In the filtered sunlight of the bus window, the little boy’s straight, yellow hair streamed from the top of his head like a sparkler. He peeked over at me, again, and this time, I gave him the most sour grimace I could muster. “What are you looking at?” I thought, again, but didn’t say because he was, after all, a child. But so was I, really: a 16-year-old spending the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in the northernmost province of Sweden, a hair south of the Arctic Circle.
I must have been the last foreign exchange student placed with a host family because, of all the American students placed in Sweden that summer, I was the farthest north and the furthest away from the capital city of Stockholm, where I had requested to be placed. The hamlet of Råneå was an hour outside of Luleå, itself not even topping 50,000 people and whose most famous export was ‘70s model and Bond girl Maud Adams. A bus that ran three or four times a day connected the town to the city, and neither town nor city was very racially diverse in 1994.
In fact, aside from a brown-skinned Sri Lankan girl adopted by Swedish parents in Råneå, it seemed I was the only other person of color in that section of the province, a flat, swampy expanse with Mesozoic-sized mosquitos and a sun that never set in summer. Not so very different from Florida, after all. The adults and other teenagers I was around—mostly, my host sisters’ friends—didn’t seem too scandalized by the skin tone difference: The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on Swedish television and two of the star players on Sweden’s World Cup soccer team were half-black.
But the little boy on the bus couldn’t stop looking. And finally, I stopped grimacing and smiled. He smiled, too, then I got off the bus.
Image by Daniel Glifberg via Flickr.