Yesterday, while I was working on dinner, Theo took Ellie Jo outside and they played together. I felt so full of happy emotions as I listened to him teach her the small English words that he only learned two years ago. “See the dog? Dog.” I heard her little giggle erupt and he softly laughed along. When he tried to put her back in her walker she made a pitiful sad face and started to cry. “Eh, eh, eh, eh. Tssssssss.” He picked her up and she was happy.
She already smiles at everyone. Whereas Rwandan babies shrink away from my white skin, Ellie Jo is benevolent to all: the Sri Lankan preschool teacher, the Rwanda women working at the bagel shop, the American missionary friends. I cannot say enough times how much that means to me.
In America I think that we take diversity for granted. In many ways the outward appearance really is only skin deep. We might judge a person based on their appearance but our judgments are clichéd: the blonde jokes, the gangster stereotypes, the soccer mom haircut, the yuppie square framed glasses, the dated fanny pack. A common language makes the validation/invalidation of such judgments easy and also creates the ability to have narrow definitions of what makes a person “like me.” Even the general American view on diversity in the world is so simplistic that it tends to label someone “African” without understanding that the term conveys no meaning about culture, language or even skin color.
In our life in Rwanda diversity means exotic, unimagined life stories and backgrounds. It means new languages and un-encountered cultural traditions. It means that the “white” person in the grocery store might only speak French or Swedish or German while the “black” person on the street corner might be Canadian and talk about the winter Olympics. On the worst days of culture stress it means only wanting to interact with people who are guaranteed to be American and to imagine diversity as an exhausting burden. As an expat, it’s too easy to be overwhelmed by diversity and to simply shut it out.
I want Ellie Jo to grow up being curious about the diversity around her. I want her to view outward appearances as an indication of a life story and not a stereotype. I want her to have the ability to genuinely be friends with a person who is not a native English speaker. I want her to be ignorant of the crazy categories that are used to separate people “well, yes, they are American but they also are from the North/from the South/drive a Prius/drive a Ford/voted for Bush/don’t vote/drink Coke/drink Pepsi/own a gun/aren’t on Twitter/buy organic etc.”
So, for now, I just want her to keep smiling at everyone…even if they are only patting her leg with their little hands.