Once upon a time I worked at Bateaux-Mouches in Paris. I sold cigarettes to Japanese tourists, tepid Coca’s to American tourists and Eiffel Tower keychains to all. One day an American man approached me in my glass souvenir booth, discovered I spoke English and proceeded to ask for my help. He was very upset.
My colleague in the food truck, a hard-working Tunisian man, had sold the American a hot dog with sharp French mustard on it even though the American had specifically requested NORMAL mustard. An outrage. He wanted my translation help to fix the situation or get his money back or something. Instead he received such a rant on cultural relativity from me that I thought he might cry. I wasn’t subtle in my younger days. He sheepishly went back and apologized to my colleague sweating away skewering baguettes on a steamy metal stick all day long for the tourists. In those days the owners of Bateaux-Mouches put the white student workers in the souvenir kiosk and the darker grown men in the food truck which was a dismal stinky hot place to work.
This week the French are striking over future retirement benefits. Those three last words don’t even exist for so many Americans and yet when the Oregon Législature cut teachers’ retirements we protested for a moment outside of school hours. It’s all relative. I feel that we are all privileged and terrified to live in a time where what is ‘normal’ has come under scrutiny. And we are faced with many new ‘normals’.
In Europe it is not normal to give up all of your privacy, to bankrupt yourself for health care, to carry guns, or to eat bright yellow bland mustard. And yet, much of that is up for debate as hamburgers become the most common menu item in France and Britain elects those who won’t do anything for the NIH.
I could go on and on about cultural differences and social shifts but of course I see what I like to see and I hear what I want to hear. I long ago convinced myself that bikes are more normal than cars, that women needing to wear colored powders on their faces but not men wasn’t normal or that being happy at work should be normal. What I am interested in is when I myself am able to shift a paradigm in my own head, to see the other side of the coin as they say, to reassess my own take on normal. And for this I mostly have my students to thank.
It is not comfortable to re-evaluate one’s own fixed image of the world.
For the last two years I lived part of the time with a vegan. It is easy to make fun of vegans but I liked this one and so I made an effort to cook food that she would enjoy. And I ate it happily as well. There is no good reason, other than personal taste, not to be a vegan. Now I look at the world a little differently and I often eat weird meals (turnips, fennel, rice and lentils or bulgur, an apple, and some persimmons) because she helped shake up my notions of what is normal.
A long time ago I read a book on human brains that posited that since we see the world in two genders we are incapable of moving beyond the binary in our thinking. Our experience in France is not just one of one homogenous entity versus another, the US. Life is never that simple even if mustards are. I have had the immense privilege of being taught by trans and gender fluid students to see beyond the binary. At first I wanted to protect them, to shield them from the cruelty or obliviousness of their peers. And we language teachers were too grumpy about figuring out pronouns. But they themselves had the courage to insist, to speak up, to show up and to persist in the weirdness of American high school culture. It is not just about having access to bathrooms that are safe or using pronouns that show respect and that people are seen. If we listen to our trans and gender fluid people, we might be able to move our own understanding of the world to a much vaster, fuller and less arbitrarily binary conception. Many of our social constructions and behaviors no longer serve us and their dismantling takes courage and great love. The current conservative powers that be (and by conservative I simply mean wanting things to stay the same or go back to the past) have no interest in a non-binary world view. Their power, without a foil, without a scapegoat, without an enemy, without an other, would be empty. Today, Friday the 13th, with Britain going down a strange path, winds howling outside, and the Supreme Court still not decided about who gets civil rights, I want to acknowledge the gift of learning to see normal differently. Thank you G, A, A, M and all the others who taught me.