children in the zoo

They asked my name. I let the sound of my name roll through my mind, but it sounded off-key somehow, as if I had hit a black key while playing a C major scale. Even though I only knew a handful phrases in this new language, I could hear that my name did not fit into this new melody.

I thought I was watching a movie, seeing all these kids with their light hairs and blue eyes and exotic facial structures – I couldn’t say what was different, aside from the obvious color difference, only that it was different –, just as I had seen them in the movie theater or at home on DVDs. But in truth, it was me who was on display, and they all gawked at me like I was some strange animal. I think the reality hit me then and there like a sack of flour thrown on my head. I was the stranger. I was the different one, not them. For the first time in my eleven years, I saw myself from the outside, as if my soul had left my body and was critically examining it: black hair, black eyes, exotic facial structure, darker skin. Just, somehow, different.

They asked me what the name of my best friend was. What did it matter? Her name sounded just as wrong as my name. Just as off-key. Just another thing to single me out as different. I hated my voice as it came out in whisper, because her name was tainted now. I would think of her name and not think of us hanging out after school, waiting for her mother to pick her up (and me secretly wishing that I could borrow a ride); not remember the afternoons we spent screaming in laughter; nor would I feel warmth rushing through me when I thought of our history, our friendship. Instead, when I thought of her name, I didn’t feel anything. She felt hollow, so incredibly far way both in physical distance and in myself, as if I had dreamed her up and now that I was awake, she was gone.

The world was a cold, lonely place. I lost my name, my friends, and my past in the course of maybe five minutes. They weren’t gone forever, of course, but they were covered, and it was only much later that I found the tools to carefully scrape off the surface as to damage neither the first layer nor the hidden painting underneath.

But discriminations feel similar, independent of what you are discriminated against. So when I feel like I am the unluckiest, unhappiest child under the sky, I think of the other black, Asian, Latin-American, indigenous people; of people of ethnic minorities; of women; of Muslims; of people of religious minorities; of people with disability; of people of rainbow colors; of people from abusive families; of people with poverty; of people with mental illness; of people with physical illness.
I think, too, of the people who couldn’t understand my experience but who did listen; people who made me feel welcome; people who didn’t make a big deal out of the difference; people who respected the difference; people with smiles, people with kind words.
Solidarity gives you strength, but small gestures of acceptance and friendliness smooths the sharp, jagged edges of pain. Sometimes I think growing strong means feeling more pain; without the occasional healing, we’d all go mad. Kindness is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.