Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Life as a Third Culture Kid Without Leaving the States

I was born in New York City to a couple of college kids and we lived in a cold water flat for the first three years of my life. My dad was accepted into Harvard Graduate School of Design, so our family moved to Cambridge. Cambridge is a hugely multicultural and diverse city - the exact opposite of Boston on the other side of the river. Every few weekends, my parents would head back to NYC (probably like I did as a college student, to stock up on food, get some rest, do the laundry). On one of these wintry trips from Cambridge to New York, my parents got lost in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

It had just finished snowing and Foxborough has the quintessential oval common just like Lexington and Arlington. It was faced with three or four churches and a beautiful bandstand. The hush after a big snow makes any town magical and my parents felt it would be the perfect place to raise kids. (By now, we were at least two, probably three.) When my dad got his stamp as a registered architect, he joined Korslund, LeNormand & Quann, and we moved to Foxborough. This was the mid 60's.

The Sixties were a turbulent time in America and the civil rights movement was finally hitting Boston big time. In 1965, the Racial Imbalance Act was passed by the Massachusetts Legislature, but the Boston School Committee stayed in denial until the National NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) filed suit and Judge Garrity ruled that the BSC was guilty. Force busing ensued across Boston pushing poor black kids into poor white schools, and vice versa. There were riots, sit-ins, picketing, marching... all in the name of "preserving their way of life". A mass exodus of whites moved out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs. These whites preferred other whites and wanted to maintain their tight-knit communities from South Boston, Chelsea, East Boston and they were determined to do so. Developers saw this as an opportunity and built huge development tracts of house after house built on the same plan to feed the housing demand. Foxborough grew during this time frame.

One of my mother's friends, Mrs. Booth and family were Black and still lived in Cambridge. Mrs. Booth brought my mother back to God and she had joined St. Mark's Episcopal Church and took her kids with her occasionally. The Booths used to come down and visit us and stay for the weekend sometime. They decided that Foxborough would be a nice place to raise their kids, too. Soon, the rector's home at St. Mark's went up for sale at a very affordable price. My mum was very excited about it because it was in the range that the Booths could afford. She called the real estate broker and arranged for Mr. and Mrs. Booth to see the property the next day.

The broker showed up with a big smile for my mother. As soon as the Booth's got out of their car, she took one look and stopped smiling. She looked at my mother as if she'd been tricked. The broker took them through the house quickly and left. When my mother called the broker, the price had doubled. My mum was ashamed and embarrassed and stopped going to church.

All the Jews lived in Sharon, the next town over. We had a number of churches, mostly Protestant, and one Catholic. There was one black family in town, and they pre-dated nearly all of the families. There were no minorities of any kind, even washing dishes in the kitchens. Those were the jobs teenagers had back then. (Now they wouldn't touch those jobs.)

Most weekends, my parents would pack us up in the station wagon and drive down to "the city" (NYC). It was about 4 hours each way. While in New York, we were surrounded by people of different colors, sizes, mobilities, sexual preferences, etc. They weren't considered any different from us. We went to museums, theatre, spent time with the grandparents, and knew there was a huge world out there. Every Sunday evening, we'd pack back up and return to Foxborough.

Monday mornings would mean going back to our all-white school and watch people getting picked on for being different (usually me). I didn't look different from anyone else, but it was evident from an early age that I certainly thought differently and that was enough. I felt like an outsider, and I was treated that way. Even in my neighborhood, there were three girls around my age, and we had nothing in common. All three lived in those houses described above. Same plan, different color. One was a hyper-Catholic whose views were exactly opposite mine. Another only cared about clothes and popularity. The third was originally from Tennessee or West Virgina and barely out of the trailer park. Her mother was one of the most uneducated, backward and racist women I'd ever met (other than the hypocritical Catholic family mentioned above). I felt I was wasting my time and always looked forward to going to New York and spending time with my grandfather that showed me all these worlds.

It was weird spending culturally diverse weekends in NYC then going back to all white Foxboro. Galleries in the Village, poetry readings in Brooklyn, working with my artist grandfather in his studio, then back to whitebread suburba-hell where no one was allowed to think differently and everyone had to love the cheerleaders... People were judged by their outward appearance, nothing about the substance within.

Does this give you an idea of the surreal world I lived in? Bitter? No. I think it's sad that the majority of Americans consider this a good place to live and a positive place to raise children. I have to give my parents major props for setting out loose and exposing us to all sorts of things beyond Foxborough.

When my son and I moved west of Chicago, I had a choice in renting an aparment close to Neuqua Valley High School where all the rich white kids went or Waubonsie Valley High School which ran the gamut of colour, economic level, etc. The schools were exactly the same, similar test scores, similar talented teachers. Which one do you think I chose for my son? :-) It wasn't the choice most parents made and the high school boundary disputes are still ongoing in the district. That's sad.


  1. Sounds confusing! I think you are in Gurgaon along with your son. Now if you are in America then go ahead with the school for whit rich people. Never go for the other one. It's not school but trying to build the walls. I strongly recommend the firs one. Well, i suggest you to raise your son in India and go for an Indian convent school. But, if you have no other choice then go for the first one.

  2. I always feel like we as a society are beyond this now, but all too often someone makes an ignorant comment that wakes me up to the fact that in many ways, this is the current reality as well.

  3. Hey are you planning to go from here? Never go! you complain about Indians but you do for wrong people or as a senior. It's your choice. I read that long post "why you are here?". You are in India for a long. now you aren't American, you are Indian and free to say anything. I also complain about cheap minded Indians. At last I say Never leave this country. Good opportunities are here.

    Wow! I can imagine when you were at 15. i think you looked like terminator movie actress played as Sarah Connor. Wow! 70's fashion. and high waist jeans with white shirt knot. Is that so? And what about your kid who said "Suck my balls!" HAHA ROTFL.

  4. Anyway, for which company you're working?

  5. Jeanne,

    I live outside Boston( last 6 years), and remember the picture of a guy using the flagpole with the stars and stripes to charge another person! And to think the Boston Celtics was the first NBA team to recruit African American players! The choice ( 2nd one?) you made in Chicago is not an easy one, especially if you know that the Academic standards are different in the two schools, and your kids ability to get into a college of his choice, is compromised.
    Hope you are enjoying India, inspite of the challenges !!

  6. Boston 123:

    I worked for the school district and can verify that both high schools were as equal as possible. The teachers and administrators had similar advanced degrees, the facilities were equal - same number of outdoor sports fields, auditoriums, extracurricular programs, etc. In fact, the school with the racial mix even had a planetarium. Of course, this school was the original high school of the District and about 20 years old, while the all white school was very pretty and very new. It was a no brainer - I picked the racially diverse school for my son. :-)

  7. Sounds like you made the right choice, although the full benefits of growing up in a racially diverse school may not show up until adulthood.

    Demographics are also driving the US to become what is described as a majority ' minority' country by 2030 or so, so an ability to live amongst people from different backgrounds should be a plus.

    BTW,public schools in the US are not doing great.. slashed budgets, canceled sports and arts programs, parents being asked to send in school supplies etc..

  8. Interesting story. I am Indian-American and live in Acton, about 20 miles out of Boston and 20 miles north of Fboro. If you return, you might be pleasantly surprised to see that many suburbs of Boston have become multicultural. I would think at least 20% of Acton is now of either East Asian or South Asian descent.

  9. Siddharth:

    Foxborough has changed a bit, but its tolerance for those not of their kind is still there. Asians are different - their reputation is educated and hard working, not the same for black and hispanics. It's very weird.

    Acton is nice. That's out on the 495 belt, right? I miss Autumn in New England, and Route 495 was always beautiful. :-)