I’m just a-passing through...”
It’s an old hymn, and one that I love--every last line of it. But until I had lived in another country, one that will never see me as belonging, did I ever see that hymn as literal. I have a home where I belong and everyone knows it, but it is not a home in that way to my husband. My husband has a home like that too, but it will never be a home that way to me. And, unfortunately, as the last 18 months have shown me, neither will ever be that kind of home for my children. It is this last that leaves me weeping.
Prejudice and racism are such subtle things. True, there are occasions where they parade naked like the emperor bereft of his clothes (because truly the arguments behind such things are no more than vanity), but most of the time, it is not obvious. It often masquerades as “just following the rules” or “not doing more than expected.” Racism and prejudice are very subtle, so subtle that when you point your finger it seems an illusion, but...
A couple of weeks ago we went to the school after lunch to hopefully meet some friends for the boys. There is very little to do in this town, and until summer vacation starts, there isn’t even a hagwon for the kids to go to. In bigger towns, the hagwons start around 1:00 because elementary school for 1st, 2nd, and sometimes 3rd graders ends at 12:30 most days of the week. But there aren’t enough little ones here to support the business, so if we want to meet some kids the boys’ ages we need to go to the school around 1:00. We’ve done this a couple of times now and run into kids, but we haven’t met them often enough to befriend them.
So today we went, and an older gentleman actually stopped me and told me to leave because the kids are studying. This is true, bu-ut...
- Again, half of the school releases at 12:30, and there are usually kids on the playground at 1:00 on any given day of the week (barring torrential rain and/or blistering heat).
- We were careful to stay far from the building.
- We were careful to speak softly.
- There are other businesses (like the new local lending library for ADULTS) which operate on the school grounds (literally inside the school fence) DURING SCHOOL HOURS (according to the sign, they are open from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM).
- Hagwons from neighboring towns often pick up kids at the school ground during those hours and so, while they are waiting for the hagwon kids, those kids are often out playing at exactly that time.
So...why should he ask us to leave when what we are doing is perfectly normal, usually done by many of the people in the town, and when we were especially careful not to bother anyone?
Is it racism?
It’s hard for me to see how it is not. Yes, what he said was true, but it was also not true. Half the school had been released and those kids are usually playing. Would he have said it to someone else? A kid, maybe. A parent? Probably not.
I was super mad, probably not super nice, and made sure I did not make the kids leave right away because they had done nothing wrong, and I didn’t want them to feel that they had.
So we went back home, had an ice cream, and walked to the mountain. I was debating whether or not to turn around and go home since the last time I had gone to the mountain, a guy kept demanding to know what I was doing in this little town and how I knew about the mountain. For the most part, I can brush this off when it’s only me, but it’s a lot harder to watch my kids take it.
But I decided to keep going out of respect for my husband.
You see, the first I really became aware of the subtlety of racism was after I married my husband. I saw he and his friends discriminated against. There were times I could do something. There were lots of times I couldn’t. And it was then that I became aware of how “following the rules” and “not going out of my way” were excuses to treat those who were different as less than those who were not. And my husband has never chucked it and gone home, although I am sure he has felt like it more times that I can count.
For example, my father has been using the same mechanic shop for about five years now, ever since the one he used since 1974 went out of business. When my father and I go, the people couldn't be nicer. Do you need to use the phone? Do you need a lift home? Etc. When my husband went, they told him he needed to sit in the smelly, grimy (it is a repair shop after all) waiting room for the four hours it would take for the car to be finished.
Again, is it racism? Not necessarily, but when you normally go out of your way for people who look like you but don't do it for people who look different, isn't that a type of prejudice?
I don't think we see it. I don't think we know it when we do it. It is subtle, like the morning fog or a heat haze over the highway. It is nebulous like the early stages of a headache.
But its nefariousness cripples like a migraine.
Thank goodness, though, not everyone falls into it. The rest of our afternoon was terrific. We ran into people who had known the boys since they were babies, and they made over how much they had grown. The boys rejoiced in seeing things that they remembered again and climbing walls they had climbed before.
Yes, it is easy to mistrust and to be less than fair, less than kind. And it is even easier to do so when you don't understand the other person, when they act in surprising ways, or when you simply don't know them.
But for every one who acts unkindly, perhaps there are even more who try to act with kindness. For all who reject us and cast us out, there are gentlemen like this one below, who cradled my little son and carried him across a busy street.
For every negative word, I am told we need seven positive words to recover, and so we are fortunate that it is beautiful and healing to decide to love. And in this little town, we are so blessed that so many choose to love.