To Look At Me You Wouldn't Know

Posted by Mary Hendra on March 12, 2014

I love Los Angeles. I've lived here most of my life, and despite hearing all the complaints lodged against us - traffic, smog, superficiality - I don't buy it. What I love is the diversity of people. Stereotypes are challenged every day in LA if you let them be.

Recently I went to Chado tea room in Little Tokyo. I love a good afternoon tea, though I am not British and it is a bit of an odd taste to "pick up" as an adult.

The waiter, Orlando, is a young Latino man with tattoos on his neck and arms. And, he knows his teas! I would go there just to hear him describe them. You can ask him about any tea on the menu (I have!), and with a smile from his heart he speaks with the insight and passion of somebody who loves this art of tea and has lived with it for years. Unexpected?

Orlando creates the setting in the tea house. His attentiveness and care envelop guests in the "tea" atmosphere of peace, reflective conversation, and a degree of timelessness. Some time I will find out his back story-how he came to develop this passion and intimate knowledge about the teas. In the meantime I simply enjoy the atmosphere Orlando creates each time I go.

I love these discoveries of people who can't be judged by the outward experience/impression. In Facing History seminars, we often do a quick activity we call, "to look at me you wouldn't know...," in which people take turns filling in the end of that sentence with something they realize may not be obvious at first glance. It is a great way to build community as individuals share what is important to them. I think the phrase fits really well with LA.

I started my teaching career at a high school in south central LA, a geographic area of the city about which there are many stereotypes. My sister would worry when I brought my parents to my school. Friends and acquaintances who discovered where I taught asked questions like:

  • Is it safe?
  • Can they read?
  • Do they care about school at all?

To look at them you wouldn't know.

The truth was, my students - hardened in the view of outsiders- held within them unabashed curiosity and a love of learning. It was beautiful to see.

Their enthusiasm for learning about the role of television during the Civil Rights Movement at the Museum of TV and Radio was equal to their serious engagement with human rights violations at the Museum of Tolerance. And when they rolled down the grassy hill, laughing all the way, during our break for lunch at the park outside the LA County Museum of Art... Well, I think that memory of unbounded glee will stay with me forever.

What about you?
What or who have you seen in this city - or your own community for those who live outside LA - that challenges stereotypes?

Topics: Los Angeles, A View from the Classroom

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