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What is ordinary? What is a normal day? The more I think about it, the more senseless those words become. After all, we are so different – and what we each think of as ordinary is nothing of the sort to others. As children, we have even less perspective, and therefore assume that what we do every day IS ordinary.
In our house, it was normal to wear clean clothes EVERY day – and by that, I mean NOTHING was worn more than once, even if only for an hour or two, before it was consigned to the wash. A bath towel was used ONCE, and then washed immediately. How on earth my mother kept up with the laundry, I don’t know.
It was normal for me to come down to breakfast to a boiled egg and toast every day – and the egg always had a cute face drawn on it. Because how would I have the motivation to come to breakfast, unless it was to see what expression was drawn on my egg that day?
For us, it was normal to share Mars bars. By that, I mean we put the Mars bar in the fridge, and then cut it into thin slices, like ham. This way a Mars bar could last the family for several days. This was nothing to do with being frugal, but rather because we found it so sweet and rich, that the idea of eating a whole one EACH was absolutely nauseating. I have since found that, of all my weird childhood memories, this is the one most friends emphatically claim is not normal behaviour.
It was normal to have a bath every day, without fail. A highly recommended (expensive) eczema consultant told my mother that I should only have a bath ONCE A WEEK. I remember watching with interest, as my mother’s face turned slightly green. And I STILL had to have a bath every day.
As far as I was concerned, my life was very similar to my friends’ lives. It was easy to forget that I wasn’t like everyone else. Something that surprises me again and again is the fact that I look different. I can’t see my own face, so I’m the first to forget that I look foreign, until someone reminds me.
When I was about 8 years old, I was standing in the supermarket queue with my mother, when the guy in front of us turned around and smiled. He seemed about to talk, but hesitated. Then he twisted away, plucked a packet of chocolate digestives from his trolley and turned towards me again, a huge grin pasted on his face.
“Biscuit!” he said inanely.
My mother and I exchanged looks.
“Nice biscuit! Bis…kit…yum...my…” he nodded encouragingly.
At this point I remembered yet again that I was a foreigner in his country, and that he was trying in his earnest way to make contact and maybe teach me something, even though my reading age was probably higher than his. My mother and I smiled and nodded, dying a little inside.
Another time my foreign-ness took me by surprise was much more recently, when my daughter was 2 years old. We had gone for one of our endless, time-wasting trips to the local shopping mall – it was a good place to visit when you were a stay-at-home mum. There was a coffee shop, the local library, Wilkinsons and a 99p shop, and all within walking distance of our house. What better way to tire out a tireless toddler, and ensure a good daytime nap?
As soon as we were inside the mall, she went haring off on her little legs, laughing and talking at the top of her voice to no one in particular. On this occasion however, her little legs let her down, her feet tangled up, and she fell in a heap on the floor. She began to wail splendidly.
I was only 10 metres or so behind, but by the time I caught up to her, she was surrounded by a gaggle of concerned old ladies, who were clucking, “Where’s her mum? Where on earth is her mum?”
I eased past them and set my daughter on her feet, gathering her in for a hug, when one of the old ladies met my eyes and said, “Where do you think her mum is?”
I had another one of those unpleasant moments when I suddenly looked through someone else’s eyes at my world, and realised that I looked so different from my daughter, no one thought for a second that I could possibly be her mother.
“I’m her mother,” I said firmly. The old ladies exchanged dubious glances.
EXCHANGED GLANCES!! As if I were some child-abducting criminal!
“I’m her mother,” I said again. They assessed the fact that my daughter’s arms were tightly clasped around my neck and that she’d calmed down…and they shrugged. Shrugged, as if to say, well it’s none of our business. Probably the Filipino nanny, or something.
I looked closely at my daughter – her pink skin, her green long-lashed eyes, and her curly hair which was an unusual bronze gold colour, with bright blond at the temples. And I had to admit that she looked nothing like me – at all. To the point where my status as her mother was doubted by a bunch of strangers…
On the whole though, I don’t experience discrimination (except maybe positive discrimination). People assume that I must be a black belt at karate (why?) and that I probably play lots of instruments (um…yes.) When strangers ask, “Where are you from?” the devil in me likes to have a bit of fun.
“I grew up in Berkshire,” I say with a smile.
“No… but where are you FROM?”
“Oh, you mean where was I born?”
They nod eagerly.
“I was born in Denmark,” my smile becoming smug.
“No, but…” they look slightly desperate at this point, while I look on blandly, “Where are your PARENTS from?”
“Oh, they live here too.”
It’s too easy.
The one time I thought I was going to receive some racist abuse, I was proved completely wrong.
The first house Hubby and I bought was situated in a rather rough area – lively, exciting and full of interest, but rough. Police cars and ambulances frequented the place, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. I’d never experienced any problems personally, though, and I loved the vital, busy, market-like atmosphere of the main street.
One day, as I was walking from the bank back to my house, I could see a young man walking towards me. Everything about his demeanor spelled trouble – his clothes, his angry walk, his twisted sour face. I’m usually quite good at turning invisible – it’s another of my chameleon superpowers – but I could see I was too late; he had already taken a dislike to my face. His expression turned even more hateful, if possible, and as he neared, I saw him take in a breath to speak. His tiny baleful eyes bored into mine, as we drew abreast. I steeled myself for what was coming.
He sneered and spat out, “You posh fart.”
[For the full effect, PLEASE say that out loud in a broad West Country accent. Thank you]
To this day, I have a sincere fondness for the place where we used to live. It may have been rough, but the fact that a rude, embittered lout like that tried to find something horrible to say to me, and only managed to call me a ‘posh fart’ is endlessly endearing.