We sat cross-legged on the floor in rows. Our green-eyed kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Zebok was perched before us on a child sized chair, her knees pulled to her chest as she taught. Instead of listening to her, my eyes roamed around the room, focusing on the boy in front of me.
He was a Cambodian boy, one of the thousands of refugee kids that were coming to Huntington Beach in the late seventies. He was pudgy with jet black hair. As he sat with his back to me, his pants gaped open at the waistband so I could see his underwear. These were not just any underwear. He was wearing girl underwear. They were white with pink flowers and a pink lace band peeked out of his corduroy pants. Snickering to my five year old self I reached to poke him, to make fun.
But something stopped me. My hand fell to my lap as I wrestled with questions and curiosity: Didn’t he know those were girls’ underwear? Why would he wear them if he knew? Did he get to choose what he wore like I did? As an adult reflecting back I see there were two reasons that this boy would be wearing pink girl underwear. One, they were all he had and there was no money to buy other underwear. Or two, culturally he didn’t know that these were girls’ underwear. Maybe my kindergarten mind somehow grasped this reality even though I didn’t have language to articulate it at the time.
I thought about it and kept quiet.
Even as five year olds we knew that the refugee kids were new in our community. Their timid mannerisms and accents showed us they were learning the language and culture. At school about half of my class was Cambodian students. At church there was a woman who brought a busload of Cambodian kids to Sunday School every week. Our teachers welcomed them, teaching them the songs and games to play along with us Anglo kids. At home my dad was teaching me Spanish phrases and every morning on my way to school my mom admonished me to include the student who didn’t have any friends. While I don’t remember being given specific instructions about how to treat the immigrant kids I suddenly found in my life, the adults around me modeled compassion and a joy of learning about other cultures. Perhaps it was these influences that kept me from teasing my classmate that day.
This past month brought us more news about the growing refugee crisis in Syria and the Middle East. Bordering countries and European nations are straining under the pressure of 4 million displaced people. In the US we hear the gamut of rhetoric from compassionate calls to welcome refugees to promises to send them back before they even arrive. Reflecting on my kindergarten experience, I’m reminded that this is not the first time we have wrestled with an influx of immigrants. In fact, people immigrating to our communities from other countries has been the norm. What are we afraid of now?
When I wonder where my passion for immigrants came from, I think back on this early encounter. It is the first time I realized that some people are poor. It was the first time I remember experiencing compassion. I do not know what stopped me in that moment but I believe the Holy Spirit was planting a seed of compassion for immigrants in my soul and life that has lasted to this day.