I wasn’t raised in America, this meant a lot of things for my upbringing.
I didn’t eat the same foods growing up.
I didn’t listen to the same music.
I didn’t interact with the same type of people.
I didn’t live in the same environments.
I didn’t speak the same language.
I wasn’t taught the same history.
The very fact of moving away from home means that you will compare everything to what you know. When I moved for university, everything was different. The stores were bigger, people were bigger too. Groups were more homogenous, people that didn’t look like me treated me different. One of the things I was told when coming here was to be careful what I said, people here don’t speak to each other the same way.
I didn’t know what that meant, so when I first got here I didn’t change anything, in my language I’m very provocative, I laugh too loud, I make inappropriate jokes and I ask anything and everything. People didn’t like that here, I remember meeting someone for the first time and he told me he was Jewish. The first thing I asked him was what he though of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He never spoke to me again.
One of the biggest transitions though, was how Americans behaved around each other. I felt like for X number of races there were X2 number of behaviours for each different race interacting with each other. Latinos treated me funny, Asians treated me funny and Black people treated me funny. Then there were all these subsections, like older white men interact with me differently than a young white girl… I was confused. I didn’t understand these layers behind conversations and why they existed it seemed like they were scrambling conversations and just making it harder for people to communicate.
This is why I decided to always make it clear I was an international student, and it worked. It seemed like those barriers fell down the minute I announced it. If I said something that they deemed “scandalous” they would chuckle and slightly nod their heads as though they couldn’t agree too loudly. I took advantage of this to ask questions I knew I couldn’t otherwise, I’d ask my American friends of colour why they did certain things they did, and why they sometimes spoke differently to people of other ethnicities, I’d ask what they thought of the things on the news… My friends always answered my questions but after a while they’d get annoyed, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore”.
I’d always known there was something called the Civil War but I never really understood what that meant, I was never taught in school and it never came up in daily settings. I found out what a confederate flag was a year ago on a road trip to Virginia Beach.
Going to the African American Museum changed things for me.
Walking from panel to panel, room to room, I recognised words and stories but it’s like everything was put together in a coherent flow, things started making sense. I kept reading and listening, seeing France written all over the first few rooms explaining they were to blame for the death and enslavement of millions of people.
I always felt like because I wasn’t brought up with this culture, I wasn’t part of the problem and therefore these issues didn’t concern me. If I acted right and treated everyone with an equal amount of respect that was that. But no. That’s not that. My country is one of the roots of the problem, the human suffering, the atrocities, the injustices. It’s my very duty to better understand.
As I moved through the museum I started getting increasingly emotional. The tour guide stopped in front of the segregated train. He kneeled down to be eye level with two young African American children and he says “You’re not old enough to know, but back in the day black folks couldn’t sit with everyone else. You’d go somewhere and they’d tell you to go sit up there with the others. Can you imagine that!” The young kids looked at him wide-eyed. A tall black man in front of me, he couldn’t have been older than fifty. He looks up at the tour guide, his voice a raspy mumbles and he says “Yeah. I remember that.”
I started crying, this wasn’t just pictures on walls or some random writings, these were peoples lives, the people I was standing right next to, these were their stories. And everything made sense. I just kept asking myself why. Why? Why? Why.
I felt guilty, I felt guilty for everything. I felt guilty for feeling guilty, I felt guilty for crying, I felt guilty for being so blind all this time, taking so long to understand.
Now, a few days later, I’m not sure what to make of my new found knowledge. I think it might just be about knowing, but the museum made me realise just how little I know about others. It brought on a whole new meaning to “you never know what people are going though”.
After battling and sorting through with my thoughts I go back into the world with a new sense of love. Everyone deserves to be cared for, appreciated and loved. I am grateful for all I have and all I know.