Opinion / Blog

That 'first foreigner' feeling

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

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 gold-rimmed glasses, a bass voice and frizzy hair just beginning to gray approached me. His white coat was startling against his dark skin, his name stitched in red over the breast pocket. 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 riots broke out in America, 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 just nuclear family: mother, sister and brothers. Father was left behind in the divorce.

No, I wasn't politically aware when I was 6 years old. I got Mr. Pompidou's information 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 the 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 racist jokes 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 make 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, until recently, exclusively Chinese world.  

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