When my daughter started kindergarten, we moved to a Sydney suburb on the brink of gentrification. The local primary was up a small lane behind our house and we walked her there, both of us anxious that she would like it and, most importantly, that she would make friends.
This was a suburb known for its diversity, and you could see it in the houses. The Greek and Vietnamese had concreted their front yards, and replaced timber windows with the more practical aluminium. The newly arrived – who worked at the ABC or the University of Technology – were in the throes of renovating and planting native gardens, Vote Green stickers on their cars. There was also a large strip of flats, built in the seventies, furniture dumped out the front, windows broken; these were the cheap rentals, frequently lived in by people with drug and alcohol issues.
People like us – the newly arrived – trumpeted their pride in this diversity, but the reality was we rarely stepped outside the comfort of our own white middle class ghettoes. Our interaction was limited to the clichéd. The old Greek man up the road gave me endless vegetables – foreplay for a determined grope as soon as we were alone. We smiled and nodded at the ancient Chinese man next door but never spoke, and we avoided the household at the bottom of the street, a speed lab where the police were called frequently.
Yet, while most of the people I got to know belonged to the same white middle class ghetto as myself, the working class woman two doors up was crashing down the barriers. She regularly spoke disparagingly of all the Asiatics in the area, but despite her decidedly un-correct language, she was the only one who really befriended the new Vietnamese neighbours.
Our children were also busy climbing over fences into gardens very different to our own.
A couple of weeks after that first day at school, I dropped my daughter off for a play at her new best friend’s house. The house was in complete darkness, draped in velvet and adorned with crucifixes. I have always liked to think of myself as accepting, inclusive and aware of the dangers of forming judgements on first impressions – but I was challenged. My daughter, on the other hand, was oblivious. To her, these were people like any other.
Her next friend introduced her to the world of serious junk food consumption and daytime television wrestling, and the one after that had come from the bush – the house was like a squat, they frequently slept around a ten gallon drum fire in the garden, and the parents drank heavily – yet they were also enormously loving and kind and the children loved playing together.
Our family wasn’t the only one being pushed out of our comfort zone. A friend around the corner told me of a birthday party she took her daughter to – the parents like characters in Underbelly. All the kids were treated to anything they wanted, paid for with huge wads of cash. Another friend had a son who regularly had sleep overs with the born-agains, where he was told there’d be hell for all if they didn’t pray before they went to bed.
As kids grow they become more aware of difference, of the subtle and not so subtle signifiers that mark people, the signs we use to read and judge even when we don’t want to. Yet when they are young, all that really interests them is the games they’re going to play, and the food they’re going to eat.
I was ashamed at how hard I sometimes found it to accept my daughter’s choice of friends. I read her worthy kids books about acceptance and inclusion but it took me some time before I began to be less challenged. I don’t know if we ever reach the true acceptance that we would like to think we have, but I do know that speaking the right language is one thing – really living it is another.
Are you open minded about new friends and experiences? Has your mind closed as you have grown older?