The Way It Is

“Said, hey little boy you can’t go where the others go,
‘Cause you don’t look like they do…”

from “The Way It Is”, by Bruce Hornsby and The Range

I grew up in a brand new subdivision of Richmond BC in the late 50’s and 60’s. Our house was a split level, one of many that were built around that time. As more families moved into the neighbourhood, new friendships were formed, especially among the youngest of us.

When the weather was good, my friends and I played outside all day, every day. In the evening, each kid’s parents would take turns yelling out the kitchen door that it was time to come home.

Right across the street from my house was the elementary school with a park, a couple of baseball diamonds, and a wading pool.

It was a great place to grow up.

Many of my neighbourhood friends were Japanese. This was mostly due to the fact that we lived quite close to the oldest subdivision in Richmond, Steveston, which included a large community of Japanese fishers and their boats. Some Japanese families were descendants of a group of immigrants who originally came to Steveston years earlier because of the fishing. Steveston borders on the Fraser River, so a lot of people I knew back then worked at the cannery, if they didn’t have a boat or a tackle shop.

I’m not sure that I paid much attention to the fact that some of my friends were Japanese. Sure, sometimes their parents would put different food on the table and decorate their dwellings with items I hadn’t seen before. As a result, the kids in my neighbourhood learned about other traditions, and ate sushi long before it was fashionable. But my house had different food too; Danish food, and flags everywhere because my parents were Danish. So “different” seemed par for the course in our ‘hood.

I got a tape recorder for my birthday once, and I was busy taping everything I could think of. I still have some of the old cassettes. On one of those recordings, my friend was over visiting and you can hear my Mom and Dad and I teaching her a Danish lullaby. Then you can hear her teaching us a Japanese song, a little song about a turtle, which we all sang together. “Moshi, moshi, kame yo!” That tape is a treasure.

Every July 1st, Steveston played host to the Salmon Festival and Parade. There was a lot of food, especially salmon, of course. There was the parade itself, and plenty of entertainment going on all day. At one of those festivals, I remember joining in with some other girls and learning a Japanese dance on the lawns of the local Buddhist church.

On another occasion a friend’s father invited me to go fishing with the family. He drove us all in his big camper to the Stanley Park seawall, where he showed us the fine art of smelt fishing. We swam out into the water, pulling ourselves along the fishing net, plucking the tiny silver fish off the net and bringing them back to shore. I got stung by a jellyfish, but all in all, it was great fun.

And then something else happened in Richmond. During the 70’s we started to see a lot of East Indian families move into our neighbourhood. That’s when I first became aware of this thing called “racism”. One East Indian family moved into a house only a block or so from where I lived. There was a boy, maybe 10 or 12 years old at the time, who lived in the house right next to them. He made sure they knew he didn’t want them there. He yelled profanities at them and threw dog excrement on their home. I felt so bad for them. Where did all that hate come from?

Recently, I watched a Frontline documentary called “A Class Divided”. The first part of the story took place in 1968, just after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., when a teacher, Jane Elliott, decided to talk with her third grade class about discrimination and racism in light of King’s death. But she soon realized that just talking with her class wasn’t really getting them anywhere. These kids came from neighbourhoods that were not very diverse, so they couldn’t really relate to the idea of discrimination.

Instead, Ms. Elliott came up with a two-day “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” exercise for her class, basically giving preferential treatment to the kids in the class with blue eyes on the first day. The next day, she reversed the process and the brown-eyed kids got the special treatment. The children’s reaction to each other under those circumstances was unsettling.

Frontline brought them all together years later to talk about how that exercise changed them, which it did in profound ways.

In the past few weeks, anti-Asian violence has become more prevalent, mostly against women. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it really hit home for me when one of my oldest friends, who still lives in Richmond, told me that she was fearful of going out in public, not because of COVID, but because she feared for her safety. She was starting to get dirty looks from Caucasian people, as if it was suddenly okay to treat her that way.

The truth is, of course, that racism has always been around. And we are not born with it, it is taught. Some of my childhood friends may have experienced racial insults, or worse, without ever talking about it back then. But this little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl had been oblivious to it.

In a perfect world, kids would grow up in diverse neighbourhoods similar to mine with adults around them who encouraged their interaction with each other. I am forever grateful that I was so lucky.

What Is Tolerance, Really?

Protestor Holds Bottle, Oakland RiotsImage by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Let us not speak of tolerance.
This negative word implies grudging concessions by smug consciences.
Rather, let us speak of mutual understanding and mutual respect.
Father Dominique Pire 

I hear the word “tolerance” bandied about quite often, and the above quote puts my feelings about it in a nutshell.  Tolerance implies that we are simply putting up with something or someone, and what is the good in that, really?  A lot of people use the word in a sort of glorified manner;  “practice tolerance”, “encouraging tolerance”.  And every time I hear it used that way, it seems somewhat holier-than-thou to me.  What does practicing tolerance mean anyway?  “Here I am, putting up with your stupid behaviour because I’m a tolerant person.”  Yeah, so?

When I wrote an earlier blog on compassion I had no trouble sitting down and coming up with thoughts and scenarios about it.  The word tolerance came up a few times in the last couple of weeks, which made me think that I should write about it also.  But when I first sat down to do so, I hit a wall because I don’t think it’s a very good or descriptive word.  In the above quote, Father Pire attempts to pare it down to “mutual understanding and mutual respect”.  Even though I agree with that sentiment, there has to be something better than that to describe what the “t” word falls short of doing.

Occasionally my guitar students describe me as a very patient teacher.  Patience is defined in as:

1. the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.
2. an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay: to have patience with a slow learner.

The thing is that I don’t FEEL impatient or annoyed with them;  I am not suppressing restlessness in any way.  Which makes me think that these are the things they are actually feeling themselves!  It doesn’t bother me at all how long it takes, or how many mistakes are made, but it probably bothers them.  So am I patient, or not?

To have tolerance or patience seems to mean  a feeling of intolerance or impatience initially, and simply not expressing it.  In other words, there are members of my family with whom I am extremely tolerant of and patient :-).So it appears that the whole purpose is to not come to the point of those negative feelings in the first place…or, if you do, to nip them in the bud right away.  This, to me, is a much more interesting subject, and probably means making a lot more effort!  How do we not feel these things?  And what do we call it when we don’t?

If I can venture into Buddhist thought for a moment, Buddhists say that much of what causes our psychological and emotional ailments is our sense of “self”.  When we see ourselves as separate from everything and everyone else, not only do we suffer with expectation, disappointment and a sense of entitlement, as discussed in my earlier blog on Compassion, but we often have difficulty understanding and accepting others, simply because they are “different”.   We become prejudiced and judgmental, and yes, intolerant and impatient to boot!

It’s amazing what self-examination brings to surface.  And often, just standing back and observing your own thoughts, especially in a situation that proves challenging, will actually dissipate the negative stuff to some degree, if not entirely.  However, many people are dealing with something else too…fear.  And fear is a very powerful pill.  When we don’t understand something or someone, our fears can rise up and completely overtake us, leading us to all kinds of negative feelings and behaviour.  So we put up our dukes.  Religious and racial intolerance have lead to wars since the beginning of humankind.  And not only don’t we understand others, we also want them to be like us.  What an added complication!

I think we started to get it right in the 60’s (yeah, I know, you probably think I’m somehow still stuck there :-)), when peace and love were the words of the day and we began to fight against racism and injustice and to protest wars.   I remember watching news footage of all of these events on our little black and white TV, and feeling a tangible sense of good things to come, even though I was just a kid and didn’t really know any better.  My parents kind of scoffed at the long hair and wild clothes, showing their own intolerance I suppose, but in their own hearts they were also anti-war and against racism.

There are still individuals and groups out there who are trying to change the world in a good way, but it’s not foremost in kids’ minds anymore, and we older folks have become rather complacent since we sent our last tie-dyed t-shirt to the Sally Ann.  How much has the world really changed?  These days there seems to be more religious and racial intolerance than ever;  more recently we see factions of both Muslim and Christian groups ready to kill each other at a moment’s notice, and even though there is now a black president in the US, you can Google Michelle Obama and find horrible caricatures of her as a half-monkey on the internet.   And we humans always seem to find something (or someone) new to hate.

As much as we’d like to finger point, the truth of it is that we each have some of those tendencies inside.  As an example, I remember walking down a street close to my home a couple of years back and a small group of black males walking towards me.  They wore their pants below their butts and had splashy hoodies on, with the hood on top of their skewed baseball caps, and they pretty much looked like they could easily have just scored some drugs on another street corner somewhere.  I’m ashamed to say that I felt fear.  I was walking with someone else at the time and we talked about it after we had passed them.  I don’t think the conclusion I jumped to, that these were people I should fear, even came as complete sentence in my mind.  It was a very automatic, almost instinctual response, which leads me to think that there is something biological or “programmed” going on too.  But that’s no excuse.  I have a brain, and not only do I have a brain, I have one that can reason and distinguish and understand all kinds of things if I take the time to do so.

I am a person who examines myself and my thoughts often enough because it is my nature to do so.  I certainly can’t expect people who don’t know how to look at themselves that way to get past their own intolerance any time soon.

So what is a word that describes tolerance, but without the intolerance to begin with?  Maybe the reason I can’t find one is that it doesn’t exist.  Yet.


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