When our children were in school my wife and I got involved with an exchange student program from Mexico and Central America. We hosted students, not for the entire school year, but for six to eight weeks over their summer vacations. Some of the students enjoyed themselves more than others, but all in all everyone seemed comfortable living with our family.
I remember one trip to the airport and greeting our student. It was the boy’s birthday. When we met him at the gate we were surprised. He was from Mexico, but he had red hair, fair skin and freckles.
As we went to collect baggage we saw other families gathering up students. One family came over to speak to us and it came up in conversation that it was our student’s birthday. Everyone in that family turned to my youngest son, the one who looks like me, with dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, and wished him a happy birthday. He was embarrassed but we laughed it off and started home.
Stopping at a restaurant for lunch, we explained to our waitress that we had a Mexican exchange student with us and that it was his birthday. Again, she turned to my youngest son and wished him a happy birthday. At this point I think both boys were pretty uncomfortable with the obvious assumption that Mexicans all have dark complexions.
After having about six students over the years, I can tell you we never saw another student with red hair or freckles, but we did discover that wherever they come from, people have much more in common than they realize. Most of our students had two parents who worked. Father’s enjoyed things like hunting and fishing. Mother’s liked to shop and cook. Free time was spent visiting with extended family. The children enjoyed bicycling, going for walks and joining in family chores. One boy liked to hunt and we ate squirrel one night. One girl was very sad that we didn’t have a mall in our town, a place of only about a hundred families.
I can tell you something else. Stereotypes hurt. They hurt the one who embraces them the most, because preconceived notions limit your thought process. It’s as if you were trying to thread a needle with a baseball mitt on. Leave yourself open to possibilities. Five year olds can play the piano. Eighty year olds can dance. And red heads can come from anyplace!