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“As a kid during the WWII in London I was adopted.”: My Conversation With David Zander, Retired Cultural Anthropologist, Member of NorthStar Storytelling Alliance

I met David Zander this past year while I was on the AdopSource Board.  He has one of the more unique adoption stories I’ve heard.  Check it.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: David, is it true that you’re adopted and immigrated to the US?  Am I making all of that up?

David: As a kid during the WWII in London I was adopted.  Found this out when I was about six. Then began a tussle similar to Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” between my mother, May, and the family I had grown up with, Rita. Long story, but for the first few years of my life I was David Smith and then reverted to David Zander. I think all this confusion had a huge influence on me just wanting to go overseas. It was an escape, getting away from all that confusion. One of the things we find on moving to a different country is that you create your own identity and leave a lot of the past behind.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Wow…  You’re retired.  What did you do before your life of leisure?

David: I had a teaching degree from the University of London, a great little campus called Avery Hill College, and a great creative writing program.  I taught school in London and then left to teach in Kenya.  Lived for two years right next to Nairobi Game Park.  Drove in there most evenings at dusk to see cheetah, hippo, giraffes — had a great time.  It was after Kenya had achieved independence, Jomo Kenyatta had become prime minister, and there was peace and hope for the future.  Where I lived was at an altitude of about 6,000 feet above sea level, mild climate.  I traveled around as much as I could.  I went up to an area North of Lake Victoria into villages where our president Obama traces his lineage on his father’s side.  Went on safaris to Tanzania, slept in a Sikh temple in Arusha, befriended a Masai teenager, and began to be drawn to a new interest – anthropology.

Eventually when I came to the US to go into graduate school, I found a program in anthropology and education at the University of Minnesota, under Professor Marion Dobbert, a Quaker, an amazing woman.  Also greatly influenced by other professors – Ogan, Gerlach, Kiste, Hendricks – found myself at home in applied anthropology and ethnographic fieldwork.

I loved anthropology, but unfortunately I do not think the discipline has really lived up to its full potential.  It became too concerned about being a science whereas part of its strength was in being a humanity.  My favorite writer of all time is Colin Turnbull, who wrote the Forest People.

I guess the point of all this is that I learned a lot about different cultures.

The first Hmong refugees were starting to arrive and some of my professors became interested in helping them adjust.  One of my fieldwork projects involved sitting in classes in the Minneapolis schools with the newly arriving SE Asian students.  It was called the Limited English Program.  I wrote an evaluation of that program.  One of the things that stands out for me is realizing that the children had endured a lot of trauma on their own or their parents and grandparents flight to Thailand, yet no one was looking at their emotional needs.  It was all rush rush rush – get them into science and math.

Later I taught for awhile at Inver Hills Community College.  Enjoyed that, but I felt a need to be out there more in the community and try to help refugees using my anthropology skills.  One area of need I saw was helping health systems understand the cultural beliefs of the new arrivals.  Long story, but I made contact with Sherry Pitman at Hennepin County Medical Center who ran a diversity program in the hospital and she alerted me about a new initiative to form a Center for Cross Cultural Health.  This became a non profit – CCCH working to educate health professionals about cultural needs of newcomers.  It was a perfect fit.

I got to know many health professionals in that network, including Patty Bowler, who is with the City of Minneapolis, and Jose Gonzales, now with the Department of Health Office of Multicultural and Minority Health.  Patty suggested I chair an information and resource committee.  Jose chaired another committee.

I had to put a committee together and I invited Lee Pao Xiong to join.  He later told me that there was a job at the Council On Asian Pacific Minnesotans.  They were looking for a field researcher.  I applied and then spent the next fourteen years with the Council doing research, writing recommendations, trying to get bills passed, and in general “bringing the voice of the Asian communities” to the legislators and the governor.

I did not know much about American politics.  The state capitol was its own culture, as complex if not more so than traditional cultures.  It was through working for the Council that I met Ami Nafzger, who was on the board, and Yoon-ju Park of the Korean Services Center.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: You’re very involved with the Asian storytelling community here in Minnesota.  Could you talk about that?

David: I read a quote today in the Adventure of Working Abroad, the very first line actually, where Joyce Sautters Osland says, “Many people who work abroad fall into the role of raconteur – teller of tales.”  Found that interesting as I have been drawn to storytelling.  I wove stories into all my research reports, starting with a report on welfare reform in 1996 and finishing  with a report on unemployment.  I realized watching people testify that it was a balance between stories and hard data.  Paul Wellstone said to me once, “David, give me stories. I want stories not statistics.”  When I found a paper that he had written it was that – stories of the rural poor.

Part of my job was also to plan events in the state capitol rotunda to celebrate May as Asian Heritage Month.  I had storytellers, mimes, poets, as well as formal speakers.  In my spare time I had found my way into an interesting American sub culture – storytellers.  There are storytellers in the Native American and Black American communities, but I noticed that there were few Asian storytellers.

I have spent the last five years coordinating an alliance of Asian Storytellers.  We now have about twelve members — Vietnamese, Lao, Asian Indian, Chinese, Bhutanese, Burmese, Korean, Hmong, Lao, and Cambodian.  We get together to practice and perform at various events throughout the year.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Thanks, David.  I hope readers seek out your storytelling organization.

2 Comments on “As a kid during the WWII in London I was adopted.”: My Conversation With David Zander, Retired Cultural Anthropologist, Member of NorthStar Storytelling Alliance

  1. John Palmkvistt // June 24, 2011 at 10:34 am // Reply

    I am sure that the story of Mr. Zander’s adoption in London is more fascinating than his tales of game parks in Africa. Will you be doing a follow up on the circumstances of his adoption?

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