Opinion / Blog

That 'first foreigner' feeling

By teamkrejados ( Updated: 2015-08-10 16:50

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! 

I asked 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. Integration 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 barrettes and the brightest teeth I'd ever seen: Valerie. She stood on the sidewalk and I occupied our scrubby patch of front lawn. We eyed each other warily, like two 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 later 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 housing neighborhood in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I saw a man across the street, 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.

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