When I was in fifth grade, our teacher announced that a new student would be joining us all the way from China. The girl didn’t speak a word of English, so it would be up to us to help her out and make her feel welcome. I was at the time living in the sort of small town — officially a Village — where everyone had grown up with everyone else, the teachers comparing students to their parents before them (myself excluded, as I’d only moved to that city at the beginning of the school year). And here they were getting a new student, not only from another city, another state, but another country. Thus the new kid was seen as exotic and exciting, and for their credit the kids, who had never before seen anyone different than them, reacted with curiosity and awe, rather than fear or mistrust.
The transition to middle school and then high school was an eye opening experience for a lot of kids, because not only were there strange kids they’d never met before, but also they were different in terms of ethnicity. By chance I always seemed to find myself socializing (if you could call what I did socializing) with the minority, perhaps because I never felt like I belonged in my group anyway. That being said, the diversity in my small town school was still very lacking, and the student body was composed predominately of white lower to middle class children, again most of whom had known each other since before they’d even been born.
College was my first time emerging from small towns to the city proper, but even that wasn’t so much of a change. We had our cluster of International students (and again I found myself gravitating toward them) but mostly again was the same demographic, although moving more into the middle-to-upper class, since the tuition was bordering on ridiculous. The interesting twist on this, however, was that between my freshman and sophomore years the school relocated, moving from a very posh, upper class, park-and-townhouse area (which no students could ever dream to afford living in) to a very urban, well, ghetto. This was Over-The-Rhine, the bastard child of Cincinnati known most famously for a series of racial riots in 2001 (and to a lesser extent, for a band of the same name, of which I’m sorry to say I can tell you nothing about). The move to Over-the-Rhine was claimed as an attempt at revitalization of the troubled neighborhood, although many students and their families were opposed to it.
I moved into town a few months after my sophomore year after conceding that the commute was just too much of a hassle, and after that most of my friends and family refused to visit me. Myself, I was proud of my ghetto, and more to the point, I was proud of living in the ghetto without fear, although I admit that it did take some time before I stopped feeling as if I stuck out like a sore white thumb. And I couldn’t help but assuming that I knew any white person that I happened to spot on the street, which usually was truth more often than not.
One of the things that stuck in my mind when researching my move to Hawaii is the fact that Caucasians are very much in the minority. In fact, there really is no majority, and this is an issue that seems to be discussed often by mainlanders looking to move to the islands. There are varying opinions on the difficulty of being white in Hawaii, from having problems making friends, finding a job, even to violence. I kept this information in mind, but decided not to worry too much about it. I had family in Hawaii, experience (although minimal) with diversity, and it’s not like I’d ever really fit in in the first place.
For the most part, I didn’t have any problems, even when I first arrived. It wasn’t something I even paid attention to, and for the most part I assume that other people don’t pay attention to me. I don’t even get mistaken much for a tourist, because, as one shopkeeper explained, tourists usually travel in packs, not alone (and this was something I was told long before I even decided to move to Hawaii). The only time I really felt out of place was when I went to my first appointment with my doctor, who advertises as being fluent in Vietnamese. Sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by foreign signs and the constant chatter in a foreign language, I felt very white. I’ve since gotten over my initial discomfort and enjoy trying to teach myself how to say “Please have your insurance card ready” in Vietnamese.
Half a year after moving to Hawaii, I went back to Ohio to visit my family and tie up loose ends. For the first few days after arriving, things just felt off somehow. It wasn’t until my mother and I stopped at a Chinese restaurant for lunch that I suddenly realized what the matter was; I wasn’t used to being surrounded by so many white people.
Wikipedia has some information on the 2001 riots. I don’t remember them much myself (it happened at a time in my life which I don’t remember much of anything from) but I do know that my grandma, who worked down there at the time, had her car destroyed by rioters.