Crossing Cultures (Before I Knew What Those Were)

A Memory Monday post.

My earliest cross-cultural memory is also my earliest memory, and I used to think that was significant back when I was working in a highly multi-ethnic community in East London. Now most of the people I know locally are white (a fact which sometimes still causes me consternation–I feel like I’m missing out on a multiplicity of cultural experiences), and so maybe this memory doesn’t mean what I thought it did, but it still seems like it should mean something.

The fact is, I no longer remember the event itself–I only remember the memory, if that makes any sense. This is the memory I remember:

My Daddy is carrying me. I have my head over his shoulder. We are at church. I know we are at church and I am not happy about it because I am tired and grumpy. Very grumpy. Some period of time passes–though I’m not sure how much or what happened in the interval. There is some sort of white churchy structure (balcony, though I’m quite certain I didn’t know the word at the time), with an enormous–an absolutely undeniably enormous–head hanging from it. The head has dark, slanted eyes.

This, as far as I can tell, is the experience that memory is about. This is what my mother wrote in my first photo album, which I later read as an older child and thought, Oh! THAT’S what that memory is about! Like I said.

A Korean girls’ choir sang at the church and their members were quite taken with Jennifer.

[I mean–who wouldn’t be?]

In this picture, she was very tired, but she enjoyed them anyway!

photo most like by a parental figure 1973

De-grumpified by this point.

I’m sure that last bit’s true, in spite of the grumpiness, partly because I don’t remember feeling grumpy by the time I saw the head with the eyes-just curious–and also because I have a lot of subsequent memories of not wanting to go to church and later being glad I did. As for the giant head itself–well, I’m pretty sure 8-month-olds don’t have the best depth perception. Surely the balcony was off in the distance behind the head of a girl who was holding me, and it only seemed large by virtue of the fact that I had never seen a face like that before.

It’s weird how you can be so small you don’t even know what you look like, and still realise when people look different from everyone with whom you’re normally surrounded. Sometimes, at least in this country, it’s really tough to get to know anyone of a different ethnicity. I’m grateful to my parents for filling my childhood with opportunities to find out about other people, and learn to enjoy the similarities and revel in the differences.

What’s your first memory?

4 thoughts on “Crossing Cultures (Before I Knew What Those Were)

  1. My first memory is nowhere as complete as yours. It’s just being very small and wondering off into an elevator with all dressed-up people.

    When I mentioned this being my first memory, my mom mentioned that at my dad’s graduation (I was 3 years old at the time), I wondered into an elevator and she was panicking, as I had strolled off and saw the doors closing with me in it. One of the professors re-opened the door, which is how I’m still alive.

    • Oh man. It’s amazing the terrible things that COULD happen to most of us, but somehow don’t. Are you a first child? I think parents freak out progressively less about their children’s “scrapes,” based on your place in the birth order . . .

      • O yes, I am a first child (of three boys/men). Also, the photo album I have is at least twice as big as my youngest brother’s, filled with poems, diary entries and baby pictures. He has a life full summarized in about twenty pictures.

        • YES! Exactly. In my family-of-origin it’s just me and my brother, but my mother made me about 6 extremely thoroughly-narrated photo albums before turning the reins over to me, while my brother got maybe 2 if he was lucky, I think.

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