When I first met Mary Jane at the recent Canadian-US Servas Conference in Vancouver, her youthful radiance struck me. I thought she might be in her early fifties, and then she revealed that she is 70! No wonder – here is a woman who exudes optimism, who always has a smile on her face. As a long-term member of Servas in the United States, Mary Jane has travelled the world, and by being a host she has brought the world into her home – in fact in almost 30 years she has opened her home to around 300 travellers from all over the world.
Starting with her childhood during WWII, growing up with a mother from Austria-Hungary and a father from Japan, Mary Jane’s intercultural sensitivities got sharpened very early, and her commitment to social justice started when she was very young. Today she is involved in a whole range of causes in San Francisco and her time and dedication are making a difference – Mary Jane builds peace one person at a time. Here is a dynamic woman with a truly interesting story:
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, what is your profession, where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Pennsylvania. My parents were college educated but were looked down upon by the locals as foreigners. My father was prevented from becoming a citizen due to the federal 1924 Asian Exclusion Act until the early 1950 when the law was changed.
My mother lost her citizenship because in the 1920s when my parents were married, a woman who married a foreign man would loose her citizenship, no matter if she was a birth right citizen or a naturalized one. This was not the case for men. Thus, my mother was naturalized twice. This law was eventually changed in the 1930s. Citizenship and human rights became an important issues in my life.
As a first generation American, with a mother from Austria-Hungary and a father from Japan, you can imagine the stares we received as a mixed race family with a 5′ 10″ Caucasian mother and a 5′ 6″ Asian dad. You can’t imagine how we were treated growing up during W.W.II with a German speaking mother and a Japanese speaking father.
As a child, I was familiar with discrimination in society. When a very blue black Kenyan and a Japanese American from the Relocation Camps could not find a place to rent in the Philadelphia-Trenton area, they came to live with us. And there were others that stayed with us over the years, but that was before the 1964 Civil Right Act disallowed discrimination.
Although I wanted to be an engineer like my dad, I realized after my second year in college that this would not be possible. In the 1950 women were not considered for engineering jobs. So when the Russians launched Sputnik, the United States launched a recruitment drive for math and science majors to become teachers.
That is how I was recruited into the education profession where I have worked for over 35 years. I had many roles related to education in public and private schools, at the university level and with the US Department of Education — teaching, educational program evaluation, gender equity/civil rights/ de-segregation-integration, grant writing, budgeting and administration. Today, I am retired, but still work part time as a Title I math tutor to enable low achieving children to become successful in their regular classrooms.
I live in San Francisco which has a rich history of civil right activism and provides many opportunities to support peace and social justice issues. My life is enriched by my many volunteer activities.
Israeli-Palestinian peace quilt
2 You have been a Servas member for many years now. How did you hear about this organization and what was your first travel experience like?
As a teacher you have a large block of time to travel in the summer. One summer, I visited Denmark and had the opportunity to have home hospitality though the Meet the Danes arranged by the Danish tourist bureau. I was impressed by the experience and all during my sabbatical trip round the world, I kept searching for home hospitality opportunities.
It was not until 1977, when a cousin from Austria visited me here in San Francisco, told me how she was traveling around the US for 3 months with 5 others and visiting Americans using Servas. I was delighted to discover such an organization existed and joined Servas immediately — first as a host and then as a traveler.
My first travel experience with Servas was as a host. Because I have a history of having people stay in my home, having Servas visitors came easy. It is only a two night stay and a good conversation. Being a host brings the travel experience into your home. My first visitors were a couple from Denmark, who helped me better understand what Servas represents. Because Servas was started in Denmark under the name Peace Builders and later changed to the Esperanto word Servas to serve, I realized that the purpose of the organization was to build peace one person at a time. That was for me!
I have had over 300 Servas visitors in my 28 years in Servas and have learned so much from their questions about who I am, what I believe, what the USA is or is not, and how much more there is to learn. There are many ways to travel and see other places. One of the best ways to travel is through the open wide ranging conversations with a travelers whether it be in their home or mine.
3. Please tell us a few stories about some of the international visitors that have stayed at your home or travellers you connected with, and tell us how some of these experiences have opened your eyes..
The Russian Connection:
One of my visitors was a teacher in Russia and wanted to see inside a San Francisco public school. I arranged for him to visit a second grade class. The students enthusiastically welcomed him. He pulled up a bill out of his wallet and showed it to the class. He asked the class who the man was. Many hands went up and he discovered that they all thought the person to be Abraham Lincoln, because he was on money and had a beard. But, no it was Lenin who was also famous but in Russia. And where is Russia? Here on the map was Russia and here is San Francisco. I came away with a conscious awaking about my cultural lens. As I look at different situations as I travel, I may not perceive them correctly. I need to reflect, discuss what I think I perceive and ask for clarification.
Israeli-Palestinian peace quilt