Volume 17 • Issue 19 | October 01 - 07, 2004


The joys of growing up where no culture is foreign

By Jane Flanagan

One recent weekend, a houseguest returned from an afternoon jaunt, walked into my kitchen and announced, “I don’t like New York, it’s a rude place. And I know why, too. It’s those foreigners.”

This person, a relative, is mentally handicapped which partially explains this statement. But still, it shocked me. Since I was sitting there with my young son, I also had a problem. How not to antagonize my guest, while making it clear that this notion was absurd?

Fortunately, it quickly became clear that my six-year-old, Rusty, didn’t know what a “foreigner” was. Luckilly, my relative forgot about being upset immediately. But I didn’t. I thought about it for the rest of the day.

This fellow may be handicapped, but he didn’t invent this fear of foreigners. I know the milieu he grew up in, and he was bluntly parroting back what he learned as a child. That world was imbued with a mistrust of anyone different. Not just foreigners either. Other races and religions were suspect as well. I know this world because I grew up there, too.

It’s a key reason why I moved to New York City. It’s also why I won’t leave. My husband would prefer to live in the suburbs, but I can’t do it. After my houseguest’s outburst, I began focusing on why New York has such an appeal.

That afternoon, my son and I headed out the door of our Battery Park City apartment. We walked to Rockefeller Park on a glorious, late summer day. People of all shades and dress were sunning themselves, picnicking on the lawn and playing basketball. At the gatehouse we ran into Rusty’s friend, Uma, and her family. The kids have been friends since babyhood.

Uma’s mom, Maria, is from Italy. Her dad, Kweku, a native New Yorker and an African-American, attended the United Nations International School along with children from around the world.

Uma’s babysitter, Verollen, from Belize, is a close friend of Rusty’s babysitter, Veera, from Trinidad. When Rusty was in preschool, Uma, too young to go herself, would arrive there at noon with Verollen to pick him up. Before long, Uma, too, was putting crayons to paper. By the time she was ready for school, it was clear where she was going. Her artwork was already on the wall.

One reason I enjoy this anecdote is because it illustrates how radically different my son’s early childhood was from mine. As a preschooler, my best friends, all my friends in fact, were just like me. So were the adults. And that didn’t change as I got older, either. We were the same race (white), religion (Catholic - I don’t even remember a Protestant on the block) — and our parents came from Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan. They all moved to that suburban town to get away from the city.

As I was standing in the park chatting with Uma’s parents, another friend, Nina, stopped by. Upon being introduced, Nina quickly lapsed into Italian. A native New Yorker, she managed to learn four foreign languages while growing up here. She did that by attending a school you can probably only find in New York.

Later, I got to chatting with Nina’s husband, Jonathan, and discovered that he grew up in Stuyvesant Town on the East Side. I asked him what it was like to grow up there.

A smile came to his face and he said, “I had all kinds of friends.”

He explained that one friend’s father was a corporate financier, who held the number two post at the New York Stock Exchange. Another was the son of a single mother, a lesbian, who struggled to get by while somehow finding time to promote gay rights.

Jonathan went on to explain that his father was an original tenant at Stuy Town, the huge complex built in the 1940’s for returning World War II veterans. Initially, however, this vet had trouble getting in.

“It was restricted,” said Jonathan. “No Jews.”

That only lasted a year, however, because the landlord, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, decided to lift the ban.

“They had to,” said Jonathan. “This was New York.”

Later, Rusty and I moved onto the playground where my relative joined us. Sitting on a bench we watched as Hasidic children scampered by and I reflected on how on any given day, I overhear conversations in Russian, Spanish and Chinese.

Later, on our way to the subway, my relative and I bumped into another friend of Rusty’s, Jim. His family is from Vietnam.

Speaking of foreigners, Rusty is one himself. He was born in an orphanage in Moscow. Thanks to the neighborhood he’s growing up in, by the time he understands what the word “foreigner” means, he’ll think that’s a pretty cool thing.


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