Foreign Lands

I’m a thief. Yes, I am stealing an idea from Jodi’s Sex Bombs entry (though Asia Pages has moved to here, and you should update your links and go check it out). This post has a soundtrack. Open another window, or a tab in Mozilla, and then open this link. Then come back and read this. Or, watch the video, then restart the song. It’s a good video, vaguely environmentalist but also just compelling in itself.

Okay… go do it.





Right, you’ve back now, and you can hear that sweet music, the sound of the voices of children. The images of kids are running through your mind, and then creep in the memories… yourself as a child, that strange little creature you once were, so very alien—it feels—to who you now are.

Or at least, that’s how I feel about the child I was. Don’t get me wrong; I love the kid, but I fancy myself much more sophisticated, much more complex, much more wise and brave and strong and all. I pride myself, ever so slightly, in knowing more than I did then. (As if we don’t all.)

I remember my first trip to a skating rink, after moving to Saskatchewan. This was, apparently, normal prairie elementary school physical education… a trip to the ice rink every week was normal, was deemed good. Me, I found the idea shocking. People putting on bladed boots and moving about on the ice? Why? Don’t they know ice is slippery? (I hadn’t experienced a Saskatchewan winter then, so I didn’t know how very well prairie people do know ice.)

Why were the changing rooms segregated if all we were doing was putting on skates? How were we supposed to walk around in skates? How did one actually ice-skate? This was no small matter for me: the other boys had all been playing hockey since they’d been tiny, whereas I had never set foot in a rink before in my life. My father, an immigrant from Malawi, considered ice hockey “a bloody stupid sport”, much inferior to his own beloved (tropical) field hockey.

So strange, how the kids watched hockey games, and found hockey players so tough, so cool, so manly. My father’s dismissal of North American hockey and football on the grounds that the amount of padding was ridiculous—and that hockey was much less a sport than an occasion for boring fistfights—resonated with me. Not that I learned a love of rugby or field hockey—it was my baby sister who was to take to rugby—but I did see a brutish stupidity in the place of whatever my friends saw in hockey.

My mother was a foreigner, too, a stranger in her own country; she was a Quebecois living in the prairie. I remember her complaints of Northern Saskatchewan, of how there was no culture there—by which she really meant that there was no worthwhile culture, none of her culture, there. I sadly have to agree with her—it was not the fault of the local people, who were mainly members of (at the time) pretty ineffective Indian Bands. A lot of people living in the town I first lived in up North, Lac La Ronge, were on welfare. I remember going to the grocery store one Saturday afternoon—the kind of afternoon when, if we’d still been in Nova Scotia, we’d have gone for ice cream at the open Co-Op market. In La Ronge, we went to the grocery store and out front were a bunch of kids sitting in a row, tearing up and chewing white lined foolscap paper—because paper, taken from the free store of supplies at the school, was free and therefore cheaper than chewing gum. Sure, I’d seen poverty, before; when I’d been really little, my parents had scrimped and saved for their first house and for a few years we’d lived in a trailer. (I’m not embarrassed by that; my parents are like any immigrants, whether across national boundaries, or just linguistic and cultural ones, and their success story—a story like so many others—gives me hope in my own life.) But I had never before seen children eating paper. It was a shock, the kind of thing my mother would have covered our eyes to protect if she’d had one arm for each kid. Mothers only have two arms, though, so she gave up before even trying to shield us from the sight.

I suspect something happened to me that first year, in Lac La Ronge. Not the things that “happened” to me—the blood on the snow and the bullies who discovered I was a slow white kid; living there was hell for a while, a sudden hell that probably hurt me more deeply than anything else I’ve experienced. But life includes hurts, and I’ve been hurt since, and felt joys since. What happened to me is deeper than that.

It was this strange realization that, by chance, I could have been born there. I could have been that Cree kid in the ball cap and the jeans with the patch on the knee, tearing off a strip of paper and chewing. I could have been that teenaged girl found unconscious on the street one summer Sunday morning, plastic bag and a can of spray paint beside, passed out the night before from the fumes she’d inhaled. I could have been the kid about whom people made Lysol jokes.

Lysol jokes. There are places where people make jokes about the absolute patheticness of people who, too broke even for alcohol, inhale cleaning fluid fumes. There are people so desperate to escape their pains that they will do that to themselves, to their bodies. There are places and contexts where the word Lysol first and foremost carries that connotation.

For you, perhaps, such places are foreign lands, as they were for me, when I went to live in such a place as a child.

I realize that to this point, it sounds like a story told from the outside looking in: the relatively privileged white kid looking into the window, seeing poverty, feeling bad for the poor Indian kids.

But I was seven, maybe eight years old. The majority of my exposure to the idea of “race” was the black-skinned people in photos my folks had brought from Africa, and the odd black or Indian kid at school, in the trailer park, in the shopping mall we’d visit on trips to Halifax. The majority of what I knew of other races was what my mother, despite any of her specific biases, assiduously taught me as a little boy: that people are people, that we are all equal in some sense than transcends appearance and wealth and circumstances, and that good and bad come in all colors, all shapes, all sizes.

The kids around me most certainly saw me as white, but I could not have immediately perceived them as Indians. I saw them as other kids, some nice, and some bad. A boy I vaguely remember, named Ted, I think, had the same fascination with movies—especially the Godzilla movies that showed at the local movie house—that I did, and we would “go to the show” on Saturdays. I didn’t see it as going to the show with an Indian boy, because the label wasn’t really there for me, then. I saw him as Ted. The bullies, too, had names, though I don’t remember them. I began to understand they chased white kids more than Indian kids, I began to see the difference that they seemed not only to see first, but seemed to be all they could see.

And so race began to take shape as a notion in my mind, of an idea that seemed to matter a great deal to other people. I began to realize as a little boy running like hell downhill to get home after school, as a little boy crouching hidden among the trees, waiting for the other kids to all go home before venturing out, that race was something that could make people hate you, and that race was something that could help make someone poor.

This wasn’t what my mother meant, by the way, when she said there was no culture in Lac La Ronge. She had probably seen her fair share of “tough” kids in her own hometown, and doubtless even some of her platoon of siblings had at points qualified for it. They used to tell of stories of seizing boxes of vegetables that had “fallen off” delivery trucks. But there had been a stubborn dignity that they’d been able to cling to, living in homes with proper insulation and plumbing, living as French in Quebec, that the people in Lac La Ronge had somehow lost. But even that wasn’t what she meant: she meant, there was no live music; no theater, only a miniscule library. There was no shared, popular culture, no place for people to gather except at the occasional pancake breakfast.

But every foreign land has its beauties, and Lac La Ronge was no exception. All I can say is that if you have never been so far in the woods than you can imagine no human being has stood where you are standing, that if you stayed there, the only creatures you would ever meet would be birds and elk and mice; if you have never been somewhere that not only car sounds, but even the sound of people, are not just inaudible but also unimaginable, you are missing out on a profound part of human experience that you will never get even close to in any other way. And having such an experience in childhood… it does something to you, too.

It does something absolutely profound to your politics, to your imagination, to your understanding of yourself. It wounds you to see kids suffer, and know that it’s only luck that you weren’t born to the same fate; and you say a thank-you prayer and then feel guilty. You ask the God you’re told to pray to why these kids have to be born to it, and you don’t get an answer that satisfies you, not from anyone. You remember the silence out in the bush, and it feels the same as the silence from when you were praying. You remember how alone you felt, on the snow, the blood coming from your nose. You remember the shock of seeing yourself through the eyes those kids saw you through—a color, a word, not even a person—and you feel some part of you being configured, defensively, to see them in the same way. But not all of them, not Ted, and the paradox begins, until you can unravel it years later.

There were knots tied in those two years when I lived in La Ronge than took me years to untangle. There were knots tied that I still squeeze between my fingers, and take as a reminder to try be compassionate, not to forget some people see only a color or a word and not a person. There were knots that will never come undone, that I will never cut, that aim me at certain politics, certain rhetorics, and against others.

Going into a foreign land, even one within your own country, changes you. Doing it as a child changes who you will become.

After that adjustment, after those lessons, nothing seemed quite so alien to me until I found myself plummeting toward the event horizon of adulthood, of being called Mr. or Sir, and even that did no compare. Adulthood was unarguably extremely alien to me, and remained so until I was almost thirty years old… but I’d been to an alien country, and knew something about how to brace myself going in.

Being married—as I once was and am no longer; going to graduate school; joining the workforce; living in Korea; traveling in India; taking up some form of presence online… none of these things surprised me, hurt me, blessed me, and changed me as much as the opening of that first door, of going to live in the North for those few short years in the first decade of me life.

Next time, I’ll try to get to how this connects to my life in Korea.

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