I was about 11 years old when I encountered my first bully. She was about a foot taller, 50 lbs. heavier, and a grade above me. I was terrified of this girl. I watched her physically pulverize another girl’s face for calling her mama a name, which only solidified my fears of her. Everyday in gym class, she called me “Jap,” a derogatory word used to call Japanese and Asian Americans during World War II. I never knew why she called me that name in middle school until I took a World War II history class.
It didn’t matter that I confronted the teacher or other education administrators. They turned a blind eye to the whole situation. Even when 8th graders threw food at me in the lunchroom, and no one at my table stood up for me. Not a single one.
I share this part of my adolescence because I know what it feels like to be treated like an animal or a fleck of dirt. Sure, I experienced years of frustration, anger, and hurt. But over time, the wounds and brokenness healed. God turned my anger and suffering into a heart of compassion and justice. As a woman in my 20s, I could stand up for myself and for others who were discriminated against. I could report those racial incendiary remarks to a supervisor or to a lawyer. In my 20s and 30s, I knew there were friends, loved ones, and resources to support me through those trying moments. No longer did I have to stand alone in the fight against racism.
But that was in America.
We moved to Cyprus in the fall of 2012, and I heard stories about racism, especially towards South Asian women in the domestic worker industry. Reading an article in The Guardian and hearing first hand accounts of racism can be a little nerve racking when living as an American expat who is ethnically East Asian.
For the most part, I think my experience of racism in Cyprus has been kept to a minimum. When strangers pass me on the street, I don’t look down when I pass them. I make direct eye contact, smile, and say, “Yassou!” Usually, they respond in kindness and a surprised hello back. I’d like to think it’s my southern roots that bring out the hospitality in me.
However, there have been moments when you know what the other person is feeling and thinking. I know all too well the furrowed brow stares at restaurants and angry glares in public spaces. I could drone on and on about stories from what appears to be discrimination in Cyprus, but you can’t prove that it’s racism or discrimination until someone verbally makes a racist comment or physically harms you.
People say that Cyprus is xenophobic; after all, groups and nation states have occupied Cyprus for centuries. The island is still ethnically divided between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, and with an influx of foreign workers at all levels of the socio-economic scale, it’s hard to make swift cultural adjustments in a short period. So in some sense, I understand where the hesitation and distrust factors come from. Much like the moment when I learned how the word “Jap” originated in my World War II college course, it was an ah-ha moment for me. I understood where my bully came to learn of this word. I can only imagine the struggles and war wounds left behind on her grandparents from the war. While I don’t condone my bully’s actions or racial slurs said against me, I can at least try to understand what transpired in her family’s life.
For some of the South Asian women, particularly from Sri Lanka or the Philippines, they have shared either inspiring stories of their employers who treat them like they are part of the family or some of the worst experiences of what resembles stories of slave labor. Those are two extreme cases on the opposite ends of the spectrum, and I am sure there are stories of everything in between.
In the end, one’s experiences of racism and prejudice largely depend on the positive and negative circumstances and outlook on life. For those who have kind and respectful employers, it can shape their outlook to love and enjoy the place where they live. And for others who have down right disheartening employers, it can dampen their experiences of life on the island.
Finally, I’d like to leave with you one final look on race through Piano Man’s eyes. A few months ago, I read Piano Man a story about a Japanese man who immigrated to the U.S. sometime during the early 1900s. There is one page in the children’s book where the Japanese man met all groups of people, “black men and white men, with yellow men, and red men.” I asked Piano Man which person did the author describe using color in the picture. Do you know how Piano Man responded? The “red” man was the one who wore the red vest. The “white” men were the ones who wore the white jackets/overcoats. The “black” men were the ones who wore the black suit/coats and gray vest. I was surprised at his response.
I hope Cyprus can pave the way for our little man to learn about acceptance and understanding different people and cultures for the rest of his life.