I didn’t know the language, the place, the people or much at all in general. I had just moved from New Jersey to Athens, Greece. It was 2004, and I was only five years old, ready to start Kindergarten… well, not exactly ready, maybe the proper words would be “in position”. I sat on the school bus next to my sister on the window side, prepared to face a two hour drive towards the opposite side of the city, where my new school was. It was early in the morning and I assumed we were the only ones on the bus. Then I heard a quiet voice behind me say hello. I was too shy to respond, and thankfully my sister replied on our behalf. I listened to my sister talk to the friendly stranger for a while, and paid enough attention to learn that his name was Andrew and that he came from China. It was his first year in Greece and he was in the first grade. He offered both of us cashews, but right as we were about to accept his offer, the bus monitor waddled up towards us and suggested in broken English that we should probably stay away from him because he was a “cheap Chinese bastard”. She kindly asked us to move to the front of the bus, where she could keep an eye on us. I followed my sister’s lead closely towards the front of the bus. As I sat down, I felt the heavy weight of my eye lids, begging me to go to sleep. As the bus drove through the bumpy highways that prevented my slumber, I repeated the encounter with the bus monitor in my head, but every time I reviewed it, I got more and more confused.
The bus slowly filled up, and faster than I would’ve preferred, we ended up at school. In the morning, the faculty let everyone out to play on the playground till class started. I was in no mood, and sat on the benches by my classroom. I saw Andrew walk towards the bathroom and I contemplated talking to him, as he was the only kid nice enough to have greeted me, but I remembered the words of the bus monitor, and even though I was confused by them, I stayed away.
During my first day of school, I felt I didn’t fit in. Barely anyone talked to me and when they did, I listened to them with hardly any understanding. After they realized I wasn’t worth their time, they left me alone. During classes I sat at a table all to myself, again right by the window, which had a view of the hallway. Halfway into class, I saw Andrew passing by the window in the hallway, I lightly taped on the window to get his attention. He turned around, and gave me the brightest smile I had seen all day and waved. I waved back nervously and he walked on. That smile kept me going all through class. It was so refreshing, and it surprised the five-year-old me, that such a small act could turn my whole sad day around.
After lunch I walked around the playground looking for Andrew, and after a couple of minutes I saw him on the monkey bars. I was surprised to see the monkey bars so vacant, but I proceeded to talk to him anyway. I asked him about the encounter with the bus monitor and he explained to me the common perception that the Chinese have cheap shops, sell fake brands and are undocumented workers, stealing jobs from hard working Greek citizens. I asked him if that was true. He explained to me that there are a few Chinese families in Athens who have cheap shops that sell fake brands. I asked if his parents did such a thing. He told me that his parents worked in the Chinese Embassy. I asked him why, then, did the bus monitor not trust him. Before he could reply, four girls in my class came up to him and pulled back the sides of their eyes, and asked Andrew, in a mocking tone how he could even see with his “slanted eyes”. One of the girls even commented that everything looked blurry. I saw his face fall, and he didn’t have to explain anything to me anymore, because I had just understood the concept of racism.
When I was five years old I did not understand the concept of racism yet. I wasn’t born with a bias against the Chinese, or any race for that matter. If I had listened to the bus monitor that warned me from befriending a Chinese boy, I would never have gained the confidence, friendship and voice that I developed through my years in Athens. I am grateful to Andrew, because he taught me so much, and didn’t ignore me because I was different. My only recommendation to readers would be, don’t deprive yourself of experiences and friendships because in the perception of society it’s considered “wrong”. Try things for yourself, then judge if those perceptions are blurry or not.
– Written by Stelio Louka (School Representatives Team Member)