Monday, May 03, 2010

Everyone Has a Story

I rarely read fiction. People's real life stories are far more intriguing to me than any fiction I've read. What was Elie Wiesel thinking while he in the Nazi concentration camps? What did the guy who had to babysit the hydrogen bomb think of his job? Why did those families in north eastern Kentucky start feuding? What kept those families going during the Dust Bowl?

My pastor is fond of saying that everyone has a story. But not all stories have to be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Everyone's personal story is a microcosm of the larger story which try to answers the questions who am I, why am I here, and where am I going? And while your story might not be dramatic or heroic, like beauty, its appeal is in the eye of the beholder. You never know who out there has experienced something similar. My husband likes to joke that if a group of women are together long enough, they will start sharing their birth stories. Like members of a VFW post, we women will share our "war stories." I think we share them simply because we want to connect with people. We're not trying to teach someone any great moral lesson. Sometimes it is enough to know that someone shared a similar experience and you are not alone.

I met Arlene in the winter of 2003. Her accent immediately indicated that she was not from Rhode Island.  Of course the first assumption was that she was British, but she was actually from South Africa. As soon as I learned this, memories came up of the 80's and everyone being up in arms about South Africa's Apartheid policies. I remember Little Stevie van Zandt's song with the chorus "I ain't gonna play Sun City". I remember the movie "Biko" about the anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko who mysteriously died in police custody. Growing up with this did not give me a well rounded view of South Africans. I basically grew up with the notion that white South Africans were evil.

While spending my junior year of college in England, I found myself alone with a woman on the bus traveling from the airport into the city. She pulled out her passport and I could see it was South African. Here I was, sitting across from the enemy. I remember wondering if I should make conversation with her. As if, from this woman, I was going to find out just what was up with the Afrikaaner's thinking. This thought was obviously born of a less mature mind which did not take into consideration the past and present racism in the US.

When I met Arlene, I had finished Covenant by James Michener a few weeks prior (fiction, ironically enough). It began with the foundation of South Africa in 1652 and followed three families all the way to modern times. So already I was curious about the evolution of South Africa as a country. How could a country, "discovered" by Europeans roughly the same time as America, take such a divergent path?

Being familiar with the "stranger in a strange land" feeling, my husband and I made of point of befriending Arlene and her husband. I find that acclimating to a new place has a lot to do with the smaller details of living. Things like, where can I get milk at a good price? What if I need some furniture on the cheap? Where's a good place to go with the kids? So we would have them over for dinner to help with these things.

As we were talking over dinner one evening, Arlene told me that, during her first visit to the US as a young exchange student, she was ashamed to be South African. However, in her next visit as an adult, she could not have been prouder. This statement resonated with me.

I think when we're young, we have a perception of where we're living, and an assumption that what goes on in our world goes on everywhere else. Doesn't everybody live like us? And when you find out that isn't the case, how do you react?

I have been blessed to travel to other countries and, while not making a big display of it, I have always been proud to be an American. I'm not naive to the troubles the U.S. has or has caused elsewhere, but I don't think I've ever been ashamed of my country. So when Arlene shared her embarrassment with me, I wanted to know how this happened, why this happened. I asked her if we could write her story together and she graciously agreed.

Over the next year or so, I'm hoping to post a segment of Arlene's story on a monthly basis. She is truly a fascinating woman, and I am grateful to have met her. Everyone has a story and, while this might not resonate with everyone, out there is someone who needs to hear this particular story.


GE is me said...

Glad to see your start. And a good start it is. :)

Maria said...

I look forward to reading Arlene's story. You have great story telling abilities (as anyone who reads your blog knows)and I'm sure Arlene's story is fascinating.

Can't wait!