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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

Reflections of an Immigrant

People are often surprised to find out that I am immigrant. Because I am white and do not have an accent, they assume that I was born in America, but I was actually born in the Netherlands. Even though I was quite young when my family emigrated, I was raised by Dutch parents in the style of their culture and customs, which I greatly appreciate now as an adult, but which created some discomfort and tension for me as a child trying to acclimate and assimilate to the often cruel and unforgiving peer group I found myself in. I never quite felt like I fit in, but since I looked the part I could often pass “as a native,” so to speak. I was further challenged when well-meaning but misguided legislation to create more equitable school district funding in the 1980’s in California led to my being bussed more than 45 minutes across several towns to a mostly black and Hispanic high school (passing two other, much nearer and more well-resourced high schools along the way) in an attempt to “integrate” the school districts (hey, if the adults of different races can’t figure out how to get along, let’s make their kids do it).

I remember being bewildered and mostly terrified at the hostility with which I and my mostly white counterparts were received. It was clear from the outset that the current students at this high school were not ready to welcome the influx of this small group of more affluent, light skinned students who lived in neighborhoods quite different from their own. I did not realize that I did not have to DO anything wrong in order to upset these students, they were already offended simply by my presence. I quickly learned which bathrooms and hallways to avoid, not to make eye contact, not to bring/wear/show anything with certain brand names, not to look/sound/act too proud, too accomplished, too articulate, too confident, too “fine,” (a term to this day I have not completely figured out the meaning of). I did not understand being hated for my skin color; did not realize that for these darker skinned students, these realities were all they had experienced their whole lives. My saving grace was that I could run, fast, (and I had to do that a lot to keep myself safe those first few months) so I was recruited for the track team, where I made friends with and gained the protection of many black and Hispanic fellow athletes. I had a small, very small, taste of what it means to be judged by appearances instead of character, an experience blacks and other minorities have every single day of their lives.

My father remembered something very similar in his prisoner of war camp in Germany during World War II. An astonishing number of different nationalities were represented in these camps, including Albanians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks, Italians and Chinese (some sources cite that upwards of 70 different countries were represented in these camps). With guilt and remorse he recounted to me how prisoners with lighter skin color were treated better by the German guards: given better food rations and less objectionable jobs, and how much shame he felt accepting these privileges in an attempt to survive while watching darker skinned prisoners suffer and die at a higher rate. He remembers his relief when his camp was liberated (for those of you who have hung in there with me throughout the pandemic emails: the Canadian Army arrived before the Russians did, much to my father’s joy!) and the International Red Cross pledged to repatriate all of these displaced citizens to their countries of origin without regard to their ethnicity, skin color or race. He tells of the camaraderie and connection the fellow prisoners felt in having survived this ordeal and their commitment to see each other arrive home safely. The task of returning thousands of refugees from all over Europe back to their homes began. The men were put on trains that were so over-loaded they had to get off and walk up any hills, as well as repairing tracks along the way that were damaged by bombs so the train could continue its journey. My father traveled slowly back to his home town of Amstelveen, not knowing if his family members had survived or if his house was still standing. But when he finally arrived in his neighborhood in the middle of the night that summer of 1945, his house still stood intact on his street, and being a teenage boy, he threw stones against the screen on his parent’s bedroom window screen until his mother opened the window to see her son standing below. His mother, sister and aunt had all survived the war, huddling under newspapers for warmth and eating whatever they could scavenge, including tulip bulbs. His father returned two days later, so his family was reunited once again.

Our brains are designed primarily to protect us from danger and keep us alive. Sometimes we see danger in those who are different from us without realizing that we have so much more in common than not. We are all designed with the same organs, blood vessels, cellular functioning, and neurobiology before being draped with skin coverings of richly different shades, adding diverse hair textures and eye lid shapes prior to being birthed on this wonderfully diverse planet.

As Stephen Covey notes, “Listen with the intent to understand, not to reply.”Let us commit to truly listening to one another, without judgment and without fear.Underneath the beautiful and varied shades that each individual human comes in beats a heart that similarly wants to be seen, safe, accepted and loved

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