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“She isn't black, white or Chinese. She's different,” said a blonde-haired girl (henceforth referred to as The Blonde One) in my kindergarten class to a new boy who'd just joined. “You have to solemnly promise never to speak to her,” she added. The boy nodded in agreement.

I remember feeling 'strange' hearing her talk like that; you learnt to quietly ignore behaviour such as the above predominantly because it didn't make any sense back then. Despite my outward appearance—or the colour of my skin—I still remained “me”. Having a Pakistani origin (I spent my kindergarten in Hong Kong) was natural to me, I'd never thought of myself as anyone different.

The ban on talking to me barely lasted one class the moment it was time to play, both the boy and The Blonde One forgot about their promise of never speaking to me and we indulged in a group sport encompassing the whole class. The moment play time was over however, the ban was put back in place. Another thing I noticed was that it was mostly the girls in my class (not all, there were two very nice Indian and Irish girls who never paid heed to what The Blonde One said) who even tried to enforce that ban. Most of the boys pretty much didn't care.

Why do I remember the time I spent in Kindergarten so clearly? Because Hong Kong was a radically different place from Pakistan; call it a case of extreme cultural shock but everything about Hong Kong was new from their buildings, supermarkets, playgrounds to the people who inhabited it. Most importantly, never before had the colour of my skin been an issue.

There were undercurrents of racism here and there even outside school some shop owners wouldn't be as polite when attending to you, children in a community playground weren't as open to include you, etc. We moved back after a couple of years. My parents stated, “It is better to live in the Third World country as a first-class citizen than live in the First World country as a third-class citizen.”

Contrary to popular belief, I soon discovered it wasn't very different in Pakistan either. Several years after moving back from Hong Kong, I remember walking into my fourth-grade class-room to find two girls, twin sisters, standing in front of the entire class, while the other students talked about them. While I was just trying to find out what happened, one of my classmates came up to me and demanded to know what religious sect I belonged to. Prior to that, I didn't even know there were different sects in religion, and therefore I didn't know which one I belonged to—it was never a topic of great importance at home.

Being acutely aware of how the twins must have been feeling, I decided to side with them and told everyone that they could do whatever they wanted in return, I was proud to be a part of 'their' sect. The issue died down by the time the teacher entered the class, but the matter of what sect I really did belong to, stuck in my head.

After school I told my mother what had happened and popped the fatal question, “So, we belong to which sect?” She responded by telling me that the way my classmates had behaved was wrong and extremely inappropriate and the question should never be approached by me (at least) when it comes to interacting with people.

“Children can be very cruel when faced with someone who is different from them,” is a statement you'll hear from child psychologists, wordwide. The notion is that their cruelty is often a result of ignorance and lack of knowledge. That is why school bullies exist. I personally think that as long as children can learn to be more tolerant of the diversity that surrounds them, it's okay. However, it's disturbing when they grow into adults who still hold the same stereotypical notions about racial/sect differences and encourage prejudice in their offspring. Children need to be taught that how you are on the outside is not directly linked to how a person is in inside. They should look beyond what is apparent and embrace what's different, thereby teaching tolerance and respect for their peers, rather than being afraid of it.