Growing up abroad as the expat and attending international private schools was a privilege in itself, but one thing that wasn’t taught in depth when I was growing up was racism, because for me, diversity was the norm. I attended International School Bangkok (ISB) for the duration of my years in Thailand. From grades four through eight I was privileged enough to attend this prestigious institute, and I call it an institute because it was more than just a school. It was a safe place and it was one of the most diverse and opened-minded communities of people I have ever been exposed to. Now having lived in New York for the last six years, it may seem strange that to me, New York is not as diverse as ISB. And here’s why: although in America, New York is definitely amazingly diverse, and I realize the privilege of living in such a diverse city (especially with everything occurring politically in the US), despite the diversity of this state, the opened-mindedness of my peers and teachers at a school like ISB is something that will never compare to anywhere.
When I moved to the United States, I took for granted the President was African-American. When I lived in Thailand, I took for granted that I had friends from the Netherlands, Bolivia, Italy, Ethiopia and South Korea. When I lived in Bhutan, I took for granted that I was considered a VIP in that country due to the fact that my dad was a United Nations official. And those things I took for granted became the hard lessons I learned when I moved to the United States and first encountered the undertones of racism. This realization came to me when I was in public high school in New York. I did not know how to even begin to grasp the concept that skin color actually mattered. Everything about moving to the United States was foreign to me, but the concept of racism was by far the most foreign thing I experienced, and it was racism that really set the culture shock in motion.
Now culture shock is a strange concept in itself, and culture shock is ultimately what made me so unhappy for the first year of living in the US. On top of my inability to let go of the past, culture shock also prevented me from connecting with anyone on an emotional level because I felt as though we did not have anything in common. Now add racism into the mix – something I had never been exposed to – and the culture shock I was feeling sky-rocketed. Now, when I say racism, I don’t mean racial slurs being said aloud to people. I mean the small comments made to fellow students, such as as stereotyping all people of Asian decent for having small eyes, or all African-Americans being good at sports. These stereotypes fueled the undertones of racism within American public schools. However, not once have I thought about a person as a stereotype, so I considered what was happening in high school to be racism. When living abroad, I had peers and teachers from six continents all coexisting in the same space, and not once did the shape of someone’s eyes, or the color of someone’s skin cross my mind as something to make fun of or dislike. And the sad truth of it all is that I did not know how to cope with this concept, and that is why I say I took the diversity I was exposed to for granted.
I moved to the US under the Obama Administration. He was elected President of the United States while I was attending ISB and at the time I was thrilled but not for the right reasons. I was thrilled solely because I liked Obama and when you’re in sixth grade, the person you are rooting for in an election is solely based on whether or not you like them, not their political standpoint. I was beyond happy that he won the election because I favored him, not because he had made history as the first African-American President to be elected. He broke every social norm up until this point in the United States and it took forty-four elections to do it. And it was not until the most recent election in which I could vote, that I truly understood the magnitude of the impact that Obama being elected had on not only the US but also the world. And that is because I was so sheltered to the concept of racism due to living in such a diverse community of people abroad. And although that community is something I would never give up, it sheltered me from a very real and uncomfortable topic in the world, so being exposed to racism at fourteen was that much tougher. I truly took the diversity of the community I was living within for granted. Once I was no longer surrounded by such an opened-minded community and I was thrown into a community that was less opened-minded than that of the international community, it was a difficult transition to make.