Much is said about what we expats are exposed to at the hands of our Chinese neighbors: the stares, the inane questions – I was once asked if I brush my teeth! The touching and all of the other questions that, I swear: if I hear them one more time, my head will explode! What about when we foreigners saw a foreigner for the first time?
I launch that question at my students: what was their first experience with a foreigner? And I tease them with the promise of my own 'first foreigner' experience, after they disclose theirs. Invariably I'm met with puzzled stares: I AM a foreigner. How can I meet a foreigner???
Now, I'm dating myself...
My family moved to America in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. From then on, Americans were not allowed to discriminate based on race, gender or religious preference. Until then existed a painful segregation: Whites lived here and Blacks lived there. Whites ate here and Blacks ate there. White children went to these schools and Blacks to those schools. Intergration did not happen overnight, but in the military environment – on the bases and housing areas, it happened much faster than elsewhere in America.
I was a little thing then, only about 2 years old when we moved to the states. I was not aware of anything regarding race or much of anything else. One of my earliest memories is of a girl with ebony skin, kinky hair bound in pink barettes and the brightest teeth I'd ever seen: Valerie. She stood on the sidewalk and I was on our scrubby patch of front lawn. We eyed each other warily, like 2 dogs who don't yet know they are not enemies. I remember her name to this day, because she was my first 'foreigner'. I must have been about 3 years old, as corroborated by my parents.
Valerie had a different way of talking. She skipped rope and played differently than I did. She kept having to pull up her panties, startling white against her black skin. Her clothes seemed poorly made and she didn't wear any shoes when I first met her. Nevertheless, we became friends. She let me touch her wild hair and I let her touch my silky tresses.
As military families are wont to do, we moved on, sometime when I was about 5 years old. I am sure that, by that time, I was used to 'Black'. I simply thought Black people were only black on the parts we could see: hands, arms, maybe legs and certainly face. For some reason I was convinced that the parts we couldn't see had to be white, like my parts that nobody saw.
Imagine my surprise when, after a few days living in a run-down neighborhood in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a young man across the street was washing his car. He was Black, and had his shirt off. That's when I found out that 'they' were Black through and through!
Go ahead, laugh. I do, when I recall my dismay.
The school year started: my first year of school! Even though the Civil Rights Act was nearly 3 years in effect, our class was still somewhat segregated: boys here and girls there. Black boys in the back left of the room and Black girls to the right, behind the White girls. Inevitably, there was tension at recess. Kids are kids and there was a lot of playground name-calling and fighting. During one such brawl, I was pushed backward off the bench I was sitting on. I landed on my left elbow and shattered bones from my clavicle to my fingers.
There are a few distinct images of that awful, painful time: someone from the school (a woman) driving me home. I sat in the front seat, cradling my shattered left arm. My mother, rushing to the curb and yanking the door open, gently prying my fingers loose so she could see the damage. From there, somehow we ended up at a hospital, with me sitting on a consult table, still holding my arm. A large Black man with glasses, a bass voice and frizzy hair just beginning to gray approached me. His white coat was as startling against his dark skin. I wouldn't let him touch me. Was it because he was Black or because my arm hurt so much I didn't want anyone to touch it? Maybe a bit of both.
Dr. Sylvester – yes, I remember his name, too, talked with my mother. I'm fairly certain she agreed to have me sedated for treatment because the next thing I remember was lying in my bed at home, with a cast running from my left fingertips to my right shoulder. That must have been a terrible time for my poor, young psyche because I only have fragments of memory left over.
The next year, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and America broke out in riots, my mother moved us back to France. There, my world went 'full White'; African immigrants had yet to start the flood that would soon overwhelm the French economy. Georges Pompidou was Prime Minister, later president. We lived with my mother's aunt until a subsidized apartment became available and, once again I lived with nuclear family: mother, sisters and brothers. Father was left behind in the divorce.
No, I wasn't politically aware when I was 6 years old. I got that from research.
I believe it was my early exposure to another race and having Valerie for a friend that tore down the barriers of prejudice for me. At a young age I learned that people are people, no matter what their skin color or language might be. But it didn't stop the fascination the Black culture held for me: their dances, their foods, their clothing style and mannerisms and religion and speech. I had a chance to fully explore those aspects of Black culture in my teens, when my mother remarried (another American soldier) and we moved to Berlin, Germany.
Again in the military environment, where segregation was minimal, 'Black' was all around. Anyone interested could partake of Soul Night – 'Black' music played at the local disco, Soul Food served at the cafeteria, and anyone could buy wildly colorful clothing that Blacks seemed to prefer. The base's shopping center, called the PX stocked products for African American hair care. I remember gazing at them in awe, and later seeing such products put to use when I babysat Barbara Yulee's daughters.
I'd like to paint myself as having always been open to other cultures, races and ethnicities but the truth is that, for many years, in spite of my acquaintance with the Black culture (and later, other cultures) I still sniggered at racists joke and even made a few myself. I'm now ashamed of how I helped perpetuate negative stereotypes.
I'm making up for it, though. I made it a point of telling my students about my experiences, emphasizing that people are people no matter what color or creed. Just as my charges have beliefs and feelings and needs and wants, so do people of other ethnicities. Hopefully I can help broaden their world so that they don't believe negative information about foreigners who are now pouring into their, till recently exclusively Chinese world.