I also knew that we were going over my birthday. This was not just any birthday, this was my golden birthday. I would be turning nine years old on July 9, 2001. Birthdays are monumental. They are colossal achievements in life. Now I could tell people I was a year older. Eight would be forever gone and forgotten.
Yet, things were different that year. I was informed we would be living in our pop-up trailer. We were going with a group from church. We would be camping--over my birthday. This is a lot to swallow for someone almost nine years old. I wasn't sure I liked camping and I definitely wasn't sure I liked camping over my birthday. My parents said we would celebrate after we came back. They just didn't get it. If my cat died, that was like saying I could still keep the dead body. There's a reason they called it a birthday.
I might have cried a little when I found out we were leaving. I was being stripped of the simple pleasures of childhood, torn away from all things known and familiar. I was to live on a campground, with people who were not my family, who looked down their noses at me, who didn't care that I was almost nine years old. I would be living among those who did not understand who I was, who spoke to me as if I were a deaf dog, or worse, a mere child.
I didn't have a choice. I must go because everyone else was going, our whole family loaded up in Dad's rusty gray Dodge Ram pickup truck. The back was overflowing with precious provisions for the journey. I thought our departure might be permanent considering everything we brought.
We were going to a place called Wikwimekong, a section of Manitoulin Island in Manitoulin District, Ontario, Canada. It is an unceded Indian reserve, which meant that it did not "relinquished its title of land to the government by treaty or otherwise." I suspected these people lived in teepees and hunted buffalo, but I was informed this was not true.
I prayed devoutly for a friend. I wanted a real Indian friend. I wanted to write letters to her and know her for the rest of my life.
When we finally arrived, things were different than I imagined. The people didn't live in teepees, just little houses without much grass in the front yard, and dogs. There were lots of dogs. I liked dogs, but these dogs, when we made eye contact, told me to be careful. They told me I should not pat their heads or get too close.
When I asked my mom why we were there, what we were doing camping in Canada on my birthday, she tried her best to explain that this was a vacation Bible school for the children living on the Island. I had never been to a vacation Bible school, this meant nothing to me.
Every day we went to an enormous old building. I think it used to be an indoor hockey rank that was turned into a gym. There were so many kids. Kids were running everywhere. The noise level and the smell of the place was overwhelming.
As the days went by, I realized I was embarrassed to be in a small group. I wasn't sure why, since I was out to make a friend, but I felt I didn't belong with the other girls. My hair was not black, my skin was not dark. They knew I was different, too. They looked me up and down, keeping their distance.
This was the first time I doubted God could answer prayer. Somehow, I knew I would not make a friend here. These people were not like me.
One day after singing lots of songs that required jumping, and listening to a Bible story, we played a game outside. I will never forget this game. Nobody told me what it was called, it was sort of like tag, but worse. Everyone found a partner first. Everyone, that is, except me. Therefore, I was "it". I had to chase another girl until she linked arms with two other girls, then one would break away and I would chase her. I chased and chased, but they were forever linking up and breaking off, and linking up again, like barrel monkeys, giggling, shrieking, laughing, and I couldn't catch any of them.
It happened that I was sick the next day. I was sick on my birthday. I came down with a fever. Dad stayed back at the campground with me. As I laid on my side of the pull-out mattress, I thought about what it would be like to live in this place forever. Somehow, it didn't matter so much that it was my birthday. Somehow, my birthday didn't seem so important. I thought of the girls in my small group, and my unanswered prayer. I thought about how they would link arms, break away, and link arms again and again.
I realized I was afraid to try to make a friend. The idea was unsettling. Fear crept into every encounter I had. When I spoke to the other girls, when I looked into their eyes, I couldn't explain what I felt. I felt uneasiness. When I was with them, I could not see myself, it seemed there was no part of me in them I could identify with. Everything about them was unknown; I feared the unknown. When I was with them, I just wanted to go home, I wanted to be comfortable and secure, I wanted to feel like I knew what was going on. The first thing I ever prayed for was a friend, and now...I wasn't so sure I wanted one.
How can we truly understand that bridge that separates one culture from another? In this essay, I tried to approach the question from a child's perspective. Children are free from the most crippling forms prejudice and stereotyping. However, to be honest, I really struggled expressing what I wanted to.
"The Barrel Monkey Game" is meant to signify the helplessness and culture shock one feels when entering into a different, unknown way of life. People tend to "link up" with those who are like themselves, who they feel they identify with. It's easiest to connect with people like ourselves. We can make a long chain, attach person to person, just like Barrel Monkeys.
When faced with people unlike us, however, our initial reaction is to retreat, like I did, and not pursue a relationship with somebody different because we feel we cannot relate to them on a certain level. My challenge to you as a reader is to forget what you think you know about someone you've never met. Don't rely on how you feel. Connecting with people who are different from you will not only expand your comfort zone, but enrich your experiences and broaden your perspective on life.
You will find yourself at the heart of another human being, you need only to look hard enough.