Our human family

Fresh off the BART

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I write about differences. For 11 weeks, I’ve talked about how my life never fit the standard American story and why it’s important to acknowledge that there are many people just like me who don’t fit the mold either. It’s important to discuss how your name can make you stand out, how your brown skin may trigger different biases in the health care system and what politics mean if you’re not white. I’ve talked about how people are unalike in so many ways.

But I have nothing more to say. It’s official. I’ve run out of things to talk about.

The more I write about the diversity of people in shape, size, color, ideas and culture, the more I’ve come to realize that I’m not that different from anybody else. In fact, there is a deeper truth that binds us all together. It is best said by Maya Angelou in my favorite poem, “Human Family”:

“In minor ways we differ,

in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences

between each sort and type,

but we are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.”

I’ve never thought that people are that different — I just think we don’t understand each other. The point of my writing has never been to separate people into different groups. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of my intention. I’ve always just wanted to show people what it’s like to live another life, one that may have different expectations and different challenges.

“The variety of our skin tones

can confuse, bemuse, delight,

brown and pink and beige and purple,

tan and blue and white.”

Our differences often seem so visible that we become blind to our similarities. Everybody wants the chance to live a happy life, to be successful and fulfilled. I’ve only lived my life and you’ve only lived yours, but if I can show you what it’s like to be in my shoes, then maybe you can understand why I feel the way I do.

I wrote about how I felt my name didn’t fit me because I know that everyone can understand feeling left out like I did. I wrote about why the term “Asian American” can be deceiving because I know that everybody has been misrepresented at some point in their lives. I wrote about Muslims being ignored politically because it’s painfully common to feel voiceless in our political system. It’s like we’re all saying the same thing but speaking different languages. Perhaps reading stories like mine can help build a universal code — one whose letters are empathy and whose sounds are experiences.

“I’ve sailed upon the seven seas

and stopped in every land,

I’ve seen the wonders of the world

not yet one common man.”

We search far and wide for what makes us unique, and that’s not our fault. We live in a society that tells us from kindergarten that we are special or No. 1 or better than the rest. We’re constantly enrolling ourselves in activities and clubs and volunteering to build up our skill sets and differentiate ourselves from the crowd, so that at the tender age of 18, we can prove that we are special to a university.

In college, it’s cool to be original and do things on your own instead of following another person’s lead. Each of us is ingrained from an early age to believe not only that we are an individual but that we are a unique person who is inherently better than the common humans we are surrounded by. Then, we as a society wonder why it’s so difficult to prioritize helping our communities over helping just ourselves.

I wonder how we would treat each other if we taught children who excel to help the kids who struggle and taught kids who struggle to ask for help. We can do that and still praise hard work. I wonder what life would be like if we acted more like our brother’s keeper rather than his competition.

“We love and lose in China,

we weep on England’s moors,

and laugh and moan in Guinea,

and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,

are born and die in Maine.

In minor ways we differ,

in major we’re the same.”

We have watched as a disease ravaged the world, from China all the way to Spain’s shores, and yet our country chose not to act because we believed that the United States is not the same as everybody else. Yet, we now know very well that the disease spreads here the same way it does everywhere else.

We are not special compared to the rest of the world. Now is when we have to decide if we want to continue dividing ourselves and feeling helpless or if we want to realize the power we share when we come together. How can we meet the challenges ahead of us if we don’t understand how our problems are one and the same?

More importantly, what can we achieve when we understand that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike”?

I imagine that is the question that will be running through my head when I come back to Berkeley to face this brave new world. I’ll hear the announcer say, “Now approaching Downtown Berkeley BART station.” I’ll wonder what the answer could be as I pick up my bags and finally make my way off the BART.

Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a first-generation American. Contact him at [email protected]