Suva, So Good

, , , , , | Hopeless | January 21, 2018

This story takes place over 40 years ago, when I was four. Even though I was so young, I remember it vividly. My parents owned a tobacco farm. This was back when private farmers were allowed to grow tobacco commercially. They’re not, anymore, and the farm is now apples and kiwifruit.

During the harvest, most of the picking was done by workers from Fiji, big men who would come to New Zealand and work impossibly long hours in the fields, earning every cent they could. Their money would be sent home, saved carefully, and made to last until they returned the following year.

In the small town where I grew up, there were no people of any colour, not even Māori (native New Zealanders), so my sister and I had never seen black people before. The workers were huge, ebony-black men with big shaggy afros and deep, booming voices. The first time we met them we screamed and ran away crying. Our parents were mortified. They tried everything they could to stop us being afraid of the workers and to get us to interact with them more positively, but nothing worked.

The workers were more sad than offended. They loved children and missed their own dreadfully.

One day I wandered away from my mother in the tobacco field. Those fields were vast spaces, with tobacco plants in long, long rows, taller than I was. Soon, I was hopelessly lost. My family panicked, but it was one of the Fijians who had the bright idea of climbing onto the roof of one of the sheds so he could look down on the fields. It didn’t take him long to spot me, and he ran towards me.

I was hiding under a tobacco plant, crying. As he got closer, he slowed down and hid behind a plant, too. Of course, as he was so huge, I could see him, and I was scared. I slowly peeked out… and so did he. Then, he let out a gasp and a squeal and hid again. This went on for a few minutes; both of us peeking out and hiding again when we saw each other. I started to giggle and walked shyly out from behind the plant. He jumped to his feet and ran off down the row in a cartoon-like fashion, his arms and legs going in all directions, letting out the same high-pitched squeal. Of course, I ran after him, laughing all the way… and we ran right back to my parents, who were by that stage almost hysterical.

I soon learned that all the workers had the same comic, zany sense of humour where kids were involved, and that they loved to play as much as we did. My sister and I became fast friends with them; in fact, we were probably pains in their a**es, because we kept wanting to play with them while they were picking.

Most of us grow up and learn that racism is a terrible thing. I was lucky in that I learned it very early on, and I have never, ever been able to tolerate the notion that someone is less, or more, because of skin colour. I have always been grateful to my first Fijian buddy for teaching me this incredibly valuable lesson.

Real Estate Just Got Real

, , , , | Hopeless | January 19, 2018

(I’m a property manager. I’m showing a house for rent to a young couple. Having just been in the house to unlock and check it over, I cringe a little when I see the couple pull up and get out of their car. The man is very clearly wearing a collar that indicates he is a priest or pastor of some kind. I’m an atheist and don’t have a lot of good experiences with religious people, plus, I’m well aware of what the inside of the house looks like. They greet me very warmly, take their adorable toddler out of the backseat, and start commenting on how nice the street is.)

Preacher: “Shall we go inside? It’s in a great location, only a few blocks from my church! We’re so excited to finally take over our own church; our last one was a challenge.”

Me: “Uh, yes, but I have to warn you, it’s currently being used as a share house for a few university students.”

Wife: *laughs* “We’re no strangers to a bit of mess!”

(We walk inside the house and I brace myself for impact. Obviously the occupants of the house are an eclectic bunch, because in the lounge-room there is some kind of Wiccan altar set up, and nailed above the door is a Jewish star. Just inside one of the rooms there are mannequins set up with drag costumes hanging on them, several pictures of two young men dressed in said costumes, along with pictures of those two young men out of drag, kissing. The couple says nothing about any of this. They ask me about school districts, local shops, and other mundane questions about parking and ceiling fans. I relax more and more as they talk, and eventually they glance at each other and start laughing.)

Preacher: “Ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying, you walked in here as nervous as a lizard on a hot road.”

Wife: *still laughing* “Did you think we were going to flip out?”

Me: “Well, I wasn’t sure how you were going to react to all this. I mean, it is a lot…”

Preacher: *points at the Star of David and addresses his daughter* “What’s that, honey?”

Little Girl: “Star of David! Like Aunty’s necklace! And look, Daddy: those boys have pretty dresses! They’re in love!”

Preacher: “They sure do!”

Little Girl: “They gonna get married?”

Preacher: “I hope they can soon!”

(While the couple ended up going with a different house closer to their church, I will never forget the faith in humanity they restored for me that day. I feel like they are what Christians are supposed to be. I still see them regularly; their church rents a few of my houses as women’s safe havens and a halfway house for homeless in our area!)

Lighting A Candle For Her Every Single Day

, , , , , | Hopeless | January 17, 2018

(It’s been a long and terrible day at work. I want to slam my head into the register. I have nobody in my line for a while until an elderly man walks up. He carefully places some items onto the belt: some bread, ice cream, a magazine, and two little candles. I take a deep breath to greet him.)

Me: “Hello, sir! How are you?”

Man: “I am doing very well. How about yourself, young lady?”

Me: “I am doing fine! Would you like paper or plastic?”

Man: “Plastic is just fine! Can you please be careful of these candles? They’re my wife’s favorites!”

Me: “Of course!”

(The transaction goes by just fine. He starts chatting with another customer and me.)

Man: “I remember coming in here with her. She’d pick out those candles, I’d accidentally drop them and break them, and she’d smack my arm and laugh. Sweet days. She was such a sweet lady.”

Me: “Oh… She’s…”

Man: “She’s been gone ten years, now. Sometimes I buy these candles for her, hoping to see her again to enjoy them. It hasn’t worked so far, but I won’t stop trying!”

(I finished his transaction with tears in my eyes, and wished him and the other customer well. That’s probably the most bittersweet thing I’ve ever heard.)

To Art Is Freedom

, , , , , | Hopeless | January 15, 2018

(I am giving a high school lecture about Japanese pop culture. It involves drawing manga. At the end of the lecture, the kids are allowed to create their own art. One of the kids is the typical “bad boy”: he’s never picked up a pencil, never interacted, and he’s in trouble all the time. After the lecture, we chat a few times as I try to give him ideas and get him to work. It isn’t particularly effective. When I am next in the front of the class, the boy suddenly comes up to me.)

Boy: “If I want to draw a superhero, is that okay, too?”

Me: “Of course! You can draw whatever you want!”

Boy: “But how would I draw his face, then?”

(I walk to the whiteboard and grab a marker. I actually repeat the whole lesson I have just given about drawing a basic manga-style face.)

Boy: “I can’t draw that.”

Me: “Sure, you can. How about you try it? This is a whiteboard; if it fails, we can just erase it.”

Boy: “Nah, I can’t do that.”

Me: “Then, do what you can. What can you draw?”

Boy: “Well, this…”

(The boy draws a superhero, barely more than a stick-figure.)

Me: “Not bad. How about you try this?”

(The boy follows the tips and keeps on drawing… and drawing… and drawing. Soon, the whole whiteboard is filled. I even remove my own drawings so he has more space. The teacher sees this and walks up. I know she is very open-minded, and she nods approvingly.)

Teacher: “You know what, [Boy]? Take a picture of this and put it in your report.”

Boy: “I’m not done yet.”

Teacher: “Then by all means, go ahead! Don’t forget to put a picture of it in your report, so I can grade it.”

(The boy continues his work and after class, the boy takes a picture of it. When the kids are gone, we evaluate the lecture, and the teacher tells me more about the boy.)

Teacher: “He lives with his father, who thinks art is a waste of time. This might be the first time he has drawn since elementary school.”

(Elementary school would have been two or three years ago for this boy.)

Me: “He does seem to like to draw.”

Teacher: “And this is the first time I have seen him express himself. I don’t care that he didn’t use traditional inking techniques or even manga-style; he drew!”

(At that moment, the boy pops in from the hallway.)

Boy: “You didn’t erase it yet?”

Teacher: “Of course not! I want to enjoy this masterpiece for as long as I can!”

(It was the last lecture I gave at that school, so I don’t know what became of that boy, but this teacher really inspired me. Even now, about five years later, I use the phrase: “Focus on what you can, not what you can’t.”)

Guardian Angel: Roadside Assistance

, , , , | Hopeless | January 13, 2018

(I am driving along a country road in unusually cold and snowy weather when I skid on a patch of ice and crash through a hedge. I have my two kids in the car with me, and we are unhurt, but pretty shaken up. We get out of the car and, sure enough, it is utterly stuck. The weather is very, very cold, it is starting to get dark, and we aren’t dressed for it. I try to phone my husband to get him to come and rescue us, but there is no reply. I decide to ring the rescue service, but I know they’ll take an hour or so to get there. Just as I am starting to get really worried, a van drives past, reverses, and pulls up alongside us. I tense up, realising we are pretty vulnerable, out there in the middle of nowhere. A tall, muscular-looking woman wearing muddy manual labour clothing gets out and comes over to us. She gives us a cheerful smile, as if seeing us made her day.)

Woman: “I’ve got some ropes in the van; would you like me to haul you out?”

Me: “Oh, yes, please, if you could!”

Woman: “Are you all okay? Anybody hurt?”

Me: “No, we’re fine.”

Woman: *to my kids* “I bet you’re cold, though. Hang on…”

(She goes and rummaged in her cabin and gets out two fluffy blankets with cute cartoon owls on them. She kneels down — in the snow! — and talks to my kids.)

Woman: “These are for you, if you want them.”

(My son and daughter, a bit shocked and shy about this strange woman, look at me, and I nod. They take the blankets gratefully and wrap themselves up in them.)

Woman: “Right, let’s get you out.”

(She quickly gets our car roped up to her van and easily pulls it backwards out of the hedge and back onto the road. It is such a huge relief when I am able to start the engine successfully.)

Woman: “Have you got far to go?”

Me: “We’re just going to [Nearby Town].”

Woman: “Is it okay if I escort you? Just to make sure your car isn’t damaged?”

Me: “Uh, yes, please.”

Woman: “Okay, I was heading that way, anyway. I’ll follow you.”

(Sure enough, the car was fine, and she waved goodbye when we got into town. What I really regret, and why I’m writing this, is that I never said, “Thank you.” I was too shaken up by the whole thing. So, if you’re reading this, mysterious lady, many thanks; you might have saved our lives. My daughter is now in her teens and still has the blanket with the owls on it. She says her guardian angel gave it to her.)

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