My daughter and I stopped at the gas station the other day to grab some soda and a snack. We were talking in Croatian like always and the lady behind us smiled at me and said, “It’s so nice to see a mother and daughter together. If only you would speak English.” I was taken aback for a second, letting the words sink in. I was shocked at what I heard, but it wasn’t unimaginable because some people are afraid of different.
After a few seconds, I gathered myself and muttered a few choice words—in Croatian. We paid for snacks quickly and quietly left the store. I could see my daughter looking at me for a response and I was trying my best to do what I would want her to do, just let it go. However, it was difficult to do so.
As we were walking back to the car, I was brought back to my childhood when my mom and I would be speaking in Croatian and people would give us a sideways glance. Some people would come up and ask us if were speaking Spanish and others would avoid eye contact at all costs. Most people wouldn’t care, but everyone once in a while I could feel the negativity radiate off of people who disapproved that we were different.
I remember feeling embarrassed by the situation. At the time, I was ashamed that we were speaking a different language because I so wanted to fit in. However, as I got older I became more confident, I didn’t care what others thought of me. I embraced my difference.
When we got into the car, my daughter asked, “Why did that lady say that, Mama?” I took a deep breathe and turned around to face her.
“Baby, some people don’t like different,” I replied.
“But, why?” she pressed.
It’s a valid question. I often wonder that myself. I feel like the more diverse this country becomes, the more polarized people become.
There are people who embrace different. The people who accept different. The people who want to learn about differences.
THAT’S the group I belong to. I love that we, the human population, are different. I teach my kids about different cultures through food, through festivals, through friends. I want my children to accept different, because I believe that is how we grow. That’s how we grow as people, as neighborhoods, as a nation. I believe we will move forward and succeed only when we accept people for who they are, differences and all.
I looked at her and I said, “I think some people get scared by differences. People who aren’t used to different can be slow to change, baby.”
She nodded her head as it sank in. She sat back and looked at me and said, “Well, I think that being around different is cool. It’s never boring.”
There were so many things I wanted to say to her as we were driving off. On one hand, I wanted to hold my daughter and tell her that my heart hurt that she had to hear that comment. On the other hand, I wanted to find that lady and talk to her in Croatian until she was blue in the face. I also wanted to feed her sarma (a traditional Croatian dish of meat and rice rolled into cabbage) until she threw up. Somewhere, I settled in-between. However, my daughter looked like she had moved on. She was quietly coloring in the backseat. Perhaps she was still contemplating what just happened, but I felt like letting it go was the best thing I could do.
I’m sure this won’t be the last time she or I hear something like this. But I want to equip her with the tenacity and drive to move on from these situations, and the confidence to know that “different” is a beautiful world to live in.