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We know this, of course, but an occasional reminder is still helpful. Mine came about two weeks ago, during the first of week of school.

It was after Agotich’s first day of school, and Simon was excited to go inside her apartment and play for a while after we drove her home. There isn’t much to do at Alek’s apartment; they don’t have much space or many toys. But cartoons are always playing, Agotich lives there, and it’s a change of scenery, all of which is enough to keep Simon coming back.

When we opened the door, we were greeted by Alek, which we expected, and also a young boy named Kuering, which we did not expect. Kuering’s mother was out interviewing for a job, and Alek was watching him and his (sleeping) baby sister. Like many children of the Lost Boys, Kuering has been here for not quite two years, time he has spent mostly at home with his mother. Other than weekly ventures to church or the occasional party, he hasn’t socialized much with other children and certainly hasn’t done so with children who are not Dinka.

Because of his rather insular life in America to date, a life that probably changed somewhat when his mother began driving and will dramatically change once she goes to work and he begins day-care, he was confused to see Simon trot into Agotich’s apartment. And because he just turned four, he did not express his confusion terribly politely:

“What’s he doing here?” He asked Alek with a frown.

Now Alek, whose manners were quite good when she arrived a year ago and who has only grown more open and warm with time, was embarrassed and horrified.

“Kuering!”, she barked in a tone any mother recognizes as a combination of embarrassment, surprise, and anger, “This house is Simon’s house, too. Don’t talk like that.”

Kuering was not overly happy to get this news; he frowned and pouted in response. Things got better when Simon went to play with him, and then got worse when I had to discipline him several times for playing too wildly near the baby and/or playing too roughly when Simon asked him not to. He jumped on the couch. I barked. He lept off an inside slide before the child in front had cleared out of the way. I barked some more. He pulled Simon’s hair (because he was fascinated by it, not out of malice). I corrected him again. Even when his mother arrived, I was the primary enforcer. Yar and Alek had things to discuss and were distracted, leaving me as the mom/enforcer on duty.

We left about an hour later, and I was sure that Kuering would be delighted to see my back. I said goodbye to his mother, said goodbye to him and told him it was nice to meet him, then kissed Anyieth and Agotich, telling the latter that I was happy she had a good day at school and that I was proud of her.

Much to my surprise, Kuering looked up at me with his dark almond eyes and asked rather plaintively,

“Don’t I get a kiss, too?”

And then it hit me. He might not have loved all the discipline I meted out, but he probably did like the attention. Dinka mothers don’t hover the same way Western ones tend to, and with a new baby in the house, Kuering might not have minded my vigilance as much as he pretended. Even if he did, none of that was enough to cancel out an innocent wish for some praise and affection.

What child doesn’t want that? For that matter, what person doesn’t want that?  So I checked my surprise as much as possible, told him “of course, all good boys and girls get kisses” and pecked him on his forehead. And the whole way home, I reminded myself that underneath—Dinka or American, well socialized or not—we are all the same. All of us.

4 Responses to “Underneath, We Are All the Same”

  1. Amanda says:

    Whenever people ask what was the most important thing I learned in Peace Corps, I always say “People are much more alike than they are different.” I suspect Kuering will be much better behaved when he interacts more with his own age group–kids tend to discipline each other pretty quickly.

  2. christine says:

    Aw, that made me smile.

  3. blg says:

    Good story and interesting insight. What did Simon think of all this?

  4. Jessica says:

    “Good story and interesting insight. What did Simon think of all this?”

    Blg: That is an interesting question. Something similar happened at this year’s graduation party when Matt and I feebly tried to lay down the law as some boys ran wild in reception area. Simon usually looks confused more than anything else. Confused about whether all the jumping is ok at first, and then confused about why the other boys are doing it if it’s not. He’s never deterred from playing with these kids though, as he gravitates to boys that are much more rambunctious than he is. By way of explanation I stick with a line a friend taught me: “Different houses have different rules.” It’s the best way I know to explain differences in rules without passing judgment.

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