Every Sunday night, I get hungry for Chinese food. Perhaps that is because that was how we spent Sunday evenings growing up. Rain or shine, every Sunday night, we would jump into the car and head to our local suburban Detroit Chinese restaurant. It was our weekly ritual. It was also, sadly, the most “ethnic” experience I had growing up in the ‘burbs.
Growing up, the suburbs of big cities like Detroit were mostly similar to the fictional town featured in my all-time favorite movie “Pleasantville.” For the most part, the streets and stores in our town were filled with lots and lots of white people.
Looking back, I’m not even sure that it was actually Chinese food. In reality, it was more like “Jewish Chinese food.” I’m pretty sure they don’t serve dishes like “almond boneless chicken” in China.
Then in my 20s, I moved to Arizona, and my white world became filled with color. The city of Phoenix, where I practiced law for many years, has a very large Hispanic population. This was an ethnic group that new for me. On my first day of work, I was handed the file for my very first client. I proudly took my file and went to the courtroom to introduce myself to him. “Jesus!” I called out, over and over, like a Catholic priest on Easter morning. No one responded.
The madness was put to an end when my embarrassed co-worker tapped me on the shoulder and whispered quietly in my ear, “It’s pronounced HEH-soos.”
And thus began “The education of Allyson.” Arizona is the melting pot into which everyone has relocated. (I lovingly refer to this state as “the witness protection program” because I’m convinced that every single person who moves here is running away from something.) But that’s why I love it here. My world has expanded so much in the 18 years I have lived here.
My youngest son Aidan has been in a self-contained gifted classroom for the last few years. On his first day of Kindergarten, he got into the car and declared” “Well, I’m the only white kid in my class.” And it was mostly true. Almost every other student in his class for the last 3 years has been Indian or Hindu or Buddhist or Japanese. My little blonde haired curly kid stands out quite prominently. I used to call him the Carrie Mathison of his classroom. (And if you got that reference, I applaud you.)
It has been pretty amazing to watch my son interact with so many different ethnicities. The highlight every year are the holiday celebrations. The kids each have an opportunity to bring their parents in to school to explain their holiday traditions to the class. Aidan loves learning about these fascinating holiday celebrations and sampling their traditional foods. I love learning about it too. They are all so interesting and fun. I must say, when the time came for Aidan and I to present Hanukkah to the class, it was really quite depressing. There is no fun way to tell that holiday story, and the dreidel game gets old very fast when played by children with high IQs.
This year, I am embarking on a teaching adventure in a school that is much like Aidan’s multi-cultural classroom. My class list is filled with names that I cannot pronounce. I hope I can learn their names soon, but I am really worried that there is no more room in my brain to learn anything new.
As I watched the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night, I was awe-struck watching so many unique cultures and ethnicities coming together to celebrate as one. And even though the USA looked like the cast of “Cruel Intentions” in our uniforms, our country is unique and special too. We have to remind ourselves that building walls around our country won’t make us stronger or better. We can learn so much from one another if we just let each other in. That’s what will make this country great again, Mr. Presidential Candidate whose last name rhymes with Bump.
A few years ago, a friend of mine here in AZ recommended a tailor to me. I needed a dress to be hemmed, and she told me that her guy, Joe, was the best in town. This friend prided herself on knowing everything about everything. “Just go to his store and tell him I sent you,” she said. “I’ve been going to him for years.” “Joe’s your tailor,” she told me, was the name of his store. And so, I took her advice and headed to his shop. I drove around the shopping center for a half hour, unable to locate his store. When I called her, she assured me I was in the right place.
I parked my car and started walking, determined to find it on foot. I walked a few steps, and then I looked up. I found the store alright, and I realized that I wasn’t the only one in this town who needed a lesson in cultural sensitivity. Later that day, I called her and told her that she was right- he is the best tailor in town. She was smug in her acceptance, until I told her she was very wrong about the one thing that was really the most important-his name.
We all have room in our brains, no matter how smart we are or old we are, to learn something new. The only difference between those who learn and those who don’t is whether or not they want to.