As children we’re like sponges. We take on beliefs and ways of thinking from our parents, teachers, friends and even those we semi-casually come in contact with. We step into each day with an innocent wonder and belief that the world is a good place and that the people around us are good. We believe that what we are taught is… right. We become friends with everyone. If someone speaks they’re our friend. If they speak again… best friends forever!
We really are sponges like that. Some of us seem to grow up never finding our own new ways of existing in the world. We follow on and expand on what we already learned as children. We reach moments that I think of as cross-roads. A time and place in our life where we have a choice. We are given a moment to decide… do we continue to believe what we were taught and do as we’ve always done, or do we change, finding our own new ways of being.
When I was 9 years old I had one such moment on a long haul flight between Singapore and Czechoslovakia.
My mother was taking me to Finland. It was exciting as born in Australia all I knew about my relatives was what was gleaned from Christmas cards and photos.
When we boarded the second leg of our flight, Singapore to Czechoslovakia, my mother sat at the window. I sat beside her. Beside me was The Russian. I didn’t know he was Russian. My mother knew, but wouldn’t say anything while he sat beside us. She responded to him only in monosyllables.
My family’s attitude towards Russia wasn’t pretty. Both my parents had memories of the war. My father’s attitude exacerbated by his father who was in the military police. A very hard man. Their beliefs, taken from their own parents and experiences, were from a time and place very different to my own. Even so, at that tender age I had been taught to mistrust Russians. Oh. And the Labour Party. And unions. They were all communists in my parent’s eyes.
The plane took off and the Russian began to speak to me. His accent was heavy, but Canberra was multicultural so I’d grown up around heavy accents. I had little trouble understanding him. He spoke about where he’s been, the marvels of air travel, his wife and teenage son. He asked about our short stay in Singapore, my school, friends, family, hobbies… and of course, Christmas. This would be my first White Christmas… and I was excited.
I was almost bouncing in my seat. I was having so much fun watching him speak. He had a good solid Russian beard and his moustache would twitch as he spoke. My young self adored our travel companion. I was enamoured with his every word.
The first time he got up to refresh himself my mother whispered to me in that tone she’d use when I had done something extremely wrong or embarrassing… He’s Russian! You shouldn’t speak to him! What will your father say?!
On a long haul flight between Singapore and Czechoslovakia in 1978 I came face to face with my prejudice. A prejudice I’d grown up with and felt in every cell of my young body. My mother didn’t say another word. She knew she didn’t need to. Looking back I imagine it added to the distaste for me she already had, that a daughter of Hers would speak to the Russian, even though I didn’t know he was Russian.
I sat silently while he was gone.
Being told that he was Russian the prejudice rose up in me like a tidal wave. I was angry. Yes, angry. I was angry that he was Russian. And angry that I should have to hate him for that. I was angry that I should feel ashamed. Ashamed of talking to the Russian. Ashamed that I should hate him.
At 9 years old I realised it was wrong. Russians weren’t the evil cause of every trouble in the world. In other words, as is the way of children, this Russian had already become my friend.
Things had changed when he came back. The young girl who had spoken to him with such openness and innocence was gone. In her place sat a child struggling. And I was struggling. He was my friend. He was Russian.
The dam burst and I asked him about his home, about Russia. He spoke of long cold winters and magnificent springs. The turning seasons and the changes in the world that he was watching unfold. It wasn’t political. It was… the world is changing. What we knew is gone and in its place are wonders that can only be compared to the arrival of Spring.
Although that wasn’t his exact words, it is what I remember of that second conversation. It was probably directed at my mother as much as it was spoken to me. I was no longer that innocent child who had begun the flight. Having reached one of my first major cross-roads, I changed. The world was no longer black and white and no longer as I had always believed it to be.