Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

A few weeks ago while in Kauai, I was reminded of events that happened during two previous visits, episodes that made me aware that I may be freer to walk in the world, because I’m white and middle-class.

During my first trip, I had an afternoon free before I had to return the rental car and fly home. I wanted to spend my last few hours in paradise at the beach. However, checkout was 11:00 a.m. I had to turn in my keys and couldn’t use the chaise lounges at the resort condos where I’d been staying.

A nearby resort routinely put out a slew of chaises on their lawn overlooking the beach. Guests didn’t have to check out chairs. I figured I could blend in with actual guests and hang out there for a few hours. I looked the part of a paying customer—I was wearing clean clothes and had a backpack, towel, and an iPad. Not the profile for a homeless person.

It was a small gamble. Who would wonder about a middle-class white lady? Turns out, no one.

Another time in Kauai, I went for a long walk to Shipwreck Beach. Along the way I enjoyed the red and yellow hibiscus, hot pink bougainvillea, and orange bird of paradise blooming in the resort gardens I passed.

On my way back, I was in full broiling sun and the walk began to seem more oppressive than fun. I could feel myself getting seriously overheated. So I decided to take a break in the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby hotel. Again, I hoped to blend in. The desk clerk smiled and nodded to me. She probably thought I was waiting for someone. After 15 minutes or so, I had cooled down enough to leave the hotel and continue on my trek.

In each case, I wasn’t bothering anyone, but I was trespassing. Perhaps that’s why I started to speculate—would I have been treated as nicely if I were a black or Latina woman? Would somebody have asked, “Can I help you?” with the imperious tone that really means, “What are you doing here?”



A week when everyone looks like you

La Semana 2010 Crystel 8 years old

La Semana 2010 Crystel 8 years old

I know even before I get to the high school for the fiesta that I am going to cry at some point during the evening. Antonio and Crystel have been attending La Semana Cultural Camp for a week every summer since they were in first grade. Now fifth graders, they are going to join 450 other children born in over 20 different countries and perform the Latin American dance that they had learned during the week. There would be 25 dances, put on by everyone from first graders to Ayudantes (adoptees who recently graduated high school).  Except when we travel in Guatemala, Latin American Cultural Camp is the only place that I could lose Antonio and Crystel in a crowd. . .  because here everyone looks like them.

Antonio and amigo 2013

Antonio and amigo 2013

If this is my experience as an adult, imagine what it would be for a child to be surrounded by his or her own ethnic origin if only for one week a year. To top that off, all the children are adopted. For the first time, a child doesn’t have to explain him or herself to a new friend. There are no questions. Everyone is adopted.

Families travel from 14 different states and Canada to attend La Semana. The adoptees learn Latin American crafts and dances, try Latin American foods, hear Latin American music, and are exposed to written and spoken Spanish. The children also take a class that focuses on age-appropriate topics related to adoption. Most importantly, they just get to be kids with other kids like them.

Crystel and friends up to no good. 2013

Crystel and friends up to no good. 2013

Every year, La Semana, focuses on a country. This year it is Paraguay. Throughout the week, campers explore the culture of Paraguay. Through video and games they get an overview of Paraguay’s food, music, geography, sports teams and animals. At a Paraguayan market and fiesta, campers taste food and drink, create with beads and clay, and play traditional holiday games.

Jody has been at La Semana all week volunteering her time in the craft department. La Semana is successful due to the volunteer efforts of the families of children attending camp. All camp programs are planned and executed by the families involved. There are fewer than seven paid teachers for more than 450 campers. To encourage participation, La Semana requires a parent of kindergarten through tenth grade campers to volunteer in some capacity.



Jody is already inside Lakeville High School having saved our seat hours ago for the fiesta in the gymnasium. Tears start welling up in my eyes as I see parents streaming through the school entrance holding hands with their young children. The fiesta is a time for the campers to show off their ‘stuff.’ Inside the dressing room, they will be transformed as they put on traditional dress, and the girls adorn themselves with red lipstick, blue eye shadow, and blush.

Crafts are the best!

Crafts are the best!

Jody texts to see if I want to sit and wait for the dances to start. But I don’t. I want to stay in the gathering area and watch everybody. This unnerves Antonio and Crystel to no end because I often do this no matter where we are. “Mom, quit staring,” they will say. Unfortunately, it will be their cross to bear.

This afternoon, I have an opportunity to observe over a hundred Latin American teens and young adults. I witness what Antonio and Crystel will look like in a few years and start to cry. They’re beautiful.