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SHORT STORY: Arm in Arm

Arm in arm my girlfriends and I walked that day. Caribbean-Asian, Anglo-Saxon, Indian-American, we were all together beautiful: a triangular sampling of America’s patchwork heritage and the rich cultural diversity of the Bronx where we lived. It was a crisp winter morning. The kind where the sun glistens across the snow and ice, and the salt - put down to melt it - crunches underfoot. Our breath was visible and our bodies warmer for holding each other close by. We were headed to our regular table at the coffee house on the corner. Hurriedly at first, to escape the bitterness in the air, until the friend on my left arm began to speak.

“I don’t know if I should let my daughter take her father’s name.” She said. Her eyes faced straight ahead.
“Oh?” We slowed our pace.
“It’s a slave name. I don’t want my daughter to carry such a weight with her name.”
I recognized the name she gave immediately. It was the name of an English town I had known from home. I felt uneasy. I had never been taught about slavery but I knew enough to suspect this name had been given by one of my fellow countrymen, perhaps even one of my own forefathers. Certainly the name had come to my friends’ family from someone English, who had paved his new life in this country on the backs of his slaves. I was a new immigrant from England myself. I felt sick.
“What should I do?” My friend asked.
I couldn’t speak.

“Turn it around.” The friend hugging my right arm said to her, “ Her father’s name is part of who she is. Give it to her and turn it around. Turn it into something positive.”
“Yes.” She tossed her winding Caribbean hair over her shoulder with indomitable grace. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

I watched them smile at each other with amazement.

“The reason I say that,” the friend on my right continued, “is because our name carries weight too.” She straightened her back as she told us her story. Her father, a Hindu Indian had once lived in a small town near Islamabad. After the British Partition of India and Pakistan, her family made it to a refugee camp on the Pakistani side of the newly created border. “One day, while they were in the camp, they heard stories that trains were coming to take them to safety in India. The same day, a train slowed down on the tracks nearby. The people ran towards it, but there were Pakistani soldiers in the carriages. They started to shoot.”

Her words hit my heart.

“My father had been playing with his brothers in the field when this happened. A cow walked in front of them as the shots were fired. The bullets hit the cow instead of them. The cow saved their lives.”

We were silent then, for a moment or two, except for the sound of our feet on the cracks in the ice.

“I am proud of my history, of my father’s survival. Without it he wouldn’t have been him, he wouldn’t have come to America, he wouldn’t have met my mother and he wouldn’t have had me. His story is my story now and I won’t let it be a burden to my children or to me. Our names, our histories, they are who we are, but we must not let the weight of them shape us.”

She touched her heart and her eyes danced into freedom.

I tried to smile, but I could not.

I wondered why I had never been taught about the British Partition of India, their involvement in slavery or their conquest and colonization of nations. I wondered about all the well-intentioned thin lines the English had drawn across the world to separate quarreling foes. Had this naïve and intrusive policy of segregation ever worked to foster peace?

It felt as if the actions of my country had been my fathers, and the nations he had divided my brothers and sisters. For too long he had controlled with conquest and oppression as if he had attempted to teach with a firm hand. But these nations are not children that had ever needed a father’s guidance or direction. They are his forefathers, his friends, his cousins, his brothers and sisters.

The sadness once enveloping my friends that cold wintry morning, cocooned me in shame, as they were set free. This tiny little Island that I had come from, with aspirations as wide as the Universe had carved their wrongdoing into generations and generations of families.
I withdrew my arms from theirs and watched the ice melt in rivers around my feet.
“I’m sorry.” I said.

A Blue jay landed on a branch overhead. It cocked its head as if to listen.
“Why are you sorry?” My friends asked.
“I am here, English, stood between you, listening to your stories, and I can’t believe my country did this to you. I am so sorry for that. I am so sorry for being English.”

To my surprise they both laughed and embraced me.
“You’re so funny!” one of them said.
“I love you,” the other one said.
The Blue jay sang.

And laughing and smiling and holding each other, we continued to walk, arm in arm.

----

(Story posted to Voices of Our Future Group Journal, Valentines Day 2009 with the permission of my friends - whose stories are contained within mine.)

Comments

jadefrank's picture

Arm in Arm

Hi Tina,

What a beautiful story. I understand your frustration with your country, and your shame for being English because I have had similar feelings of guilt. I especially felt this way when visiting Vietnam last year, as an American. I was apprehensive about visiting this country, afraid of what the Vietnamese would think of me. The United States caused so much pain and suffering for this country and I felt partly responsible for it, even though I wasn't even alive during the war.

However, I found the Vietnamese people to be some of the friendliest and most inviting people I had ever met. I was never judged or made to feel shameful for my nationality.

Hung, a Vietnamese man that I stayed with there told me stories about Vietnam’s recent and horrifying past that has been filled with non-stop war for almost a century with the Chinese, French, Khmer Rouge and Americans. His own family was split in two during the American war, like many Vietnamese families were, where some of his siblings went to fight for the Communist North and other siblings fought against them for the Republican South.

With so much suffering, death and destruction in their past, it was hard to understand how the Vietnamese can be such genuinely friendly people towards Americans like myself. Hung explained that due to their devastating past, the Vietnamese as a people choose to look forward to the future rather than focusing on history and the people who wronged them. He explained that his people don’t hold a grudge against Americans because during the war they saw all the images of people protesting in Washington and came to realize that it’s not the people of the United States they should hold accountable, but rather the government.

We can choose to live our lives according to our own values and hopefully people will judge us for that and not for what our government does without our permission.

Thank you for your story!

Warm regards,
Jade

Tina's picture

Hi Jade, Thank you for your

Hi Jade,
Thank you for your comments. It's interesting to me that this story reminded you of similar feelings you have felt about America. There are many wars that have been waged that make no sense to me at all. Vietnam is one of them. I have met a few vietnam vets since living here and it is clear that this war has had a traumatic impact on many Americans and yes, then I meet the vietnamese and they are wonderful and forgiving people. On the other hand there are also countries of people who do hold onto their past pain and make it a part of their cultural identity - Then after generations of almost inbred hatred and anger and feelings of injustice, wars (and terrorist activities) continue to wage on. I hope those people will find a way to move forward and realize, like you have, that its the mistaken actions of our governments that are at fault, not the people at large.

I'm glad you liked the story. This is the first one I've published (beyond a small circle of friends and family) and I've been very nervous about it.

Thanks again,
Tina

dear Tina,

I am sure you are going to publish a book? I love your style. I really felt like I was in there walking since the British colonised Kenya too... it would have been another burden on your heart... I understand you and also the Vietnamese. In my case it has never occured to me to see all this as a part of my English friends' lives. In fact, I have just had one visiting and we have really enjoyed ourselves. I have never thought of her as the "English." With that put aside... let me say that your talent is amazing. I like th"e short sentences that are like stanzas summarising so much..." She touched her heart... and.."And laughing and smiling.. i watched them.. " ANd laughing and smiling...... arm in arm.."

Please write some more. I am almost sure you are published...

best,
Philo

"Communication is the real work of leadership" Nitin Nohria

Tina's picture

Dear Philo, Thank you so

Dear Philo,
Thank you so much, I am not published in fact! This story is the first thing I have put out into the world beyond a small circle of friends and family. Pulsewire is a great venue for learning to use our voices I think. Thank you so much for your compliments. I feel very moved by them.
Blessings
Tina

katea's picture

I love reading your story

I love this. The voices of the three friends are distinct and yet they create a kind of unison--for freedom, for healing, for hope. Continue writing please.

katea

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