came here from Ireland
, originally from Pakistan
. He spoke basically flawless
and was consequently one of the least interesting kids in our entire grade.
I'd transferred into my current science class from the Special Education program the school
had decided to place me in, so I didn't have a lab partner, and we got assigned together.
This was not a big deal. The world is not such a big place as it once was, and thousands of
miles of cultural differences seemed to turn out to be essentially moot. We pretty much got
along great, when he wasn't copying my work. He's still a little lazy.
It actually took until high school for anybody to realize that he was a Muslim, not that
we gave a damn. We were interested that he had to leave classes to pray, something that nobody
had ever managed to pick up on until we asked him if he did. Our World History teacher asked
him to recreate a call-to-prayer for our unit on Eastern religion.
Mehdi was basically an all-American kid, regaling us with tales of nude beaches
in Australia and cheating on tests. Basically the same as the rest of us, but a little more
well-traveled and a little more experienced in the ways of the rest of the earth.
I still sat next to him every day in World History. One day there was a debate on gay
rights, with us liberals slamming the views of the handful of class Republicans. (This is
Massachusetts, not to mention teenagers, so there's only a handful.) Gay marriage was
a big topic, nothing out of the ordinary for a high school debate. Then Mehdi started
"Wait a minute, guys, there's something I don't understand here. I mean, what you're saying
makes sense, but aren't there scientists working on a cure for homosexuality?"
We all stared dumbfounded. Even the conservative hard-liners looked appalled. What did he
say? This was the stuff of bad movies and the Middle East, not our Mehdi. I mean, the kid
hadn't been east of the Baltics since he was eight years old or so. How did he
build these core beliefs?
He backed down later, in the face of massive outcry from everybody in the class. To this day
it's the most vivid memory anyone associates with him; they don't hold it against him, but
it's a huge reminder of how different the rest of the world is from us.
Hell, the other example was just yesterday. Somebody pointed out the strict religious
segregation of the school debate team. In jest, of course -- the teams have two members
each; one happens to be entirely Jewish and the other happens to be entirely Catholic.
"Except for Anna," somebody said, referring to Anna Chan, a third-generation Chinese girl in
My friend chimed in. "Hey, what is Anna, anyway?"
Anna turned around and looked mystified. "I'm a Buddhist."
I practically choked on a roll. "What, really?"
Anna: (confused) "Yeah..."
My friends were equally surprised, and said things like "Wow, that's cool." She's a complete
relic out here in the suburbs. To us Buddhism means crazy fifteenth-century monks and
Richard Gere, not somebody that we hang out with on a daily basis.
This is still a closed culture, when you think about it. Western civilization was built on a
Catholic or Protestant hierarchy, depending on where you lived, and little room for
deviance existed until the latter half of the 20th century. It's amazing what tiny part of these
completely foreign cultures has been absorbed into our own, even after all this time.
It's not really a small world, after all. I guess that's the lesson.