“Raven” is a metaphor placed on someone who has been senselessly neglected and humiliated by fellow citizens, framed and demoralized by society’s law enforcement, dramatized by society’s authors and media, and banished from society.
The first next door neighboring family that I can remember was a family of four or five, including what I think was led by a Mom and Dad, who immigrated to Kansas City, Missouri from the Kingdom of Cambodia. Cambodia is a country of about 15 million people on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. I’ve read that about 95% of Cambodia’s population practice Theravada Buddhism.
When I was five years old, I developed a fear of my next door neighbors, the immigrant family who were fortunate enough to escape war in Cambodia. At about this time in my life in 1989, as a first grader in the Midwest, I was obsessed with martial arts and combat weapons, thanks to watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV. In the summer, when I was stuck out in left-field at T-Ball games, me and the other outfielders would practice “Ninja” moves in the grass. At such a gullible age, the idea that my next door neighbors may have known more about martial arts and self-defense than even I did, was intimidating.
I played a lot in my family’s backyard when I was young. Looking back, there was not much that would keep me from coming back inside the house, perhaps except for the idea of having to hop a small, residential chain-link fence. Hopping fences can be fun, but it’s not fun if you’re afraid of your neighbors on the other side. If my baseball or football were thrown over the chain-link fence dividing my family’s house from our Cambodian neighbors near 87th & Crescent, it took a lot of courage for me to go get that ball.
This neighborhood provided me with a stream of multi-cultural lessons, and those memories, ideas and values I still carry with me today. 87th & Crescent was the epicenter of carefree race relations, unlike any kind of neighborhood, environment or place I’ve ever been to, still to this day. I lived there with my Dad, Mom and Sister until the beginning of summer break after my very last 6th grade school day at Ervin Junior High School. That was in 1996. In a lot of ways, I think that the year 1996 can be drawn up as a turning point in American society, specific to our sense of community in the United States. I do feel that after 1996, race relations in the U.S. dropped its head to a nosedive, as well as our sense of immediate community. I was extremely fortunate to have experienced 87th & Crescent with a loving family and good friends in the neighborhood.
In retrospect, it may have torn up the hearts of my Cambodian neighbors when it was so painfully obvious that I was absolutely terrified of hopping our fence. It was almost as if I was pinned with the two options of staying on my family’s side of the fence and let the ball stay in my neighbors’ yard for eternity, or build and unleash enough courage to grab the top of the fence, put one foot on top and push myself over, as if I were running into a war zone, which I was not. Whenever I would make the leap over the fence to get that ball, I was usually running to the ball and straight back to the fence and throwing the ball back into my family’s yard in as few motions as I could. Whether it was a football, a baseball or a kickball, that ball was not a grenade. In the time it would take for me to dash from the time my first foot hit the neighbors’ side of our grass to the time my first foot made it back to my family’s side of the fence, I was not afraid of being shot with a firearm. It was a fear of hand-to-hand combat, and in my mind, I would not have stood a chance. Of course, it never came down to that.
One day in my front yard, which was not separated from our Cambodian neighbors’ front yard by anything at all, the daughter in the neighboring house that I was so wholly and blindly afraid of, happened to be outside in their front yard as well. She talked to me. She talked to me more than I talked to her by a landslide, but she was very nice, like neighbors on Crescent were in that era. I think she was in the 8th grade. I was five years old. This was 1989 in Kansas City, Missouri. Our front yards, come to think of it, were actually divided by a wood, step-down pillar that ran the distance of our front yard. There was no fence, still. In retrospect, the step-down pillar probably didn’t provide as much of a drastic change in ground level as I remember. It was probably only a one foot or two foot drop into my neighbors’ yard. I do not remember how long our conversation lasted, but at one point she asked me to step down into her family’s side of the wood pillar, which I did. She talked to me some more. At another point in the conversation, she asked if she could step up to my family’s side of the wood pillar. Somehow she ended up in my family’s yard and I ended up in her family’s yard for the first time. This 8th grade girl whose family immigrated to Kansas City from Cambodia, right next door to my own, probably was not on her way to a Nobel Prize of any kind, but this conversation was an absolute breakthrough in my curiosity for people and things that are not traditional to me in the way that I was raised.
While I do not remember any of the exact wording during any of this conversation, I do know that the lasting idea that was given to me was something to the effect of, “See, that isn’t so bad, is it?” Let’s not run around our neighbor’s backyards as if there are landmines underneath. You never know where your neighbors are coming from and what they’ve been through. Yes, get the ball if it flies over your neighbors’ fence, and please clean up after yourself as well.