Immigrants are some of the bravest people I can think of in this world. And if you have never been one, there is just almost no way to explain how incredibly terrifying and difficult it is to step into a new place where you not only don’t know the rules, but you don’t even know that there are rules you don’t know. I have been an immigrant in another country, and that was tough for sure. But I was somewhat prepared for it as an adult. It doesn’t hold a candle in difficulty to the first time I ever immigrated within my own country.
The first time I stepped foot into the cafeteria at Doudna Elementary, I had no idea where I was supposed to sit. No one had told me where to sit, or how seats were assigned in the cafeteria. At every school I’d ever been in, seating was assigned. At the previous elementary school I attended, it was not only assigned, but done by class in alphabetical order. For four years I had always sat next to the kids whose names were nearest mine in the alphabet. Four years is practically an eternity for a 9 year old.
So with great anxiety, I looked for the kids who my cubby was next to in my new 4th grade class: Daniel H. and Beau H. And I was in luck! They were sitting together! They must do alphabetical too. Not wanting to stand there looking stupid any longer I hurried over to sit with them.
They looked at me like I was some kind of cockroach. Something was definitely wrong. My calculations were definitely off. But not knowing what else to do I ate my lunch as fast as I could and left. I walked out onto the playground where all my new classmates were playing. None of the games looked familiar. No one invited me. I really had no idea where to start and I had already tripped up pretty badly in guessing, so I just sat alone.
Later on I would find notes that my 4th grade teacher made about me and wrote to my mother. “Does not play with the other children. Does not get along with classmates. Spends too much time alone.” Not once had my teacher EVER asked me what was going on or why I wasn’t playing with my peers. What I DO remember was being told soundly that trying to talk to my teachers at recess was inappropriate and I needed to stop. (I had tried to start there because I was generally comfortable in the world of adults. Or at least had been before that.)
A couple days in, I realized something that seemed totally overwhelming about the cafeteria debacle. Kids sat wherever they wanted to. That had just not been the culture of the blue collar school I had come from where such enormous choice might be dangerous. It had not even occurred to me ONCE that the reason the cafeteria was indecipherable was because there were no rules at all to where one sat.
I finally settled on sitting at a table which was mostly occupied by girls from my class. They didn’t seem too thrilled about my presence either, but it was at least getting less of a shocked reaction than the boys I tried. I had no idea that I was sitting at the “popular” table. I just quietly sat at one end, and tried to put as much of my body as I could into the hole that the tables were folded back into when the cafeteria once again became a gym. I listened to what people said, and mostly didn’t talk.
Once I made the mistake of engaging in a game from my old school and tried to “match” boys and girls from my class as couples–but mostly based on putting people with the same color of hair together, the same height, same nose shape, and so on. Kids at my old school weren’t really seriously pairing off yet, so the game was pretty innocuous. But at my new school, couples were already serious business and one of my first couplings was one of the cool girls with a less than cool boy. She immediately told me she would put me with the very large kid in class and started to tell other people about it. I was horrified. I wasn’t trying to mean, but she clearly was.
I was trying to play by the rules I knew. And it did not work.
One day I showed up to sit in my spot at lunch, and the queen bee of the table was already sitting in it.
“Look Andi!” she called out mockingly “I’m sitting in your spot! Are you going to cry? Are you going to try and make me move?”It felt like she saw me drowning and decided that it was high time she took my life jacket, and maybe gave me a good push under as well. I stared at her for a moment. People weren’t perfect at my last school. I knew that when someone was getting made fun of it always got worse when they fought back. So I just picked another spot and I said nothing. I intentionally never sat in my favored spot again.
That was the beginning of a lot of days where I said absolutely nothing. When kids stomped on my feet, I got Mom to buy me steel toed shoes and never explained why. When someone punched me at school and the teacher took his side, I swallowed it. I didn’t want my parents trying to fix it or defend me. When a teacher decided she HATED me because of my Dad’s politics, I just went about my day and tried to dodge her accusations and back biting as much as I could.
Do you know what eventually happened? You should.
I started cracking. The kid who had once kept her head down and really really tried to make the best of things and put a positive spin on everything died. Sometime in Middle School I started arguing. I threw things back at the bullies. I even hit a few kids (careful not to get caught mind you.) I got in food fights. I snarled when people even sounded like they might be thinking of being mean. By the time I graduated with those kids I was known as abrasive and opinionated and definitely oversensitive.
I know this can come off as a long oh poor me kids were mean to me once blog. I hate that. Please know I hate that. Because what I’m really trying to point out is NOT that those kids were bad and I was good. I’m not trying to make any statements about the relative pain of my own school experience compared to anyone else. I’m saying that because of my different culture and expectations for how things worked, I got off to the wrong foot in my new home–and I really never got back on totally. I made new friends, but I never recovered with those first people and I had a very very hard time trusting people in my community.
I was from Kansas, friends. I moved to another state in the same country. The people in that town were not bad, so much as completely unequipped to deal with someone who did not know what they knew. And it did not have to be much. I spoke the same language. I looked quite a lot like them. But it was still enough difference to make a mess of things before I had hardly even gotten started.
I now work with immigrants and people who don’t speak English well because every time I look in their eyes I feel like I just get a little of where they are in life. They are doing everything they can to fit in and blend just like people want them to. And they work so hard to do just that. But what do you do when you have no idea how to pay your rent or that putting garbage out at regular scheduled intervals is a thing? What if you have no idea most Americans aren’t really into a kiss on the cheek and that pointing with your middle fingers is not a good idea, even if that’s how you pointed back home? The only thing that fixes that is if someone comes along and is 1. Kind enough to tell them 2. Understanding enough to forgive them for any previous mistakes.
And even stupid little mistakes in a brand new community can set you up to fail basically forever.
You know what DID eventually help me find a place to belong, and enough to survive, so that thank the good Lord, food fights and a few kicks to the shins were the worst things I actually did? The people who adopted me. The friends I had until the end of high school who were gracious to me and who filled me in on what I was missing (and forgave me for being a bit grumpy and oversensitive at times.)
Friends save lives people.
Friends save immigrants who don’t know how to do very basic things to function in their communities.
Friends save minorities swimming against a sea of people who want them to be just like themselves.
Friends save silly lost girls in grade-school cafeterias.
Friends save anyone who by no fault of their own is a little off the right path and doesn’t know how to get back to a safe place.
Always ask yourself if someone did something rude because they ARE rude, or if there is some piece of culture or personal history you might be missing. And you know what? You can always always ask. Often, almost always, people have reasons for what they do.
I think standing in the gap for someone is one of the most enriching and empowering things I have ever ever been blessed to be able to do. Because in some small way, I feel like I am getting to reach a hand of comfort back to my child self, who didn’t even know where to sit in the freaking cafeteria. And all it really takes is friendship freely offered with room to understand someone with a different story than my own.
So I’m pleading with you. Wherever possible, figure out where people are drowning in culture or even just in life and throw them a life vest. Heck, go and be a damn human life preserver. Because one day, if you are very lucky, you will need a human life preserver and someone will be that for YOU.
And you will never ever forget that person.