A Foreign Land
by Jane Tawel
November 15, 2015
In the parts of the Middle West of the United States of America, where my family grew up, there was little to none of what today is known as cultural diversity. I grew up in small towns and on small farms where people still made a living and bought houses and had medical insurance and every one sat around the same television set watching the same show on the only night that show was on, commercials included. The kids all went to the same elementary school, junior high, and high school, except for the Catholic kids who sometimes went to a Catholic school. But Catholic or Protestant you still played on the same streets and in the same back yards after school. There were white and black families and the black kids played with us too. We didn’t know anything about diversity and we treated each other the only way we knew how — if I liked you, I wrote you a note letting you know; if you were mad at me, you yelled at me on the playground, and if you were really mad you might pull my hair, and I might scratch your arm and a teacher might have to come talk to us. After the teacher talked to us, we all just went back to playing kickball or tether ball together. If we looked different or worshiped somewhere different, I guess we noticed the difference, but the difference made no difference, you know? We were all really the same — we all lived in the same town; we all called “ollie ollie in free” with Midwestern accents; we all played kick ball or tag in each other’s back yards; we all tried out kissing in the bushes with each other; and we all had to race home in time for dinner, “Little House on the Prairie”, and bed. I don’t remember much homework in those days, some of us were good at some subjects and some of us stunk at them, sports were for having fun, and teachers knew stuff and we learned stuff, and somehow most of us went on to college and got jobs we mostly liked. Go figure.
I don’t mean to go all Norman Rockwell, idealistic on you. There was a lot of what we now call brokenness in my family and the families around us. Maybe it would have been better to realize this at the time. Maybe not. No doubt, even as Midwestern kids, we should have been more aware of what went on in this country and the oddly misguided American right to express prejudice towards other cultures, but we just weren’t. The first prejudice I ever experienced was when my mom remarried and we moved to a bigger city and a junior high girl who happened to be black and who must have misinterpreted my “nervous -where- the- heck- am- I- first- day- of- new- school” smile that I aimed at her, did the Junior High girl move: hands on hips, elbows projecting like weapons. She looked straight at me standing across from her in my parallel waiting in line stance, and snarled at me, “Wipe that cheesy smile off your face!” That will add to your first day of new school nervousness let me tell you! I can of course remember every word exactly as she snarled it. Why do we remember slights so much more clearly than kindnesses?
The first time I recognized prejudice in myself was when I started substituting in Los Angeles Unified School District. When a young naive Midwestern “going to be a famous actress” type lands a day job at LAUSD, the first thing the army of substitute teacher schedulers whisper gleefully to themselves is, “She’s not in Kansas anymore!” The schedulers are perfectly justified in sending you to every continuation school (code for one step up from juvenile detention hall). I mean they have to send someone there to cover for the poor slob who idealistically took a full time teaching job at Mini-Hell High, and now has a nervous break-down once a week which requires an unarmed substitute teacher to offer up her life instead for $113.00 a day. Are you kidding me!? At first that seems like a lot of money, until you realize it does not include a bullet proof vest or crash helmet. As an aspiring actor and full time temporary substitute, you take every teaching gig they send you. Besides when they call you at 5:00 am you are still mostly incoherent and get caught off guard every stinking time. That is until you learn to say at 5:00 am when the call to sub comes, “Please dear God, don’t send me back to El Sereno Junior High! Don’t you have anything else?!? I’ll pay you half my daily rate to send me to Roosevelt High School today!”
After I had been in about every high school in the gigantic county district, I began to realize that if I walked in, picked up my class roster, and saw a long list of students with a certain type of last name, I would spend the day bouncing on my toes, and making sure my pencils were sharpened to a shiv – worthy point. At certain schools I would arrive dutifully but then walk into the windowless, school phone-less classroom where my stomach lurched and I would shiveringly think, “Oh, Lord this is going to be another day from hell and Dear God, why doesn’t someone please invent a phone that you can keep hidden in your pocket for emergency calls to 911?!”
On the flip side of cultural diversity, if I saw a group of student names from a certain other country of origin, I breathed a big sigh of relief and said, “Thank you Jesus! these kids will study and be quiet and they don’t even need a teacher here, let alone an armed guard, and I may just go home alive today.” This is how prejudice begins. One day about a year into this gig, and after seeing some LA cops haul off two of my junior high students — girls!– I realized that I understood how policemen and women develop prejudices. Because I had developed prejudices. That was the first step to confronting prejudice in myself. Not the last.
When I graduated from my small Midwestern college and began moving around the country in search of my destiny, I thought that I was pretty “cultured”, whatever the heck that might mean. My mother’s family had traveled the world on business and pleasure; I went on to grad school in Boston — to Brandeis for Judah’s Sake! — and I was seriously dating what my grandpa delightfully called a “ferener”. My three sisters and I in fact, sort of acted out the modern Midwestern version of “Fiddler on the Roof”, and if we’d had a father around, he probably would have acted much like Tevye. Julie, the first sister to marry, chose a “poor” tailor, well, actually a musician and school teacher. Janet married a black man, who still prefers not to be called “Afro- American”, I might add, (“I am all American, and I am not from Africa.”). And I, Janie Karen, married a man with several European countries to his DNA credit, and an accent (one of the big attractions for little Middle West Janie Karen). Tevye might have sung, “I can bend no further”, but bend the Gordon clan of Springfield, Ohio, did, with the grace of old oaks, not unduly effected by foreign or “feren” elements. We were all loved, as were our “culturally divergent” spouses.
Then my fiancé got at job in Los Angeles and I followed fast on his heels. Southern California is one of the most culturally diverse small nations on the planet. I googled this for you to read:
The diverse, multiethnic population of Los Angeles today distinguishes the city as the cultural hub of the Pacific Rim. In fact, Los Angeles is one of only two U.S. cities without a majority population. People from 140 countries, speaking approximately 86 different languages, currently call Los Angeles home. (http://www.discoverlosangeles.com/press-releases/facts-about-los-angeles)
My mother used to come visit me, well, really her grandkids, but I liked to think she came for me. We had moved from an apartment in South Pasadena, to a 1940’s post- World War 2 house in Glendale. You know those houses sold for about $15,000 in the 1950’s and today they sell for $700,000. Same 500 square foot fenced in yards, same 1200 square foot, 2 bedrooms and a third office, galley kitchen, and one car garage home. Inflation experts tell us that really it’s about the same price in today’s world. Who put those guys in charge? Are you kiddin’ me?!
About the time of my mother’s third or fourth visit, Grandma, the kids and I were walking back home from my kids’ and my favorite local Armenian grocery, and my mom said, “I think it is “interesting” that you live around the people who still speak the language of Jesus.” I’m like: what, Mom? My mom is like, “yes, I realized after I was out here last time, that Jesus spoke Armenian.” Now, when we from the Bible Belt, use the word, “interesting”, you need to know that in reality, we are using a code for, “I’m trying to be nice but that person really makes me uncomfortable”. My mom, though, thought she could get around the idea of her daughter living around people who were “fereners” by finding connections. That’s another totally Midwestern thing. Connect enough dots, and we’re good. I had to put my mom straight though on this one for her own sake, lest she go back to Indiana and tell everyone her daughter’s grocer speaks like Jesus. I’m like: Mom, Jesus didn’t speak Armenian; Jesus spoke Aramaic, mom. Minus one point for the Armenians.
We used to try to get my mom to move out here to live with us.” Mom, listen, We have nice winters compared to Indiana and you can watch your grandkids learn karate.” Well, there was no way I could convince my mom that Jesus practiced karate, so that didn’t work. Finally, in a pique of honesty, my mom told me she could never live in Los Angeles. “Whenever I come to visit you,” my seventy something Midwestern mommy said, “I feel like I am coming to a foreign country.”
The world has changed. It’s more foreign. The United States of America has changed. It’s both more and less United. The world changing is unsettling — to all of us if we’re honest. It used to unsettle me a lot like it did my mom. One day I heard a sermon from one of the greatest prophets of God’s Holy Bible I have been privileged to hear, Darryl Johnson of Glendale Presbyterian Church, but now somewhere prophesying in the wilds of Canada, for Saint Peter’s Sake! One Sunday, Dr. Johnson talked about our culturally diverse city and assured us that we of all people would be well prepared for heaven. Because heaven would look a whole lot like Los Angeles — every nation, every tongue, every tribe — all worshiping and rejoicing together. No more sorrow. No more tears. No more guns. No more cancer. No more color. No more confusion. No more distrust. No more fear. No more anger. No more injustice. No more hate. No more need. No more greed. No more abuse. No more violence. No more prejudice.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2)
Someday, I hope to be playing out in a heavenly Midwestern backyard beyond the great beyond. And all there will be as we were first created to be– like God’s Son, blameless, and pure and without prejudice. There will be no more need for justice for He who sits on the throne of that kingdom, will have come to judge the living and the dead and establish a perfect world. We will be seen for who we really are and we will be given new names on a new roster with no cultural diversity at all, because we will all be like Him.
Today God calls me to train my mind and heart to see others as He sees them, as His children, ready to kick a ball around in the back yard and rush home to dinner. “Ollie Ollie in Free!” — Race you Home! “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12)
We are indeed all foreigners in a strange land, until we arrive Home. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Race you home!