many curves, so little time. We are amateur kayakers and like the rivers and lakes around us. Tennessee water is fun. I really cannot say enough of the beautiful nature and scenery around here, but I want it known to all and sundry that no man-made light show on earth can even come close to the grand show the fireflies of Elkmont put on for us.

In summary, Knoxville is a fine town where it’s all good. We have loved it here so far and we are sure there won’t be any major disappointments before we move on to greener pastures. And this is all I have to say about Knoxville, Tenn. It's blotchy and discontinuous with a sudden stop. I have kept my word.

CONSTANCE-MARIE HUGO was born in Malawi, raised in South Africa, and now attends UT.

Stepping sleepily off the plane after my long flight from South Africa, I did not even notice the big orange banner Becca made me, nor her equally bright UT shirt. But I did notice her as the sister and friend I finally got to meet—almost running to each other, we hugged, hop-skip-and-jumped to get my suitcase, and headed out to our apartment.

Before long, I felt as if I’ve been part of the Knoxville family forever—roommates, international students, American students and their families, professors and their families… and on it goes. “Southern hospitality” cannot sufficiently describe it!

What else could I expect, having heard of the professors I now work with through their “buddies” in my neighboring countries in Africa? Dr. Neal Eash even agreed to meet me on one of his African trips. Not to mention how Margaret Taylor, a UT secretary, answered my daily e-mails overflowing with questions, even if meant coming to the office halfway through her Christmas shopping!

Margaret also introduced me to Becca (who could just as well have been my American twin!) and who I naturally followed into her friendships, family, student ministry, and church. I continue to be amazed by God’s love and care shown by this simple group of people laying down their lives for each other. They have stirred in me a fresh passion for the gospel by their love for our Savior, Jesus Christ: the One who bore the punishment for all our evil deeds and thoughts on the cross, the One who did all the good deeds we can but strive to do, the One who wants to stand next to us to welcome us home when we one day appear before the throne of a Holy God. We can not do it, but He has done it, and we can gladly believe and accept it!.

My desire to share this good news with the hungry people of Africa has taken an unexpected turn for which I will be forever grateful. So to all the Knoxville folks who have gladly shared their hometown with people from all over the world: Thank you!

CHRIS WALSH came to Knoxville in August 2006 to take a position as lecturer in the English department at UT; he left in June of this year to return to England.

I have the dubious pleasure of recollecting my impressions of Knoxville whilst back home in England. The view from my window at ten to eight on a Monday morning is a rather grim one indeed, as the rain lashes down and the sky is as pallid as Gordon Brown’s complexion. One of my lasting impressions of Knoxville is, therefore, associated with weather; days of piercingly clear blue skies and perpetual sunshine that seemed to last for months and months.

The preface to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree tells us that Knoxville is a city “constructed on no known paradigm.” Though I’m sure many would disagree, and I don’t want to offend anyone here, the lack of such an organizing principle makes for a fantastic place to live. I like things that are paradigm-less, that are somewhat charmingly jumbled, and Knoxville certainly fits the bill in this respect. I’ve pretty much spent three full years in Knoxville out of the last 10, and I’ve felt incredibly at home in a city as unpretentious yet quietly proud as Knoxville is.

I was also struck by just how genuinely friendly and welcoming people were, a fact underlined after returning home to be confronted with universal British surliness. My wife and I found that to be genuinely pleasing, even if recounting our biographies and family histories for the umpteenth time to a clerk in a grocery store did become a little tiresome after a while. I have butchered them horribly, but the odd East Tennessee greeting or phrase has crept into my vocabulary since I’ve been home; indeed, I’ve only been assaulted twice so far after asking “how y’all doing” to a crowded London Underground tube train.

We hope to be back soon, especially to see how the regeneration of downtown continues. The increasing vibrancy of places such as Market Square and the Old City made for top-notch places to eat, drink, and generally relax. The main thing we missed from the U.K. whilst in the States was somewhere to walk to and about in, but downtown was offering something different in this respect. Hopefully, the credit crunch/fuel crisis will have one positive effect in that it will intensify the development of such "local" projects. Apart from sounding like an album title, sunshine and no paradigms ensured that Knoxville made a lasting impression on two people who greatly miss the place.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

dancindolphin writes:

I would like to invite everyone to come and try contra dancing (as Hari did). You will find lots more friendly Knoxville people.

We dance to live music every Monday night, 8-11 pm, at the Laurel Theater (16th St. and Laurel Ave.), $7 ($3 for students).

Beginners are welcome, come early and get a few pointers. No partner or experience required. It's easy and fun!

"If you can walk you can contra dance."
www.knoxvillecontradance.org

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