How a Little Empathy and an Offhand Comment Changed My Worldview
Upstate New York
A few years ago I moved back to upstate NY, to the small town where I was born and raised. If I’m being completely honest, I was a bit apprehensive. While I grew up here, I was now married to a wife from Hong Kong who wore a headscarf, and we had a daughter named Aisha. Rural upstate New York isn’t known as a bastion of diversity and tolerance. I couldn’t help but wonder, how would they be treated?
Nonetheless, I enrolled my daughter in the elementary school that I attended as a child, and hoped for the best. As I was in the office, filling in the paperwork, I shared how I was also a student at the school. The secretary asked me for my name and when I attended. She came back with a card that had all my elementary school teachers. As she read them off, a flood of memories and emotions filled my mind. Then she said I should meet someone. I didn’t catch exactly who she was talking about, but soon someone arrived in the office. It was one of my former teachers, who was still an active volunteer at the school. She came to the office to meet me and my family. She still remembered me, and welcomed me back, she even shared that her daughter-in-law was now a teacher at the school.
My Daughter’s Upstate New York Experience
As fate would have it, my former teacher’s daughter-in-law ended up becoming my daughter’s teacher. She was an incredible teacher and my daughter thoroughly enjoyed being in her class. Knowing that we’re Muslim she even asked for my daughter’s help in teaching the unit on Islam to the other students. Then, when Eid rolled around she got the whole class to celebrate the holiday. It was a teaching opportunity for her, a way to give the students a first-hand experience with a Muslim and a Muslim holiday. They even created and signed an Eid card for my daughter. It was a touching moment for her, and more so for me and my wife. I grew up alone as a Muslim in rural upstate NY. It wasn’t easy for me. I just wanted to fit in, but I knew I was different, and I never felt comfortable sharing my faith with my classmates. I was moved that my daughter experienced the kind of support and empathy I only dreamed of.
As we were in the process of considering a move back to California, we flew out for some house hunting. In addition, we ended up meeting with some Muslim friends. My wife and I were sharing our experiences in New York with them, and then my friend said something interesting. He said he, “couldn’t live with people like that.” I was surprised to hear that. I always operated under the assumption that Muslims who grew up in the US knew and trusted their non-Muslim neighbors. He developed this fear of rural white Americans, because of the images he saw on television. Which is ironically why many rural Americans have a poor impression of Muslims, as their only exposure comes from the negative images portrayed on the news.
For me this was a life-changing moment. It shook my very understanding of the world. It was at that moment that I realized we’ve all retreated into our “communities”, surrounding ourselves with those like us, listening to media that confirms our worldviews, becoming ever more fearful of “the other.”
Living at the intersection of these worlds has given me a unique perspective. I grew up with these rural Americans. I’ve seen their racism first hand, but I’ve also seen their honesty, generosity and kindness. These are the people that taught me right from wrong, and the importance of good manners. The vast majority are good and honest people earning a living, and raising their families the best way they knew how. The same can be said for the Muslim community.
Because my wife and I lived with these people and knew them as individuals, we could look beyond the media stereotypes. We remembered walking along rural roads and everyone who passed would wave hello. We remembered how they would hold the doors open for us, and how they would greet us with a smile. We remembered our daughter’s teacher and her entire class celebrating Eid with her, helping her to feel welcome in a community that may not have shared her faith, but did share her values.