Last week, near the end of a two hour class, the students were grammar-ed out. I still had fifteen minutes before the end of class and I found myself telling my students about my upcoming trip to Pakistan.
A flood of questions followed. Would I be wearing a…they gestured to their faces, making a window around their eyes.
A burqua, no.
Would I be wearing a…they circled their head with their hands.
A hijab, no.
I drew on the board my wardrobe options, the traditional shalwar kameez, a baggy pant and shirt outfit. I tried explaining that the burqua and hijab are traditional outfits worn by Muslims, and that I wasn’t one.
This prompted another student to ask, are you uncomfortable with our questions? I smiled. No, I explained. Are you offended by them? No, I said. I like talking about these things, they help me create awareness and understanding.
He was thoughtful. You know, he said, when people see us they make assumptions. He didn’t elaborate, he didn’t have to. That’s why I talk about it, I said. To break those stereotypes. He nodded. He liked this.
In the very next breath, another student joked, will you bring me back seven wives.
And there we have it. Those cultural stereotypes, our way of seeing a whole group of people in this very “lowest common denominator” way seems to be the norm these days. We jump to those stereotyped images right away. Which was why at the same time as someone lamented on being stereotyped as day worker, someone else jumped to another culture’s stereotype.
My own preconceived notions are broken every day that I volunteer at the Day Worker’s Center. I now see not a group but individuals, individuals who, through the resources offered to them at the Center, are doing their best to make the most of things. Ruben can always be found scribbling furiously into his notebook words that have similar meanings: slink, crawl, creep, snake. It is my job to explain (or more often mime) the subtle differences. Mauricio very shyly shows me pictures of himself dressed up in a suit and tie, playing guitar with his church band on the weekends. And Ana’s toddler, Anavaleria, chants the ABCs right along with the rest of the class, her voice often rising confidently above other people’s.
I knew working at the Center would allow me to give back to my community. I didn’t expect it to give back to me as profoundly as it does.