We’d only been in Mali, Africa, for 24 hours when my then 9-year-old daughter said: “Now I know how Brian feels.”
Brian was an African American kid in her almost all-white elementary school in a state that bleeds red – a state that witnessed the worst race riot in U.S. history in the 1920s, leaving more than 300 people dead, most of them black.
For my child, a blonde-headed white kid, it was the first time she knew what it was like to be in the minority. She was standing in Brian’s shoes that day. And from the looks of her, she was bewildered. She had a kind of panicked look on her face as we made our way through a Malian outdoor market with wall-to-wall people. As the crowds thronged, at times pulsing like blood through an artery, my daughter clung to my hand as if I was the only thread that tethered her to this new world we had just arrived in for a three-week journey.
There was everything you could think of in that market and things you would have never believed if you hadn’t seen them with your own two eyes. Piles of brightly colored fabrics, mounds of exotic spices, giant slabs of ancient salt dug from the ground and carried by camels across the Sahara desert, whole chickens dangling in the searing heat and disturbing decapitated monkey heads with eyes pleading for mercy.
There were small children carrying even smaller children on their backs. There were children carrying giant water buckets or bundles of firewood perched on the tops of their heads, balancing acts that seemed superhuman.
To see the world from a different perspective, that’s one of the many reasons our family of three has long valued travel over bigger houses, newer cars and more stuff. Travel takes you out of your own comfort zone and drops you into a front row seat to new sights, smells, food, beliefs and ways of doing things.
Travel exposes you to the most beautiful souls who eat with their hands instead of utensils, believe in invisible elves and magical creatures or trust in nothing more than themselves and good deeds. In my book, different is good. Different is what defines beauty.
I had some of the same awakenings of awareness as my child when I moved to Southeast Asia after graduating from college.
There I was in Tungshih, Taiwan, two hours south of Taipei, the capital, teaching English to children in a town of 50,000 people. I stood a head or two above everyone else – the white, blonde American who spoke none of the native languages. Only a handful of locals spoke English in this off-the-beaten path place. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The odd thing was that it didn’t take long for me to forget I was different. I never stopped being an anomaly but it was easy to feel like I blended in, even though I clearly did not.
I’d grown up in the Bible Belt, smack dab in the middle of America, but I was now living in a country that was 99.9 percent Buddhist. Where a protestant church dotted most every block back home, people here burned incense incessantly, burned ghost money and removed laundry from clotheslines whenever it was ghost month so the ghosts wouldn’t steal their belongings.
I was never the same after Southeast Asia. It changed how I viewed everything. I no longer was 99.9 percent sure of anything. I was 99.9 percent sure there was a lot to learn, even more to experience.
I think that’s what I saw in my child during the journey through Mali as she took in the differences. Sleeping on the roofs of mud houses under mosquito nets and squatting over earthen holes in the ground, travel upended her world. It caused a disruption of everything she knew. Her world grew bigger and as we’d hoped, she saw herself in a wider world where different beliefs, cultures and ways of being thrived. And nothing was 99.9 percent anything anymore.
It was 100 percent up for grabs.
Thankfully, there is no going back to whoever you were before, before you touched down in whatever landscape you land. You can’t un-know what you now know. You can’t un-discover what you learn – that people are people no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religion or upbringing or culture.
And that day, she learned what it was to be in the minority. And for the first time, she was walking in Brian’s shoes, understanding what it must be like to live in a whitewashed world.