I can’t breathe… My heart is pounding… The world will end… Now! Now! Now!
I wake up. My entire face is covered in tears. My body hurts. I am lying on a make-shift bed in Maastricht, The Netherlands.
It has been three months since I’ve had to leave the USA, because I wasn’t offered an extension of my work visa. The high school where I was working submitted an application for me in March. In April, the government announced it will change the procedure, because there were 160 000 applicants for 60 000 visas. The new way of selecting eligible workers would be through lottery.
Two months after submitting the application, I see the headmistress and her deputy at the door. The glass is see-through so I can observe their faces. And I already know. My number wasn’t picked. Until that moment, I thought: I had the greatest job in the world, I was in love and I was going to get married, I had many friends, I had an apartment, I had a car. In one second, a hurricane called “The US Government” swept through all I thought I had… to leave me with… panic attacks.
Now, this is not to say that simply chasing me out of a country is equal to someone taking my life. Although, the mental state I was in for some years afterwards could have easily achieved just that. It is to say, that every person on Earth, at one moment or another, rich or poor, white or black or yellow or red, homosexual or heterosexual, a yankee fan or a red socks fan or no fan at all, faces despicable injustice. Sure the odds of facing this injustice are different for different groups in different places, but the pain that each human being feels is just as real.
For most of those cases we don’t hear. There is no beholder to record them and post them on a social media platform, so the entire world can reprimand the injustice. The person is doomed to face the pain alone and it seems to them that no one in the world cares. When it happened to me, I pleaded for help to just about any person of consequence I knew. I sent out a letter to a few offices in my college. The answer from everywhere was the same – we can’t help.
I imagine, this is what many in the black community feel like, when they send out proof of injustice and the government and social response seem inadequate. I imagine this is what Kaepernick felt like when he kneeled for the first time at a football game. I imagine this is what Muslims in the Middle East feel like, with American troops there teaching them about democracy. And just because we haven’t seen a soldier shoot an innocent bystander, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In fact, if any past wars are any indication, it happens, and it happens all the time. All of us know it, consciously or sub-consciously, yet we choose to ignore.
I find it startling how the human mind can tolerate the most gross injustice in one case and rebel against similar or even lesser one in another. But it can. And it has. For millennia.
Now I want to go into my experience with race and difference (because to me, race is only one way of perceiving and treating difference). I have grown up in Bulgaria where, for the most part (yet with many exceptions) people are tolerant towards Jews and Armenians, while at the same time lashing out at Turks for historical reasons, at the Roma (or as they are derogatively called gypsies) for socio-economic and purely racist reasons and of course at people of diverse sexuality for whatever reasons. It would be fair to say, I have grown up with a similar mindset. The only difference worth noting is that my grandfather had lived for two years in Guinea, Africa, where he had worked as an agricultural advisor. I grew up with his exotic stories of black Africans, who had offered him the warmest hospitality, so my attitude towards Africans was generally very positive (yet, I must note that when I left for college, my parents did throw the “joke” – do what you will, just don’t marry a black girl). As a white heterosexual male in my country, I almost never had to feel inferior, out of place.
When I went to college in the US, I was 18. For the first time I mingled with people of different race, sexuality and attitudes on a par basis. My response to this difference was mixed. I seemed to have absolutely no problems with race – I had very good African-American and Asian friends, I was OK-ish with people of different attitudes, but I was for sure not OK with people of different sexuality. To great shame and disappointment of my present self, I ditched or changed my attitude towards good friends, who dared share about their different sexuality, and on one instance I was outright verbally aggressive.
When I graduated, I started work as a teacher in a private high school, where again my students came in all shapes, colors and beliefs. This diversity fell apart, most notably in the dining hall, where there was a the cool white kids table, the loser white kids table, the African-American table, the Asian table, the Hispanic table. My concrete experience with students from the different races was as follows.
White students divided mostly along the lines cool-loser, rich-poor, boarder-townie. Most of them freely communicated with their peers from other races, with a few best friend relationships and a few romantic involvements. The only time I can remember a race issue was when one of the white “losers” asked whether one of the big African–American guys was emancipated. Which was a fair question, since the big guy did have a mean look to his attitude. As a result, a group of white and African-American guys bullied the white “loser” into submission, and I had to intervene to save him from physical harm.
Asian students had a clear hierarchical organization, with one leader, who was the shadow headmaster in their community. Their behavior was well-regulated, violators of the social norm were ostracized or bullied. While they communicated freely with children from all races, there were few out-of-race friendships and almost no romantic involvements that I can think of.
African-American students stuck together in general (especially in the canteen as already mentioned), but communicated freely with all other races. I could feel that some of the boys did have a bit of an anger issue, possibly related to race, which in addition to the described case, came up once again, when an iPOD went missing and was found with one of them. When confronted, the thief defended himself by saying, he recently bought the same iPOD as the missing one and he accused the investigators of being racist. The school didn’t pursue the case any further to avoid complications.
The Hispanic students were mostly quiet, and since there were few of them, they rather spread out among the other groups.
The plague, especially among male students of all races, was homosexuality, despite the school having an open and tolerant policy on that topic.
All of this background came into play for me in the soccer team. As head coach, I had to make these experiences come together. Unexpectedly, I had most problems with the white guys. First, the best player on the team (a white boy) told me he knows soccer better than my assistant, so issued me the following ultimatum: “Either you sack the assistant and replace him with me, or I won’t play”. “Well then, that’s easy” – I told him “You won’t play”. I had absolutely no problems with the Asian and African American players, who displayed outstanding discipline and excellent work ethic.
The starting positions of the team were distributed as follows – keeper white; defense – two Asians, two African Americans; midfield – one Asian, one Jewish, one Indonesian, one white; attack – one African-American, one white. In total – three African Americans, three Asians, three whites, one Jewish and one Indonesian. Almost all of the substitutes were white guys, from where I had most of my troubles. They handled reserve status poorly and often blamed me of incompetence.
The captain of the team was African American and he was the best captain I can imagine – cool headed, well-spoken, athletic, lead-by example. They were all great kids and I loved them all the same, regardless of the color of their skin and the peculiarities each race had. Years after, I learned one of the players was gay, and I felt so so bad for any homophobic remarks I may have tolerated.
We didn’t have a great season – if I remember well, we won as many as we lost. And I wouldn’t say I felt particularly successful as a coach. But it was an honor and a pleasure for me to spend that time with these boys.
When I lost my job and I had to leave the US, I lost that entire diverse universe that I felt was my life. I went back to Europe, where I felt there was a right way to look, think, act. This is why, that morning in Maastricht, I woke up in tears. It was the first school day in the US.
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