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To Europe and back: How things changed but also stayed the same

Ashley Lehman and Marian Brunner
Ashley Lehman and Marian Brunner

Marian Bunner and her husband never expected to be gone for long. It was 1967, and, with Marian pregnant, the two had decided to take an extended European trip before the baby came. But while abroad, Marian’s husband received and accepted a job in the Netherlands, beginning an unexpected, 30-year adventure.

Marian Brunner sat down with her daughter Ashley Lehman during StoryCorps mobile tour stop in Salt Lake City to reflect on her experience living in Europe as a biracial family, and the cultural differences they experienced abroad and at home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Lehman: This was the mid-sixties. What was the response to the two of you?

Marian Bunner: In the beginning, it was difficult because I still was attached to American ways of doing things. We weren’t looked upon as a white-black couple. Not at all. But I remember your brother going to school one day and telling the teacher that his parents didn’t speak French. And I was so mortified that I immediately made an appointment to see the teacher and go over to speak to her in French because I thought, “oh, what kind of impression have you given your teacher?” I was a little bit self-conscious, because here I was, this Black woman walking into the school to say that I am well educated, and I can speak your language.

I was judged as an American. I was judged when I was pregnant, as a pregnant woman. I was not judged by the color of my skin, and I really appreciated that in my European experience.

AL: How do you feel about the experience now? All these years … you’ve come back to the States. You spent a quarter of a century abroad, and then you’ve come back to the States. In a few words, how do you feel about the experience now?

MB: When I left in ‘67, Martin Luther King Jr. was at the forefront. So I thought as a country we were moving forward. And when I decided to settle back in the States thirty years later, I was looking at this documentary and they were talking about Robert Kennedy and how things were segregated again. And that shocked me! I thought when I left thirty years ago that was the topic, and I thought, “oh. We haven’t really moved forward at all.” I can see areas where we are going backwards.

AL: I think that’s what I gained out of my upbringing, and what you and my father exposed me to … I just feel like the American way is one way, it’s not “the best” way. They’ve certainly figured out a lot of things, but there’s a lot of things they haven’t figured out, yet, as well. I just will be forever grateful for you and my father’s sense of adventure, and just for teaching me to be open to learn about other people, and the way you just immerse yourself.

MB: We tried to take the best from every culture and incorporate it in our lives.

AL: I’m the beneficiary of that as I pass that on to my children and your grandkids, so I thank you for that. Very much.

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