The gym creaked with the wandering feet of swimmers, families and friends socializing between races at the weekend-long swim meet. The air was heavy with the smell of chlorine oozing out of the pores of all the swimmers. Some wandered with huge smiles after winning their races. Others moved slowly with aching muscles and fatigue, damp towels draped around their necks or wrapped around their waists. I was usually one of the latter, feeling the exhaustion of a 100 meter butterfly or a 500-freestyle race.
The multi-colored bathing suits and sweatshirts that represented various teams mingled in a damp rainbow as swimmers took this opportunity to flirt with strangers from other teams. I was no exception, but being shy and uncomfortable in my blossoming thirteen-year-old body, I tagged along with Brenda and Dawn rather than venturing out on my own. Both girls were younger than me but fully confident when it came to interaction with boys. Brenda’s petite frame and deep brown eyes that glistened with flirtatiousness behind thick black lashes made boys melt. Dawn showed the confidence of the champion breaststroker she was reflected in the movements of her tall lean body.
We managed to attract the attention of Paul and his friends, boys from a competing team. Paul had brown hair with a wave bordering on curly and deep hazel eyes. I loved eyes and still do. Nothing could send a thrill deep into my stomach like eyes that seemed to go on forever, especially if they were a unique color. Paul’s had the magic. He was my dream guy of the moment and I was thrilled that he included me in on the conversation. I wasn’t just a hanger-on, but I was part of it. We all told jokes, laughed, and had a great time.
“This is really fun,” Brenda said.
“Yeah, you girls are cool,” Paul replied.
“We have to get ready for our next races,” I reminded everyone, always the responsible one.
“Do you want to hang out again later?” Paul asked.
We all readily agreed until he said one more thing which made my stomach churn, “You girls are cool and we don’t want to hang around with any Jews.”
I felt my face go pale, and couldn’t respond out of shock. Brenda and Dawn looked at me and must have been afraid I would say something to ruin their chance with the boys. Dawn grabbed my arm, pulling me away.
“Just leave it,” she hissed, “they’re so cute.”
Brenda used her most flirtatious voice to say, “We’ll catch you later.”
As we walked away from the smiling boys, Brenda and Dawn wiggled their bottoms and I tried not to be sick.
I remember the internal struggle I fought then, one that I have fought many times in my life. I was the only Jew on the team, and usually one of the only Jews in my class. I didn’t always get included with everyone because sometimes I had to leave early to go to Hebrew School. I was accustomed to feeling left out when I had to miss practice because of the High Holidays. I was accustomed to being singled out when I had to present something about being Jewish on international days at school. I had accepted this element of my being different. I had also already experienced people hating me because I was a Jew. My mother was beaten up by a woman in front of my brother, while he was held at knife point by the woman’s son. I had been pushed off my tricycle. Being ostracized for Judaism was a part of my life, but I was also at the age where I recognized how wrong that was.
I wasn’t often flirted with by such cute boys, or at least I wasn’t aware of it. But could I ignore the obvious hatred in his voice? Were hormones more important than family, prejudice, history?
When I saw them flirting again I was going to ignore them, but as I walked by I heard Paul telling a Jewish joke. I couldn’t stop myself.
In my sweetest voice I said, “It’s been really fun hanging out with you guys today.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “You girls are really cool.” (I think at this point I realized what a limited vocabulary he had.)
“So then we’re friends?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Paul answered.
“So you like me?” Paul just nodded looking puzzled. “Well,” I paused for emphasis. “I’m Jewish.” I walked away with the quickest glance back that revealed shocked looks on all the faces, Paul’s in particular.
I was alone when Paul caught up with me and stammered an apology. I gracefully accepted, feeling like a queen who had taught her royal subjects an important lesson while keeping their adoration and respect. But we never really talked again, and I still had my own lesson to learn.
Flash forward ten years to a bar in Okayama, Japan. I had been in Japan for two weeks, and was hanging out at Desperados with some students. Behind me some gaijin (foreign) men played pool, the clack of the balls emphasizing their conversation held in loud American and Australian accents. During my three years there, I could never decide who was louder, Americans or Australians (with the occasional Irish or English thrown in) but it was definitely not the Japanese (unless they were very drunk) who held quieter conversations at the darkened tables around me.
I sat across from Akemi, one of my best students who would later become one of my best friends. Her thick long black hair surrounded the pale beauty of her Asian face that held extra character from the slight sprinkling of freckles across her nose. Her easy smile was brightened further by rosy pink lipstick, and her laugh was one of the loudest I ever heard from a Japanese woman, sudden bursts of volcanic noise that broke the silence of even the most somber tea party. We were playing Othello™ a game few people could beat me at in the U.S.A. But Akemi was winning.
I remember thinking: This is so normal. I didn’t know they played Othello™. I didn’t know they were so much like me. I didn’t know they were so civilized. I didn’t know they were so intelligent.
My thoughts echoed in my brain, berating me with the brutal reality that I too was racist. I had somehow absorbed into my subconscious thought that Americans like me were more intelligent, more civilized and more . . . something than this unformed blob of “other” or “they,” anyone who lived a different life from my own. I was shocked at my own bias and from that moment on have lived more fully conscious of my prejudices, fighting against them whenever they dare to make an ugly appearance. Or at least I have tried to.
How far removed was the young woman in her early twenties, educated and exploring the world, from the adolescent Paul spouting hatred that he probably learned from his parents? Sadly the two were related by ignorance rather than by the stronger connection of humanity. I learned my lesson in the dim light of that foreign bar. Did Paul learn his in the fluorescent squeakiness of a high school gym?