Normalize. Unify. Forgive.
I am tired of those words.
They are words our headlines and social media feeds are littered with along with misinformation and blame, hypocrisy and derision, hate and faux peace. Normal. It’s been echoing in my dreams this past week. But so has his voice shouting at me, “wake up.” I have been asleep for decades. Many of us now say we are saddened but not surprised, dismayed but not shocked. We have been awakened by the cacophony of intolerance masquerading as a political movement, but is it too late?
“Please call me Mona…” I cried through tears as I ran out of the classroom.
It was the first day of kindergarten in a quiet and outwardly perfect suburban town, where 100-year-old arts and crafts homes interspersed with gas-powered street lamps painted a scene out of a historical novel. I was 5-years-old and a new suburban transplant. I came home from the half day of my first day of school screaming at my mom, begging them to take me home to the Lower East side of NYC. Racism — it was too early to give it a name. But, the teacher, the only adult in the room, after a few feeble attempts to say my first name during attendance, huffed in frustration and laughed. That was her first mistake. Mona, is not my name. It is a name given to me by my pediatrician in Manhattan who wanted to call me something “American-sounding” and Mona sounded like “moon” which is what my real name basically means. Before that first day of kindergarten, no one but he and my parents knew “Mona” existed. I did not realize it was a “normalization” into society. I did not realize that until college. If you hadn’t heard, most Asian Americans have their American names — we joke about it in private circles. My teacher’s second mistake that day was to not learn how to say my real name, to accept and promote the use of the name that I clearly did not want. Her third mistake (at least from my P.O.V.) was to not console me in any way. The class disturbance was neatly shelved under an invisibility cloak of “do not discuss.”
That should have been a sign of things to come. The cries of “red-dot special” came a year later, referencing a local grocery store sales campaign and Indian bindis. Hallway bullying brought more tears. I was taunted to and from school. Physical threats came not long after. Regular meetings started with the vice-principal in middle school whenever he caught wind of an incident. There’s one in particular that still stands out: when I was called to his office. It concluded with the vice principal telling me that he was trying to spare me from more bullying by trying to make me less different than my peers in appearance. I was a straight-A student. I was heavily involved in extracurricular activities. But I lived daily in fear of standing in line before classes. You see, that was when I was most vulnerable. I dreaded it. There weren’t that many bullies. But there were enough to mean my classmates laughed at my expense at least twice a week. I was afraid of walking to school alone. But eventually I had a few really good friends who started walking to school with me. I realize now they were protecting me from taunts about my last name or the color of my skin. The incidents extended outside school too. I’ll never forget the symbolic knife stabbing of a tree by my neighbor’s older grandson in front of my eyes as he gazed upon me like prey. Even in the early years of high school, the bullying continued. But by then I was more confident in my identity, or at least I was silenced enough to bide my time by working hard and keeping my head down, trying to fit in. Same with just about everyone else. We were normalized. Just another ‘normal’ childhood. Or so I thought. It was an impasse. We never talked about it did we? No one apologized then. And not one of the perpetrators nor the bystanders who knew, apologized last week, in spite of my impassioned pleas after Election Day for them to wake up with me, even if it meant admitting openly that we are on different sides. Be honest about it is all I asked.
We have fast forwarded over a decade yet the days come flooding back to me now. My generation did not grow from those experiences of youth because we failed to talk about it, we closed our eyes, called it ‘fitting in’, ‘uniting’ and being ‘normal’. To this day those I know from back then who stood by and ignored or watched my fear in silence stand as much by the bullies as they did then, if not more. Their vote for Donald Trump is as much against me and those like me, the ‘outliers’/the ‘other’, as their complicit idle laughter was back then. True, not everyone was a racist, then, just as they are not racists now. But their claims that this is an election just like all others in our lifetime is blatantly false. This was far from a ‘normal’ election, if by ‘normal’ we mean every day, average, typical… No, I will not normalize. Nor will I pretend their normalizing with the alt-right is acceptable behavior for society. It may be reality, but it is not okay. It is a form of privilege many have never had, the chance to look away knowing they’ll probably survive a fallout if the worst comes to pass and rights are lost. I have been striving to be normal for so long only to realize it will not exist, not for me, not when it has been defined as an impenetrable concept built for those who are not me.
And I’m finally now okay with that.
I will no longer obey by these parameters that not only did not help me, but led to nothing but more of the same a generation after. Stop asking us to sit and wait and see what happens. Rather than using tired phrases like unification and normalization (that ring of purges), try admitting that we are not the same, we as a nation, are a patchwork quilt and have built something unique worth fighting for that is not harmonious.
This is my call to all of us who have been blinded by the complacency of turning the other cheek, to act with authenticity and realism instead. At least from personal experience, pretending that everything is normal is the opposite of progress.
I chose to not make this an outwardly political piece. A personal story that I never wanted to share. It brings me no joy, no closure and no satisfaction. But what it might do, for just one person, is start them on a path to admitting that normalcy is false, that the unknown is actually not that unknown. World history has been down this road before. Wake up.