The concept of other is one that I have known all of my life. Growing up in a neighbourhood that was predominantly occupied by recent immigrants, we were all non-Canadians, ethnic minorities, different, not white enough. We were a majority of minorities, a community of others, grouped together by chance and sharing in our first taste of Canadian multiculturalism. East Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Iranian, Polish and Japanese immigrants all lived together and shared the neighbourhood. It was an intricate system of tolerance and respect, a fine balance maintained by everyone’s desires and needs for acceptance as we were all displaced from our respective motherlands. Only one thing stood in the way of my development as an individual with no prejudices, no tendencies towards racial discrimination: my parents.
The adjustment to multiculturalism for Mom and Dad was far more difficult than it was for me, as I am sure was the case with moms and dads throughout the community. From their perspective, coming from a nation that is completely white and Roman Catholic, everyone was classified as the other. For me, the kids at school with various shades of skin colour and different eye shapes than mine, were just kids. They were like me, only with different physical attributes, and I was like them, only with different skin. My parents, on the other hand, adhered to the stereotypes that they had grown up with although we were surrounded by living proof that these archaic ideas were based on misconceptions, fear of the unknown and a scarcity of insight and experience. I was taught to be a racist, to differentiate and to discriminate. What they said and what I experienced at school did not correspond, but they were after all my parents, infallible and god like. Their statements of European superiority and racial slander didn’t set off any warning signals until it was too late.
Sheldon was a black boy in my grade two class at Forest Manor Elementary, who daily tried to win my affection. He wrote me notes, he offered me gifts of dandelions and precious rocks from the playground, he sacrificed his recess snack in an attempt to win my love; in short, everything that a seven year old suitor could do to win over his Juliet. I was unmoved and in fact I was terrified. There were stories circulating in my family, that I heard while eavesdropping late at night, about a cousin in distant Poland who had been seduced by a black student from a nearby university. She was pregnant and had been abandoned. My father had only horrible and disturbing things to say about African Canadians. They were evil, savage, uncivilized, monkeys in human skin. They were a strain on the economy (but, Dad aren’t we also?).
One day in class I voiced these appropriated opinions to a group of my class mates. They were appalled and instantly chastised me. They stood up for my Romeo told me that I was wrong, that blacks were not bad people, that I had a lot to learn. In my school it was an insult to be thought of as prejudiced and the rumour that I was racially biased quickly spread. How the conversation went, what words I said, how I expressed my feeble conjectures, I can not recall, but I will never forget the look of grief and sorrow that I read in Sheldon’s expression. I instantly realized my error, my parent’s error, the world’s error in the creation and propagation of racial prejudices. I attempted to make Sheldon into the other, to isolate him from myself and my playmates, only to come to face the reality of how destructive, unfair and cruel such an action is. I spent the lunch hour crying. My parents had been exposed as the bad people. Worse still, I had been the cause of another’s anguish, but this brought me to the realization that I had the power to formulate my own opinions, that I had to protect myself from the hatred of the intellectual segregation of humanity and that this responsibility lay solely on me.
In my mind, I sometimes juxtapose this memory with one in which I metamorphasize into the other. I am in a new school, in an more affluent neighbourhood, away from the cluster of concrete buildings that I call home. The class is watching a movie about a family in East Germany who is involved in a clandestine operation of collecting materials to build a hot air balloon in which they eventually escape to democracy across the border. I feel a pride welling in my chest, and I privately compare the recent plight of my family, to the one dramatized on the screen. I don’t hear the laughter of my fellow students nor am I prepared for the assault that follows. At lunch, I am repeatedly asked if my family flew to Canada in a makeshift balloon over the thundering and explosive laughter of my classmates. They use this as an opportunity to voice other hostilities towards my heritage, my past, my culture and anyone of similar nationality.
The insults aren’t particularly clever or hurtful, but the underlying message is one that lacerates my sense of self. At that moment my fear and pain are that same as Sheldon’s. I am misunderstood, ostracized and, worst of all, categorized. I am being judged by something that is outside of me, outside the realm of my control. My experience, and consequently who I am, is not valued by my peers, it is negated. The single most important event in my life, an essential component of my self, is devalued. My grade seven teacher tries to console me, but it is too late. I understand that an event in my past differentiates me and I am embarrassed.
These two experiences have made me hyper-sensitive on the battle field of cultural discourse. It seems a territory laden with land mines, one upon which I can only tread with the greatest delicacy, like one walking on egg shells. I worry and fear that I might once again find myself in a position of abuse or in a state of being misconstructed. I do not want to be guilty of vilifying any experience and I realize that we can all be potentially grouped into the category of other. Whether it is in community circles, literary, social, political, or national or global ones, narrow minded perspectives enable the stronger party to dominate the weaker.
For fear of having made my parents sound despicable, I will add that in the 20 years since we immigrated to Canada, their opinions have greatly altered. One of our closest and longest family friends is an Indian woman from the old neighbourhood and I never hear the kind of comments I grew up with. Wisdom comes from experience.