Summer friends, sort of

Summer is the season for reuniting with friends, for sandboxes and little plastic swimming pools, for fruit picking and canning. Last summer, Shaye was just a baby and I was very new at this. We mostly lounged on a mattress in the shade of our grape vines, while I endlessly tried to keep her from falling off the edge or being stung by a wasp. This summer she is a year and a half – lean, wirery, already running with ease up and down hills, through grass and on rough terrain. Her verbal skills have yet to catch up with her legs and I am always running after her calling, “Stop! No, no! Stop. You’ll go boom. That’s ow ow!”

The thing that makes this all the more hilarious is that I’m legally blind. I can see just enough to get into trouble, as the saying goes, but not enough to get out again. I am mostly just extremely nearsighted, so sometimes I “lose” Shaye because she is just a few yards away in a place where I don’t expect her. So far, she hasn’t learned to capitalize on this method of escape, but it seems like it is only a matter of time.

Naked she looks like she has an exceptionally good tan, as if I’ve kept her on the beach for months. But she doesn’t really.  I’m careful with the sunscreen and hats. Brown people get skin cancer too, you know. Her hair is growing out, wildly. It’s a bush of brown curls that defy all but the most draconian hair-ties. Her favorite things are pouring water out of things, pouring sand on things, pulling all sorts of things apart and playing with the potty. She goes in it too, quite often, but she really wants to use it as a hat or a drinking bowl. Her vocabulary is a bit confused. Her Papa speaks Czech to her and I speak English. So, she says “up”, “no”, “more”, “done”, “Night, night” and “bye bye” in English. But she says “Hi”, “by myself”, “mine”, “let’s go” and “eat” in Czech.

I don’t know if she is a genius, but she is certainly smart. I wonder if the fact that I had no part in making her that way genetically is one of those adoption things that would bother some people. I can’t really imagine. Either way, it seems to be a matter mostly of luck. I might have given birth to a fine child, if I could have carried one to term. But my genes are nothing special and I have no particular desire to saddle someone else with them. My vision impairment isn’t supposed to be genetic but that isn’t totally certain. And then there are the crooked legs that run in my family, the tendency toward manic depressive mood swings and a propensity to become mildly overweight unless you really watch it. Shaye certainly seems to have managed to get at least as good genes as ours.

We live in a country – the Czech Republic – where that kind of thinking is not at all standard. The general population assumes adopted children must be substandard and the professionals in the field are always emphasizing what bad genes they must come from – otherwise their families would have been able to take care of them. And that is even before you get into the issue of ethnicity. Back in the 1990s, when that sort of statistics were kept, a government report found that at least 70 percent of Romani children had been declared mentally retarded and sent to segregated remedial schools. Outside organizations claimed the true figure may have been as high as 90 percent. Not much has changed since then, except the names of the schools and the fact that the government outlawed keeping statistics on ethnicity. The European Court has found that this is actually racial segregation and the tests were rigged. Still the system of segregation continues and even professionals in the adoption field will still talk about bad Romani genes.

One of my first visits with friends of the summer season was with a woman who was adopted as an infant herself.  She is white and lives with her solid family in a comfortable house on the edge of a village in the East Bohemian highlands. She works for a government environmental agency and is pleasant and usually quite fun to be around. When Shaye and I took the train out to visit her, we spent the first few hours cooking and talking adoption issues with fervor. We agree on most things – from which environmental problems are the most serious to the relative merits of open adoptions. But then, I don’t even know how, the subject turned to the Roma. Her tone didn’t change. It was as if there is nothing different about this topic at all, and without the slightest malice she commented that, “Of course, one would have to put up with the genetic problems, like thieving. But I suppose you can keep that under control.”

I should not have been shocked. I’ve been in this country far too long for that. But this friend is a complete liberal and attends a nice moderate church as well. Here people with a little religion tend to be more open minded than the atheists, oddly enough. And she was adopted herself. I guess that doesn’t give her any kinship with the Roma, but still I had hoped, even assumed she would be free of such gross stereotypes. I protested mildly at first, hoping that I had misunderstood, but she continued, “I took genetics at university and the link between long patterns of behavior and their genetic imprint is strong. A culture that hunts for generations will be genetically predisposed to hunt. A culture that lives by stealing will be genetically predisposed to steal.”

The fallacies were too many to get out in one coherent sentence. I spluttered and tumbled my words around. “What? All cultures hunted at some point. And it is a complete stereotype that all Roma have been stealing for generations anyway. And besides, you went to university 20 years ago. Genetics has progressed just a tad in 20 years!”

The visiting season didn’t get much better after that. A week later, I was drinking iced juice on my veranda with Zuzka, one of the adoptive parents from our mandatory parenting class. The kids were finally sleeping, her little half-Vietnamese baby girl and Shaye too. We could relax and talk about fixing dinner. I was going to teach her how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, which I am reasonably good at because of an uncle who married into a Vietnamese family.

“I didn’t think I’d need to worry about the cultural identity stuff, given that she’s only half-Vietnamese,” Zuzka protested. “The other half of her is Czech.”

I took a few breaths and tried not to sound like I thought I knew it all. I don’t, by a long shot. I just feel like my Czech friends are the ones who are blind. They can’t see things that are so obvious to me. “Well, the problem is that society doesn’t care that she is half-Vietnamese. She looks all Vietnamese to any Czech.” This is true. Unlike a lot of biracial kids who really do look half-white, the white side is pretty well hidden in this little girl. “That is what will matter, when you get right down to it. She will internalize the stereotypes about Vietnamese people…”

“We don’t have stereotypes about Vietnamese people,” Zuzka interrupted. “They aren’t like the Roma.”

“Well, how many Vietnamese people have you ever seen in a profession other than selling cheap clothes and vegetables? How many do you think have a university education?”

She thought for a moment and then said wonderingly, “Well, I did know of one Vietnamese man who went to university but he still just has a shop with vegetables.”

“And yet, everyone says what good students the Vietnamese kids are in school,” I said.

“Yes, no one is against them,” she put in quickly.

“No, not against them. But would a lot of Czechs hire a Vietnamese person to do something other than sell things? Do you want your daughter to be able to choose other fields besides just that? And what if she isn’t a meek, quiet, studious, typical Vietnamese child? If she believes in the stereotype but doesn’t fit it naturally, how will she feel?”

Zuzka was silent but I could almost hear her thoughts, “So, what good will spring rolls do her?”

“The point is about cultural identity is that our kids need to know something more about their backgrounds than just the stereotypes. They need to have a whole picture and to feel some pride in where they come from,” I said, pouring more juice and ice into our glasses. Then, almost as an afterthought, I remembered the other part, “And it will also be important when she is a teenager and she wants to make friends with some Vietnamese kids. If she doesn’t know how to make and eat a spring roll politely, she will be at a big disadvantage. It’s pretty basic in that culture.”

So, Zuzka agreed to try and we went inside and put all the fixings for spring rolls out on the table – rice noodles, rice paper, fried chicken bits, boiled eggs, a big bowl of assorted aromatic herbs, chopped green onions, the stinky fish sauce with lemon juice, sugar and chili sauce. But the conversation continued from where we had left off on the veranda.

“I don’t really think we have stereotypes about other races,” Zuzka said, once she had got the hang of working with the sticky rice paper. “I mean, we know, each race is different. But that doesn’t mean we have stereotypes. Like you say, most Vietnamese sell things in shops. That’s not untrue.”

I was quiet for a minute, trying to come up with a non-arrogant way to differentiate between a stereotype and an enforced social condition. But Zuzka beat me to it with something that sent me reeling, because while I could accept that Zuzka might not be up on the latest reading in English on the psychology of identity in children, I was sure she was not a bigot. “I mean, is it really a stereotype to say that Africans are lazy, when they just are?” she asked, adding before I could recover enough to make a sound. “I wonder if it is just because it is so hot in Africa and they get used to not working much.”

How do you respond to that without coming across as a know-it-all? Now, tell me that. I tried to order my spinning thoughts and decided to go at it indirectly. “Have you seen African people who live here who are lazy?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, thoughtful and considered as usual. “African immigrants here are usually the hardworking ones.”

“Then, why do you think Africans are lazy?” I asked, feeling a bit more confident with my indirect, questioning approach.

“Well, everyone says it and you read about it all over the place,” she said, searching inside of her reasons and then she had it. “And if they weren’t lazy, Africa wouldn’t be so poor and they wouldn’t have been made to be slaves.”

Putting aside for the moment the immense task of trying to explain about the exploitation of the third world and all the history of colonization without sounding like a lecturer, I asked, truly puzzled this time, “You think they were slaves because they were lazy?”

“Of course,” Zuzka said, as if this should be obvious. “They didn’t hardly struggle against slavery. I mean if someone tried to enslave Europeans we would put up a fight!”

“Where did you read that Africans didn’t struggle against slavery?” I asked, my voice slipping into a higher octave involuntarily.

She paused a moment. “I don’t think I read it. I think it was in a movie I saw.”

This country simply never ceases to amaze me.

I tried, with what success I am not sure, to tell her about how Africans had struggled – and how! – against slavery and about how various European peoples had been enslaved. And I pointed out that taking your view of an entire continent of people from a movie is exactly what stereotyping is about. I don’t know how much of it got through or how much of an egghead I sounded like. But she did stay friends with me. And, yes, I will stay friends with her because she is thoughtful and trying and actually listens and discusses these things, unlike so many people I have encountered in this country.

On the weekend, Zuzka and I went with our husbands and children to visit another adoptive family at their summer cottage in the mountains. It was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time. The kids ran through the sprinkler and we barbequed Czech carp and talked and felt good and quite safe. Getting together with other adoptive families reminds me a bit of conventions of the American Council of the Blind. We laugh uproariously about things that other people would be appalled at. Here instead of blind jokes, Zuzka’s husband bellows loud enough for three sets of neighbors to hear, when his daughter is throwing the third temper tantrum in an hour, “Don’t call the social workers! We really aren’t torturing the children!” And we all collapse in gales of laughter, releasing all the fearful tension that has accrued as autocratic social workers dictated the paths of our lives.

I am feeling relaxed, almost believing that we have finally found a group of friends that will be a refuge from the storms that are sure to come, when around the fire that evening, the father of the family hosting the gathering is telling a story about why he drove into the city to pick up his wife from an evening meeting, when she could have taken the subway, and off-hand he inserts, “better than her taking the train and having some dirty, drunk Gypos jump her.”

My first thought is, “Thank God the children are in bed already.” Not that Shaye would understand at this age. There was no overt hatred in what he said. It was the kind of thing that is said here a dozen times a day. No one else, except Dušan and I, likely even noticed. But will Shaye understand these types of comments next year? Or the year after?

Let’s be clear on this point from the outset. The word Gypsy is not terrible in English. I use it to clarify what I’m talking about when I mention Roma to Americans. It is standard practice in English speaking countries where most people don’t know the term Romani. And even so, the connotations of the English word Gypsy are simply not so bad. “Gypsies” are free, fun and romantic, if a bit untrustworthy, the stereotype goes. But in Czech it is a different story. Saying “Gypsy” or any of the man slang equivalents to “Gypo” in Czech is no different than saying the “N” word is in America. Similarly, in fact, Czech Romani teenagers use the Czech word “Gypsy” with each other in a joking, tough-kid way, but are deeply hurt when an outsider uses it. It has all the negative connotations you can imagine. It is nothing more than an abhorrent, loaded insult.

So, to hear that word coming out of the mouths of these people, in whom I placed such hope for our future as a biracial family, is hard enough, even without the added insults of his casual assumption that a Romani gang would attack his wife on the subway. I have lived in this country for 12 years. I have travelled extensively to bad neighborhoods as a journalist. I have ridden the subway at night probably hundreds of times. I have constantly heard about the danger of Romani gangs. I have seen a gang of tough looking Roma only once, that I could imagine trying to mug someone. But I have never been attacked or seen such an attack. I know one woman who credibly claims to have been attacked by Romani youths and she is one of the least racist people I know, having grown up with Romani friends. And I have been pickpocketted twice, both times unsuccessfully because I caught the hand in my purse. And both times the hands in my purse were as pale as mine.

I don’t say there are no Romani criminals. The Romani population is extremely poor and extremely socially ostracized. They have been systematically denied education and had their families split up by state policies for generations. Even those few with education cannot find employment. In such circumstances, I would never believe anyone who claimed there was no crime. There is a lot of crime wherever people feel hopeless. It happens in every country in the world. It is only here that it is considered a uniquely racial rather than social problem.

Just as I thought this summer was not turning out to be very much fun, it was time to visit the one family that I knew were racists. My good friends Kamila and Michal live way out in the country with their two pre-teen boys. The meadows around their sleepy little village of a half a dozen houses are full of yellow, highly medicinal St. John’s Wart flowers. I like to collect them to make cold and flu medicine for the winter. Kamila called to say that the flowers were in full bloom and I had better come within the next week or I would miss their peek potency period. She’s an herb enthusiast as well, which is part of our bond.

But more than that, these are friends who go back to the very beginning of my life in this country. They are probably the people I feel closest with here, aside from my husband. Part of that closeness comes from the screaming, fingernail scratching, cursing fights we’ve had and healed from. That would mostly be me and Michal fought, while Kamila looked the other way. I was a young and opinionated journalist, unable to keep my views to myself and unable to hear racial slurs and filthy jokes without protest.

Michal and I were born on the same day, a few years apart. We are both solid Aries. Our birthday is April 7. I suppose our fights are some proof that there may be at least some truth to astrological signs. Michal didn’t back down either. It always started with nothing more than everyday remarks, maybe a Czech folk song with racially injurious lyrics. Like all my other Czech friends, Michal would make the occasional disparaging remark about “Gypos.” He and one other guy in our group of friends were the worst, trading jokes and upping one another on their crudeness. I was baffled. Until I ran into Roma in writing for newspapers, I never saw any. How could this be such a constant topic of conversation, when the Roma are only three percent of the population here? Part of it is that I am visually impaired and the Roma aren’t all that distinctive by American standards. They are just a little brown, a lot like Hispanics. Some even have blue or green eyes and brown, rather than black hair. I think green-eyes on a “Gypsy” is even a certain stereotype in some parts of the world. So, I may have overlooked some Roma in public places. But still, many Czechs have confirmed to me that they rarely encounter Roma and yet the “Gypsies” are still a major topic of conversation, as if when people get bored they turn to Gypsy-bashing instead of drinking games.

In any event, I wouldn’t have it and even though I was the outsider in the group, I was very vocal about my views and Michal always took up my challenge. As our arguments spiraled out of control, he would say things he probably regretted – “Hell, yes, they are all mentally retarded. They are Neanderthals.” Or “You don’t get it. You didn’t grow up here and have to put up with them. They don’t belong here. We Czechs are a small nation. We don’t take over other people’s countries. We just want this little green patch just for us. That’s all.” Finally, one day I told him that he made me physically ill. It was true too. I don’t throw up easily but I felt my gorge rising. I have fought about politics many times and this has never happened to me before or since. This isn’t politics. There are no different opinions, as far as I am concerned. There is racist and there is not-racist. Not racist may be still be ignorant or even insensitive, but racist is racist. People are people. All people are of the same value. If you don’t believe that, how can we even function on the same plain of existence?

Well, we can and we have. Kamila finally proposed that we really and truly drop it. Michal would refrain from making any mention of the Romani issue in my presence, even at parties in his own home. And I would not bring it up either or continue the argument. I would not have taken that deal with many people. I would not have remained on speaking terms with most people with those views but Kamila and Michal were good friends and I was pretty lonely and far from my home and family at the time, so I agreed. That was more than ten years ago and he kept his word. Most of the gatherings of our circle of friends are at his house and he never once in ten years of social events and visits mentioned his views on the Roma in my hearing. On the very few occasions when someone else in the group did, the cold silence from me and Michal made it awkward enough that even the others stopped. For that self restraint, he gained back my respect.

In effect, only I ever broke the bargain, although with good reason. Before we adopted Shaye, I had to know the score. I went out to their house for a visit and caught Michal sitting alone watching the sunset and told him what we were going to do. He knew, everyone knew, we’d been desperately wanting a baby for over six years. I wanted two things out of the conversation. I wanted to tell him, to reassure him, that I wasn’t doing this as a jibe, to make a political point, to reopen our old conflict. I explained that I am a foreigner and legally blind. We didn’t have the finances for international adoption. We were out of options on fertility treatments, and no Czech social worker in their right mind was going to give me – not the ideal candidate at all by their measure – one of the few Czech babies available for adoption. I wanted him to know that I wanted a baby first and foremost, that I had clearly said we don’t care about the ethnicity. We had not said we specifically wanted a Romani child. But we knew we would get one anyway. Almost no one says they don’t care about ethnicity here, really no one, according to the social workers.

I had also wanted some reassurance of my own. I wanted to gauge his reaction, even if he said nothing directly. I wanted to know if I should ever come back, if my family and I would be banished from the gatherings of our friends. I didn’t ask for that though. I just stopped explaining and waited. Michal stared off into the sunset, not looking right at me. He was uncomfortable, which was new. He had always seemed so sure of himself and of his views before. I’d never found him reticent to speak. Finally, he said, “I hope you finally get your baby. You deserve it. You’ll be a good mother.”

That was it. No discussion of the issues. I discussed them with Kamila, while picking herbs that year before we were approved for adoption. She turned out to have amazingly liberal views and we discussed even some of the more advanced issues of trans-racial adoption. I almost had someone I could confide in.

But then when we did adopt Shaye, we came for one brief visit and were then not invited back for over a year.

I was hurt and deeply saddened. There were always reasons why we couldn’t come at this or that time. Kamila was sick or the boys were sick or they were overwhelmed with work. True, there were only two gatherings of friends at their house of that year and both were specifically for people with older children, so that they could go on longer hikes together. It was explained to me that the place would be too crowded for a baby to sleep and many other people weren’t invited as well. Still I had to wonder. They were some of my closest friends after all.

So, when Kamila mentioned on the phone, that I should come and pick the St. John’s Wart in the fields, even if I had to come during the week, while she was working, because Dušan and I didn’t have a weekend free for the next month, I was cautious but also relieved.

We arrived on Monday around noon. I put Shaye to bed in an old crib they had borrowed from a neighbor for this purpose and sat down to write until they came home from work. We had little time to talk in the evening. There was dinner to make, the garden to water, Shaye to feed and keep out of mischief, even hay to cut and a repair job Michal was working on outside the house.

After dinner, I was inside cleaning up and getting Shaye dressed in longer sleeves to go out in the evening air with the mosquitoes. Michal wandered in to get some tools and muttered to me that a craftsman he had hired to fix his ancient window frames had finally arrived to finish up his job. “It will only take an hour but he brought his whole family,” Michal grumbled as he hurried back outside.

I didn’t think much of his words, only that it was an awfully cozy village environment here for a craftsman to come after dinner and bring his family. But I forgot about it in the flurry to get the dinner dishes cleaned up and Shaye caught, pottied and dressed.

It was nearly an hour later when we were finally able to get outside, and I was a bit surprised to see a ten-year-old girl with possibly an amazing tan coming out of Michal’s rabbit hutch with one of the boy’s hamsters in her arms. She smiled at me and I noted her mildly different features. She had dark hair and there was something about her face. Again, I can’t see so well, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she might not be entirely European in background.

She addressed the craftsman, who was washing up outside the house as “Daddy”, so I was sure this was his kid. And he looked white enough for all he worked outdoors and did have a reddish tan. So, I was about to put the thought out of my head when I saw the mother.

She was Romani. I’m sure of it. Her skin fairly glowed with health. Since adding Shaye to our family, I can’t help it. I feel white people, especially here in gray, cloudy Czech, look sickly. This woman was not only dark to begin with. She looked like she had spent a lot of time in the sun. Her rich cinnamon color was everywhere and had the fine sheen of lots of sunscreen. Her hair was lustrous black, and she had a faint trace of the Romani accent of the slums, only faint though, and her clothes were solidly middle class casual wear.

A little boy ran up, holding one of the rabbits and shouting with excitement over its antics and this time he was more clearly biracial. He had the odd coppery blond hair I have seen on biracial kids sometimes and his skin was too dark to be just a tan.

Of course, I was full of questions and worries. Had Michal given the kids permission to get the animals out? Was he going to be upset? Was everything OK? Was he angry that the man had brought his family? Now, at least understand that comment. It is a particularly Romani thing, part of the culture, to bring your family with you everywhere, to jobs, to meetings, to offices. It is not nearly as common in Czech culture.

But everything seemed OK. Kamila and Michal came from the garden laughing and talking heartily with the craftsman. They even sat down to talk on the grass with the woman and the children, longer than they had rested since I had arrived, certainly. Michal encouraged the children to take out the different rabbits in turn to play with them. If I had been totally blind, I never could have guessed there was anything different about this pleasant evening on the fresh-mowed grass.

I did not want to embarrass the visiting woman, so I didn’t ask her anything direct. But I did glean that she had grown up in a village not far away, so she wasn’t simply a dark-skinned foreigner – unlikely but no more unlikely than an American, who speaks nearly perfect Czech, there in the rural highlands. I didn’t ask Michal or Kamila either. It was still too sensitive. I hoped that maybe she would note Shaye’s Romani features, but Shaye is moderate in her coloring. Her face is also the lightest part of her and has blue-gray eyes, which are not too common among the Roma. She could just barely be a white child by appearance. This woman would not ask either, probably not even if Shaye had looked more Romani. It is simply too sensitive in this country at this point in history, no matter which way you turn it.

And so, with my reunions with friends winding down for the moment, I think how ironic it is that in the company I thought we would be safest in, we got clobbered and then at the house where I had reason to fear the most, we sat in the evening and talked casually with another biracial family, as if we lived in some country where this is common.

– Arie Farnam

Disclaimer: Some names have been changed to protect privacy.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. antiphonsgarden
    Jul 23, 2010 @ 08:03:46

    I wish you the best for your little family, inbedded into the greater human family. As my “genpole” includes beside probably like all of us multiple sources, Rom and aristocratic ancesters, I noticed the cliches on both of these “outsider”groups who strangely enough, often go well with each other. Considering that all these racists are people who forgot that our all grandgrand…mother was africain and the COMMON specie travelled a bit “up north”. I guess, that many of these “pure” nationalist (How backwards must some “scientist” be to still think in therm of “gen eugenism”, as the evidence points towards ” the more diversity, the better”!), have ironically probably themselves lots of weird tribes in their clean cells. Purity is deadly in nature, and deadly as concept in minds. History should have told the lesson. But, some have learning disability’s of another kind, repeating the old cynical meme in common like frighten jealous projectors of truly violent myths. How many “bad treatment”they apply to other, would bring EASY the worse out of them ?
    How long might it take till intelligence might be predominant appearing in “those people”. How much time does humanity have, waiting for that “sparkle”.
    A bit of skin pigmentation D factor does not determinate a humans heart.
    To amuse you, I tell you an old Rom story, how they handle the “difference”. They say: god was “backing”the human dough, too short in the oven, too palish bread, too long, a bit dark, sun colour, just fine.
    Could be considerate as sectarian too, but I guess after all this finger pointing of those who pretend to “own” mother earth(Rom:Matriarcal line!)
    the disdain towards those who remained “on the way” effected the minds.
    May your daughter be allowed to develop her difference as maybe the puzzle piece missed to save the world from the stupidity of so many.
    Much courage to your already courageous diverse family, able to accept humans in their unique and universal beauty. The acceptance of our fragile “weakness” makes us strong. Inclusive Compassion is neurological NATURAL, and the surviving optimum of our specie since ever and forever. Those who need exclusivity to gain an identity, are truly those with “a problem”.


  2. Brook
    Jul 23, 2010 @ 20:20:57

    I’m looking forward to reading more blog posts, Arie! 🙂


  3. Lindsay
    Jul 25, 2010 @ 17:49:18

    “I mean if someone tried to enslave Europeans we would put up a fight!”

    Ok, the history teacher in me can’t resist: there is a reason why the word ‘slave’ and ‘Slav’ are so similar! The word ‘slave’ derives from the word ‘Slav’ (which of course the Czechs and their Slovak neighbours are) because so many Slavs were taken as slaves in the 13th century.

    Which I appreciate is hardly the most significant point of the argument to correct when the rest of her utterances are steeped in bigotry!

    Hope life continues to treat you well.


  4. Wendy
    Jul 26, 2010 @ 14:03:20

    Can’t wait to read more…. the Czech countryside life, your insights, the way your family is doing its part to slowly alter the ingrained racism.

    One of the first steps towards reducing racism is to make it socially unacceptable to voice bigotry.


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