Little roots torn from the soil

Marik came down with a mysterious fever yesterday and cried himself to sleep on the couch. Shaye and I snuggled up with him and read stories, including her book of pictures and comments from when she was little. It didn’t take long for the tough issues to come up again. It started with a line that most white trans-racial adoptive parents have heard, “Mama, I want to be white.”

I managed to handle it fairly well, asking why rather than reacting with shock and dismay. I mentioned that I have sometimes wanted to have dark skin because I think it is so pretty and I have always wanted to have clean non-freckled skin like Shaye’s. We did a little fantasy about what it would be like if we could change our skin colors. But I also told her that she is incredibly beautiful. And finally, as it didn’t seem like any of this was “working”, I asked again if someone had said it was bad to have dark skin. Her response sent an ice cycle into my gut.

“You did… when I was a baby.”

I did? Well… I never said it was “bad” to have dark skin but when she was a baby, before we thought she was following conversations, we did talk more openly about the hardships of being Romani in this country. And if a baby can’t exactly follow the conversation, what is to stop her from misinterpreting “hard” for “bad”? And why wouldn’t a kid wish for an easier life? Let it be a warning to other parents in our situation. I think I’ll put that up as my first major mistake. Don’t talk about the hard stuff in front of pre-verbal babies.

So, I explained that I don’t think it is bad and I never would have said that it is bad to have dark skin. But I have said that it is very hard to have dark skin in this country. It is hard to be Romani because some people are mixed up in their heads about it and they say mean things about Roma. I wanted to say more, to explain that this isn’t right and that it isn’t fair when Roma can’t get education or jobs, but she started yelling nonsense and acting up. I asked her if that meant that she would like Mama to be quiet and let it be for awhile. She said, “Yes, be quiet.” So, I was.

But in the evening before bed it came up again. She started crying because we read a Winnie the Pooh book about how Tigger decides he wants to get rid of his stripes but then is convinced by all his friends that stripes are good and part of what makes Tigger special. Shaye was sad because she doesn’t have stripes. So, I tried listing the special things she does have.

Me: “You have beautiful long curly hair.”

Shaye: “I don’t have any hair.”

Me: “You have clear blue gray eyes.”

Shaye: “I don’t have any eyes.”

Okay, wrong tact.

Shaye: “What do you have?”

Me: “I have long hair that is a bit gray.”

Shaye: “I want your hair.”

Me: “I have little dots on my arms.”

Shaye: “I want dots.”

Me: “And Marik has big brown eyes.”

Shaye: “I want Marik’s eyes.”

Well, at least she doesn’t know all the stereotypes by heart yet.

Marik’s fever broke in the evening, so they went off to preschool again today. Preschool is the only place where they really get to see other kids regularly. Preschool is also where one of the teachers figured out at least Shaye’s Romani background based on her quick April tan and my admission that she was adopted here in the Czech Republic. Then, that teacher, who has been nothing but kindness and help to us, told the other teachers. I don’t begrudge that but it is a fact. And not all of the other teachers are as understanding. Two of them recently told my niece Ember their racist views in great detail until they drove her to tears. And they found out that Marik is Romani too, which is going to become obvious in another month when the sun reappears in any case.

What do you choose complete isolation from other children or a school where the teachers may view Shaye’s feisty temperament as a genetic ethnically based flaw and where casual comments could have devastating effects?

I know the American answer to that. I’ve read all the major books on trans-racial adoption. They say A. move away and B. find Romani friends. So, here is my explanation of our predicament, for the record.

I am legally blind. I can’t drive and it is very difficult for people with disabilities and particularly those who can’t drive to get a job in the US. Dusan’s English language abilities are very sketchy and due to dislexia he has little hope of improving them by much. If we moved out of the country, we would very likely be living in absolute poverty with Dusan working a minimum wage job and me lucky if I could find a minimum wage job that I could get to. That isn’t to say that poverty isn’t sometimes preferable but we aren’t quite there yet. We have not faced the full force of the racist society yet, because our children are still small. There may come a time when we have to leave but the risks of doing so are significant.

As for finding Romani friends, I am seriously perplexed. So far, I have tried reconnecting with Roma I knew as a journalist. I have tried hiring a Romani babysitter/language teacher. And I have tried getting connected to Romani organizations. I have done everything short of stopping the rare (read around once a year) Romani families I happen to pass on the street and begging them to be friends with us. Part of the problem here is that the Roma are a 3 percent minority here, at most. It is a very odd situation, given that in most places with significant interethnic tension, the minority is large enough to matter economically. Here the Roma are blamed for every difficulty of the country, as if they comprised a third of the population but they are in truth rarely seen.

In any event, I have failed at every turn. Whether this is my fault or something to do with the very protectionist Romani culture, I don’t know. Of the few Roma I knew well when I worked in Romani communities as a journalist most have simply disappeared. I went in person to find the homes of some of my Romani friends on the other side of the country, only to find the homes destroyed and the people gone. My closest Romani friend disappeared into an underworld of drugs and fear about a year ago and I have not heard from him since. One family, who remains stable and successful, has stopped speaking to me over what I assume must have been a cultural gaff on my part and even they live an eight-hour train ride away.

I tried hiring a Romani babysitter. I found one woman who was kind and good to the children and willing to come. I paid her better than a regular babysitter because I wanted her to work on speaking Romani language to the children as actively as possible. She did her best and for three short months we had her for one morning every week. But as time passed her health deteriorated until she rarely came and she had no energy to engage with the children at all when she did come. I finally went looking for another babysitter but I have not been able to find anyone and now Zdena, the woman who used to come, does not answer her phone or Facebook messages anymore. I have very few contacts among Roma in Prague, so mostly I asked around among Romani organizations.

Most of the Romani organizations I have approached were either geographically distant and thus unable to hep with local connections or simply not interested or in a couple of cases openly hostile. One man who came highly recommended by some of the better contacts in other cities, picked up the phone and said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about you,” with a sarcastic tone and then refused to say if he would pass on my offer of a babysitting job to others. I have not heard or read that Roma are as suspicious of interethnic adoption as some African American groups are, but it seems logical that they might have some of the same concerns. Perhaps this is the problem.

In any event, I hope that those who cry that trans-racial adoption stamps out the culture of the children might think a moment on this. I know for a fact that there are many adoptive families who either purposefully or through lack of awareness rob their trans-racially adopted children of their identity and culture. But how hard do birth communities make it for those of us who want the connection! Given that the Romani community does not want its children stolen away by children’s homes or adoption, there should be at least passive acceptance of those who try to make their way back, if not active support. I know it is easier said than done. The Romani community here in the Czech Republic has been beaten into the dust so many times that every effort at organizing comes from a massive gathering of strength and courage.

I do have plans, not great plans but little plans made out of match sticks and straw. There are a couple of big Romani music and dance festivals coming up. We will go and do it up well. But festivals will not result in relationships. The only thing I can think of for that is that as the children get older, I will volunteer to do English or art classes at Romani children’s summer camps run by charities or at some of the inner-city after-school clubs run by other organizations. At least then we would come into real contact with Romani kids. Generally the kids attending such programs will be eight or nine at the youngest. Until our children are close to that age, we will be pretty much on our own.

As I held my children on either side of me, one burning with fever and the other wracked by the self doubt brought on by a racist society, I noted how similar the two ailments seem to be. Both are painful reactions to an invasion of something that poses danger. Both children needed to be held and comforted.. And yet the fever passes and the identity struggle is only beginning.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Annmarie
    Mar 12, 2013 @ 10:42:54

    wow! you have touched my heart. luv and hugs x

    Reply

  2. Rebecca
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 14:08:57

    Nazdar! I’m an American, been in the CR for several years now. I may have some Roma connections for you – send me your email!

    Reply

  3. Nathaniel Farnam
    Mar 20, 2013 @ 04:19:42

    Dealing with such overt and socially-accepted racism seems like it would be so, so hard! My heart breaks for sweet little Shaye!

    Reply

  4. Kathleen Evergreen
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 16:29:45

    Much work still needs to be done all over the world to end racism. My heart breaks for you and your children. With your love and care and very good ideas I think you are doing the best you can for your kids. My bff adopted two boys of African American race. The are for the most part grown, but they had their trials and tribulations too. It is very sad that as humans we still have not learned to be loving and kind to all our fellow human beings. We really are all one on one planet earth and we need all the love and support to care for our earth and ourselves. Blessings to you Arie and your family ❤

    Reply

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    Aug 02, 2013 @ 08:44:44

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