59: We the People

59: We the People

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

We the People

Not merely a nation but a nation of nations.

~President Lyndon B. Johnson

“I’d like to ask a special favor of you,” my teacher said to us. “Madena and her mother have just moved here from Ukraine. I’d like you to make a special effort to be her friend.”

Our teacher didn’t need to point her out. I spotted her from clear across the lunchroom. Madena had olive skin and long, almost black hair tied into two braids that stretched all the way down her back. No one else in the whole school looked like that.

She was sitting next to her mother, and after our teacher introduced us, we sat down to eat our lunches. Madena’s mother, Taira, asked us questions in heavily-accented English. We told her our names and where we lived, but the whole time Madena stared at her lunch tray, looking completely miserable. The only times she spoke were to her mother, and then it was in a language we didn’t understand.

It didn’t occur to me as a seventh grader how frightening it would be to move to a new country. It was a place where everything was different — the way we spoke, the things we did, even the way we dressed.

I had moved from another state just a couple of years earlier, but at that moment, I had forgotten the way my heart had pounded at school my first day and how desperate I was to make friends. I’d forgotten how scared I was to be in a new place.

Instead, I was worried about how Madena stood out. The last thing I wanted to do was attract attention, which could invite bullying and teasing. I smiled at her, but inwardly I wished that our teacher had assigned someone else the task of being her friend.

Within days, my worries were confirmed. Kids had started calling Madena “Mother Russia,” and they pulled at her braids. Madena stuck next to my friends like glue, probably because we were the only kids she’d been introduced to.

One of our friends, Valerie, talked to the rest of us. “I went to her house, you guys, and she’s actually a lot of fun. We should let her be our friend.”

Based on Valerie’s word, I was willing to give it a try. I tried to involve her in conversations more, asking her questions directly. We invited her to get together with our group outside of school, and we told the kids who teased her to “shut up.”

Madena blossomed into a girl who was extremely interesting, intelligent, and kind. She became my best friend, and when she finally let down her braids, the entire school was stunned by her beauty.

We remained friends through high school, going to football games and dances. At some point along the way, she changed from being Madena, the girl from Ukraine, to just being Madena. She was one of us — unique, yes, but 100 percent one of us.

After high school, we lost touch for a while, but reconnected about fifteen years later. We’d get together then for chats and tea, comparing stories from our love lives. I was so impressed with how fantastic she had turned out, and one of the things I most appreciated about her was how familiar she was with other cultures. While I had never left Utah, she had traveled all over the world and gained an understanding and respect for all cultures.

It was Madena who told me I needed to go to the Diwali Festival at Utah State University.

“I don’t even know what that is,” I said.

“It’s the Hindu Festival of Lights,” she explained. “A celebration. Kind of like the New Year you celebrate in America.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t know anything about it.”

“Just come,” she said. “It’ll be a good experience. I promise.”

A friend of Madena’s lent me a beautiful satin sari to wear to the festival. Madena came over early to help me drape it correctly. It was so elegant and lovely, but I worried I’d look out of place wearing it. Most of the attendees at the festival would be students from India who were attending school here. With my pale skin and blue eyes, I would be the one sticking out.

Madena reassured me, but just like back in middle school, I felt my anxiety rising.

At the festival, we ate delicious butter chicken and curry, and then the International Student Council put on a fantastic program with dancing and singing. Both the women in their saris and the men in their clothes looked so classy.

I learned about how Diwali spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness and hope over despair. I pictured how beautiful it must look to see all the houses and porches lit with lanterns in celebration.

At the conclusion of the program, Madena and the students cleared the floor for dancing. I watched from the sidelines as they laughed and danced to Indian pop music. I definitely felt out of place. I didn’t look like anyone else here. I didn’t recognize the music. And I certainly didn’t know how to dance the way they did.

A young man approached me. “Come join us,” he said, gesturing to the dance floor.

“Oh, no.” I shook my head. “I don’t know how.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Please, come have fun with us.”

As I stepped timidly onto the dance floor, I was met with encouraging smiles and nods. After dancing for a while, the group formed a circle, and they took turns going into the center to show off their dance moves while the crowd cheered.

“Your turn,” someone told me.

“Not me!” I said. “I can’t dance.”

But before I knew it, I was right in the middle. I sashayed my hips, hardly comparing to the skilled dancing I’d just witnessed. But still I was met with warm smiles and applause. Afterward, we joined hands and paraded around the ballroom in a circle.

I was an outsider, but they invited me, welcomed me, and greeted me with kindness. When I think about the kind of America I want to live in, I think of that night at the Diwali celebration. In my America, love and kindness are expressed to all. I don’t think of us as “We the Americans;” I think of us as “We the people.”

~Amanda Yardley Luzzader

More stories from our partners