Life's many places - and faces

I had heard about them before, but had never seen one. Perhaps that was because of my sheltered life as a country girl living near a small town in Saskatchewan. I had grown up around people who were mostly a mix of Eastern European, Ukrainian, and Italian ancestries, as well as with Cree Indians. But as a girl in a relatively isolated area, I had never seen a "colored" person. In my life, they existed only on TV or in books.

Years later I moved to British Columbia and met the man who later became my husband. He introduced me to the musical world of Bob Marley and the Whalers, island rhythm, and reggae blues. Still, my exposure to the people playing the music was limited to record covers and the occasional televised concert. It was only when we went to Vancouver on a day trip that things changed.

We wandered around Granville Island observing wooden boats bobbing on the water, hippies, and street artists. We ate fresh seafood and searched for a shell-shaped night light that would make a useful souvenir. After going into several shops, someone suggested, "Why not try the shell shop?"

It was on the way to the shell shop I first heard it: The familiar sounds that had been etched in my mind by my musically inclined husband. Then I saw them, four of them, sitting by the dock as the water lapped in time to their music.

Four black musicians - two with drums, two with guitars - wearing wildly colored clothing. But it was the hair of the singer that truly blew me away, the tangled ropes that ran from his head to his chest. These were the dreadlocks I had heard so much about.

I wondered what they would be like to touch, but there was something too magical about them, and, of course, I dared not. While onlookers gathered and smiled, he sang of fightin' the bad mon, fightin' the society, mon.

Then it hit me. "Oh, my gosh!" I said, not knowing I was talking out loud. "It's a Rastafarian!"

My husband didn't speak but quickly guided me away until we were lost in the crowd.

The singer smiled but otherwise acted as though he hadn't heard, and carried on with the music. I wondered what he would have done if I had stayed. But my husband was embarrassed by what he deemed a racist blunder on my part, although I certainly hadn't meant it that way.

Later, I wondered if he secretly wished he had never introduced me to his tales of Jamaica and his Bob Marley albums.

After our two daughters were born, I tried to make sure the same thing wouldn't happen to them. I introduced them to people of various races, using the correct words. Eskimos were Inuit, Indians were First Nations, Negroes were blacks. I also read to them from a wide range of books that featured people of different nationalities: "Baby Rattlesnake," "The Rainbow People," "Tales From the Igloo," "The Arabian Nights."

I thought I had it covered.

But one day when I had taken my girls, 5 and 3, to visit my parents in Burnaby, British Columbia, we wandered into a shopping mall. Sitting on a bench were two elderly East Indian men in traditional dress. Before I knew what was happening, my older daughter pointed. "Look, Mom, a genie, just like in the story!"

As my cheeks rapidly turned red, the old gentlemen laughed and smiled. Thank goodness they hadn't been upset by my daughter's remarks. She edged closer and reached out to touch their wonderful robes. She didn't try to touch the turbans, though. I wondered if, as with the Rastafarian's dreadlocks, they may have seemed magical to her. Certainly the turbans had been in the stories I had read to her.

We visited the men every day for the two weeks we were in Burnaby, and although the language difference was sometimes a barrier, the smiles and the laughs said it all.

Sasha, an Ethiopian acquaintance, laughs at these stories of mine. But she understands. She says that when she first saw a group of white people, she thought she had arrived in a village of sickness. They were so pale!

Her mother had a different reaction, Sasha says. She screamed in fright. The Caucasians were all so fat and well fed, she thought they must be cannibals!

I am glad I am not the only one whose words resulted in embarrassment.

I wish I could say I was never again shocked by the appearance of others. But occasionally this diverse world of color, race, costume, and culture still sends me for a tailspin.

Yet, it's what we do after that initial reaction that determines if we are to accept or reject all the wonderful inhabitants of this world. Shall we walk away, our faces red, or metaphorically scream in fright? Or shall we reach out to touch - no, to embrace - the differences that make us all "magical"?

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