“How are you?”
It’s the most common of questions, and usually doesn’t elicit much thought before a response.
“I’m fine, thanks,” is the standard, no-thought response, whether true or not. But for the 400 or so international students who come to Door County to work in its kitchens, dining rooms, and shopping aisles each summer, this tiny piece of American culture is one of the first in a deluge of cultural discoveries coming their way.
“Why do you want to know how I am doing?” Sally McEvoy (née Djokanova) wondered when the question first popped up when she came to Ephraim from Bulgaria in 2001. After a few reps she realized it was simply a greeting, like “What’s up?” or “Hey there,” and not a literal question of concern.
Ask one of the Eastern European students who come to the United States to work via the J1 international student program what struck them most upon arrival, and it’s likely they’ll mention such casual friendliness near the top of their list. It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone went out of their way for them. Instead, the international workers are surprised by the everyday niceties of strangers that Midwesterners rarely take note of (unless we’ve just returned from a week on the East Coast).
“People were very nice,” said McEvoy, noting that this was not the case in a previous exchange experience that landed her in Scotland. A smile upon crossing paths on the sidewalk or a simple salutation at the cash register is unexpected, since back home it’s not as common for strangers to smile and say hello.
Often, the best illustrations of the differences between people are found in such simple moments, as Connie Grotenhuis, owner of the Patio Motel and Restaurant outside Sister Bay, explained. She recalled the shock expressed by one of her foreign employees after she completed the most routine of business transactions.
“She told me, ‘I wish the people in my country could be here for just one week.’ She had just taken a check from a customer and it amazed her to think that a check, this piece of paper, could be accepted as payment and people would trust it. It just shows you the simple liberties we take for granted.”
Longer season created dilemma
What brings these young college students like McEvoy from half a world away to the shores of Door County for a summer job? It starts with the gradual growth of the busy season on the peninsula.
Door County’s elders will tell you of a time when Labor Day Weekend was the last hurrah of the vacation season, after which the tourists and summer residents bid farewell for the year. A guy could walk unfettered down the middle of Main Street in Ephraim or Sister Bay and see nary a car, or as one of the old guys might say, “You could fire a shotgun down Highway 42 and not hit anything.” But those days are a thing of the past.
Autumn weekends are big money for Door County businesses today. Two of the busiest weekends of the year are October’s Columbus Day holiday and Fall Fest the following weekend. But with the extending of the season came a new problem for the peninsula’s business owners. The customers were coming, but they had nobody to serve them.
Come September, the high school and college kids who long formed the backbone of the hotels and restaurants of the peninsula head back to school, leaving staffs short and owners scrambling.
In the mid-1990s businesses found an answer far from home. When the Soviet Union splintered earlier in the decade, Eastern European college students found new freedom to travel, study, and work abroad. However, at-home career opportunities were limited as their countries struggled to navigate the waters of a capitalist economy after generations of communism.
Little by little, accents (not Wisconsin-style) became more common at the checkout line on the peninsula. In 1998, the Landmark Resort took a big step when it came time to build a better employee base – in more ways than one. Joanne Stanzel, the Landmark’s human resources manager, said they were struggling to staff the resort after Labor Day, so they started bringing in a contingent of foreign students from Eastern Europe. Those students needed housing, as did their American summer staff, so a dormitory was added to the grounds of the 294-unit resort to enable them to bring in more help, including at least 15 international students on J1 student visas.
But the big resorts weren’t the only places in a pinch. The Patio, a small motel and restaurant, turned to international students in 2000 when Grotenhuis hired a girl from Belarus who was looking for a second job. Grotenhuis said the experience was very positive, and she began bringing them in herself.
To import the workers, Door County businesses work with cultural interchange agencies that take care of most of the paperwork, recruitment, and travel arrangements for the workers. The process normally starts in January, when the business contacts the agency to let them know how many workers they’re looking for.
Students must have solid English skills, and in some cases go through an extensive interview process in their home country. It can cost the student anywhere from about $2,000 to $3,000 to get here, all for the opportunity to step to the bottom rung of the employment ladder in a small Midwestern village for four months.
Once here, the students are obligated to work for the employer who brought them over, but not long after they arrive, they hit the pavement in search of a second and even third job. Some have a friend who gets them in the door (often a dishwasher who knows if they can get someone else to wash the dishes, they can move up the ladder to prep cook). Many simply walk or bike door-to-door until they find an opening.
In May and June, they often leave disappointed, as most businesses aren’t busy enough to add staff yet, but come July, a job-seeker might be put to work a few minutes after walking in the door.
The pay, $8 to $10 per hour, though menial to many Americans, is a windfall compared to what a worker might make back home. At home their degree might net them a job paying $5,000 a year, which they can make in a couple months in Door County. Some go so far as to take a third job cleaning in the early hours or late at night, sometimes squeezing 15 to 18 hours on the clock in a day, six days a week.
What happened to the college kids?
Jewel Peterson-Oradnik started recruiting international students to fill positions at the Wagon Trail Resort about 15 years ago. She’s brought as many as 25 over in a given year, but is expecting to bring in 10 this year.
With the economy in uncharted territory, and millions of Americans jobless, Peterson-Oradnik said she’s working as hard as ever to make hours and jobs available for local workers. This year she’ll start her foreign staff later in the season than usual to give extra hours to other staff in June. But she said there aren’t locals beating down her door for the jobs.
“We try to keep our jobs at home, but it’s hard to find Americans to take the entry-level jobs,” Peterson-Oradnik said. “Nobody wants to start at the bottom.”
Peterson-Oradnik doesn’t see as many American college students applying for jobs any more, and a change in American student culture is a factor, she said. “A lot of American college students don’t stay in dorms anymore,” she said. “They have an apartment with a year long lease, so a lot aren’t going to come home for the summer. They stay and work at school.”
Meanwhile, local high school students have raised their expectations for summer work. “A lot of the high school students don’t want to start out washing dishes either,” she said. “They want to skip the bottom rung and start somewhere in the middle of the ladder.”
Door County employers don’t “sneak” the international help in “off-the-books” as some suspect, and they don’t save a ton on wages either, as Peterson-Oradnik explained. “We don’t bring them because they’re cheaper – they aren’t – we get them because they’re interested and willing to do this job. If I had Americans applying for these jobs I’d hire them, too.”
Hiring international workers, in fact, puts more responsibility on the business owner, Peterson-Oradnik said. “I have to provide more for them – transportation, extra training, housing – and it requires more paperwork from me. It’s not simple.”
There’s also the risk that comes with hiring an over-qualified American looking for a seasonal job to bridge a gap in employment. “If you hire an overqualified American to be a dishwasher or prep cook,” Peterson-Oradnik explained, “they’re going to be gone if they get another, better opportunity. And I can’t blame them.”
Door County’s first foreign student workers hailed almost exclusively from Eastern European countries. Poland, Lithuania and Romania were all well represented. But over time the face of the county’s foreign staff has changed. Today there are many more Asian students, and this year Stanzel said most of the Landmark’s foreign staff will come from China, Turkey and India.
Peterson-Oradnik said the growth and stabilization of the European Union is one reason there are fewer Europeans coming over. Transportation and ease of border crossing has made it easier for students to work in Great Britain and learn English. Grotenhuis agreed, but said there’s another factor at play that few mention.
“It think it’s somewhat political,” she said. “You look at where kids are coming from now – China, Turkey – these are countries that the U.S. wants to establish better relationships with. Turkey is very important in that region. The J1 process is more political than a lot of people realize.”
Finding a different America, and a spouse
Sally McEvoy left the Bulgarian city of Vidin, a densely populated city of nearly 70,000 people, for the United States in 2001. She landed at the High Point Inn in Ephraim, working as a housekeeper, and found herself in a small, rural village – a far cry from her pre-conceived notions of America.
“Ephraim seemed very small,” she remembered. “There were no sidewalks, which I thought was weird. It just had one main road with hotels along the side and nothing else. I like to walk places, and I just thought it was really weird that this was the city. But that’s what’s exciting about it, the challenge of the unknown.”
In 2003, she married Scott McEvoy, an American who was working as a chef at T. Ashwell’s restaurant in Ellison Bay. Her four-month cultural exchange became a lifetime commitment. This summer she’ll visit home for the first time in three years, but surprisingly, she said cultural differences and the idea of being so far away from family didn’t factor into her decision as much as one might suspect. “They say love is blind,” she said. “And at the time I got married I never really thought about being homesick.”
She settled comfortably into Sister Bay life, and then moved to Racine when her husband took a job there in 2005. Once there, came a new realization. The friendliness she experienced here wasn’t so much an American habit, as it was a Door County trait.
“In Racine, it’s much different,” she said. “People are rude. It’s not like Door County.”
McEvoy came here as a student, and continued pursuing her education after marriage, first at UW-Green Bay and then UW-Parkside, where she earned her degree in accounting last year.
Though finding a spouse is rare, many business owners make sure the students find more than a paycheck.
Grotenhuis is one of many Door County employers who view international workers as more than mere placeholders to bridge the gap from summer to the off-season. She gets to know her workers, and tries to share more of American life with them than business. “I feel you do have a responsibility to them, to give them a good experience beyond just putting them to work,” Grotenhuis said.
In The Patio’s cozy dining room, on the wall above a corner table, a world map full of pushpins and photographs hangs. It’s Grotenhuis’ “International Map,” and each pin represents one of the 30 international students she has employed. There are pins in a dozen different countries. The map is a kaleidoscope of cultures that has crossed oceans to serve brat plates and milkshakes at this tiny roadside drive-in outside Sister Bay.
The restaurant is closed on Sundays, when Grotenhuis and her husband host a kind of family day with her staff. “We take them to the beach or the park,” Grotenhuis said. “It’s a chance to get to know them beyond the work environment. I think one of the things they really enjoy is seeing Lake Michigan. Most of them don’t live near a body of water of that magnitude.”
Employers aren’t the only ones in the Door County community reaching out to these hard-working visitors. Ray Mason, for example, began hosting dinners, activities, and educational opportunities through the First Baptist Church in Sister Bay 12 years ago. He retired this year, but his program continues under the leadership of Dave Detert as Bridges: Friendship with International Students in Door County operated as a collaborative effort between Bethel Baptist, First Baptist, Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran, and Door of Life churches, all in Northern Door. “It’s a way to form a bridge between cultures,” Detert explained. “We want to hear about their faith, and share ours.”
Bridges provides social nights, a bike-lending program, Internet access, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for the area’s international workforce. Last year more than 200 students took advantage of the programs.
Ed and Marylin Stone, who taught English in Japan for 18 years, will volunteer as facilitators for the ESL program for Bridges this summer. Ed Stone lived in Germany in his student days and expected to meet people, but instead had a very isolated experience, something he hopes to help Door County’s visiting students avoid.
“We want them to know that we’re here for them,” he said. “They come here and want to learn about our culture.” But the learning goes both ways for those willing to open up, they said. “We’re in a pretty isolated area in Door County, and Americans in general are more narrow than we like to think,” Marylin said. “We don’t learn enough from them. Our way is not the only way. There are billions elsewhere who don’t think like we do, and that’s not wrong.”
The accent may be different, and the colloquialisms may take some getting used to, but McEvoy said the miles, and oceans, between cultures can’t disguise a basic truth. “Deep in their hearts,” she said, “people are the same everywhere. The lifestyle may be different, language may be different, but people are people.”