I was sitting in the back of the van one day in Kyrgyzstan, next to Daniya, the local volunteer coordinator. Daniya is kind and green and new to her job, and I sensed that she was having a rough time, but she's also very girly, so while I felt like it was important to talk to her, I also struggled to come up with things to talk about.
I had noticed that there were a lot of Korean restaurants in the neighborhood where we were working on the house.
Ask me how I could tell.
Go ahead, ask.
OK, I'll just tell you. It was because I could read the signs in front of the restaurants. The Russian signs.
So anyway, I decided to ask her if there a lot of Korean people in Kyrgyzstan or if they were just concentrated in that one neighborhood. It turns out, in fact, that Daniya's own family is Korean. Originally her family (and a lot of Korean people) settled in the part of the Soviet Union that was near, well, Korea. So, they were living just across some water from their home country, when World War II started, and because Korean people look Japanese (but don't say so to the Koreans or the Japanese), the Russians decided to forcibly relocate them to an interior part of the country so they wouldn't collude with the enemy. Both sides of Daniya's family were left in what must have felt like the middle of nowhere, and they had to figure out how to make a living in the high desert deep in the center of Asia.
I was still trying to wrap my mind around the massive relocation of Daniya's entire family just two generations ago, and also trying to figure out how to get me an invitation to her grandma's house for some dolsot bibimbap, when I realized that the conversation was lagging. OK, next question. I knew she'd been in the US in college, so I asked her what she noticed most about living in my home country.
After a lifetime of living in Kyrgyzstan, I thought she might have noticed that you could walk across the street in a well-marked crosswalk without fearing for your life. I thought maybe she would have remarked upon the good-tasting potable water that comes from the tap. I figured she'd be impressed with how safe the drivers on the highway are, mostly sticking to their own lanes, and only rarely creating new ones in order to pass other cars. I thought she might notice the green, since she lived in St Louis, and K-stan was feeling pretty dry and brown to me in late July.
So, imagine my surprise when she pondered for less than 30 seconds before answering, in that quiet, halting English, "I think I noticed the segregation first," she said. She lived in a dorm in St Louis. The first two floors were filled with white people, she said. The floor she lived on with her Russian roommate was nearly all African American. She noticed the neighborhoods in St Louis. The places where white people didn't live. The places where black people did.
She got quiet. I felt like apologizing for the arrogance of the question (or at least of what I expected in her answer) and for the inequity revealed by her honest answer. She wasn't at all accusatory, didn't blame me for having white skin, or suspect me of creating an unfair system. She just reported on the facts as she noticed them as an outsider suddenly living inside our country.
And I say unto you, friends and countrymen-and-women, do we really want to live in a country where people from the outside notice first our racism and our segregation? Aren't we all equally hurt by that perception? Isn't it finally time to be done with it?