I’m going to start off by sharing a few childhood memories…
When I was three years old, I deeply embarrassed my Mum with the first time I saw an African-American man walking down the streets of Moscow.”My gosh, why is that man’s skin so dark? How long did he not shower for?” – I loudly exclaimed in Russian. The man, who spoke fluent Russian, simply turned around and smiled and watched my mum as she frantically started explaining that not all people are white.
When I was four and a half, my Mum and I migrated to Australia. I had never heard anyone speak any other language but Russian. When we boarded the plane, I was shocked to see “white” people speaking some foreign tongue. I asked my mum if they were aliens. I recall saying “They look like me, they look human, but why are they talking that way?”
When I was around 5 years old, having lived in Australia for a few months, I told my parents that there was no need for me to learn English, because everyone in Australia could just learn Russian. After one year, having developed fluent English and having become somewhat accustomed to Australia, I told my parents that there was no longer a need for me to speak Russian, as everyone in Australia only speaks English.
When I was about 8, I had to draw a family tree for a school assignment. In my 8 year old mind, I established that my relatives on my Mum’s side of the family (who are Russian Orthodox) all had normal Russian names like Tatiana, Ivan, Nadezhda, Valera etc. However, my Dad’s side (the relatives all being Jewish) had “not normal” names like Joseph, Avraham, Israel, Chana etc.
These memories highlight the inherent differences that people have in the colour of their skin, in their nationality, in their language and in the origin of their names. Ever so innocently, a little-me decided to point these differences out.
We are not born intolerant. We are born inquisitive. When I was making my mum feel really ashamed for having not explained that people have different skin tones and speak different languages, I don’t think I was being intolerant. When I asked why my Dad’s side of the family had weird non-Russian sounding names, I don’t think I was being intolerant. I was observing overt differences and was probably adapting and widening my paradigm of what I considered to be ‘normal’. Generally speaking, tolerance is quite intuitive and inherent to the psyche of most children, it is intolerance that is learned, and unfortunately taught by elders.
When I started school in Australia, all of the sudden I became to all of the other school children, what that African-American man was to me, when I was three. I didn’t speak a word of English, and I cried a lot. At first the prep kids made a really big effort to try to interact with me. However as the weeks went on, and as I started to develop a few English words, the kids started bullying me. I had the pleasure of being nicknamed a “Communist”, and a “Russian B*tch”- by five year olds. Where do 5 year olds form such opinions? Only 5 year olds in the Soviet Union could understand the term “Communist” at such a young age anyway…so something doesn’t quite add up.
So…why did those same kids, who made an effort with me at the start have a change of heart a few weeks on? I’m going to go ahead and suggest that it was due to the interference of adults. Xenophobic adults. I’m not going to try to suggest that my parents did a better job of raising me than the parents of the kids that bullied me, but to contrast…as soon as my Mum explained to me that people have different skin tones etc and that it’s normal, three-year-old-me immediately apologised to the African-American fellow. I did not mouth any further political references or rude nicknames.
We don’t need to speak the same language/(s), be born in the same country, have the same skin tone, or have similar sounding names in order to get along. I don’t necessarily think that tolerance needs to be built, however intolerance definitely needs to be dismantled.
Although I am new to the blogging world and am completely incompetent at using technology (I only recently learned how to make hyperlinks), I believe that my message of peace and tolerance needs to be heard. To learn a little bit more about my background please read my post titled “A little bit about myself…”. To learn more about why I started this blog, please read my post titled “Introduction…”.