Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Do We Mean, “Normal”?

Tegucigalpa, Honduras 
A few weeks ago a volunteer from the United States was telling me how much Tegucigalpa had challenged her expectations.

“I expected there to be poverty and all the bad things you hear about,” she said, “But there's malls here and TGI Friday’s – it’s actually pretty normal!”

“Normal”, of course, was a short-hand for “familiar." But I knew, and sympathized with what she was trying to say. Realizing that Hondurans eat at TGI Friday’s, that they take their kids to karate class, watch Netflix, and snap Instagram shots of their latte art, makes Honduras feel a lot less foreign.

A few weekends ago, I went to a friend’s house and we cooked pasta with pesto and an apple pie. I went and saw a Hollywood movie (in English, with Spanish subtitles) in this mall, then I went out with friends to a tea shop and sipped lemongrass tea while we talked about books we’d recently read.

To me this felt normal, by which I mean familiar. Not all my weekends are like this, but the familiarity was comfortable and rejuvenating. And I realized this – I can create a life for myself here in Honduras that feels familiar. But there was nothing about that weekend that was normal.

I live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where half of all residents are still rural farmers, and where the GDP per capita is about $6/day. Over 60% of Hondurans live in poverty, and 60% of these poorest Hondurans will have dropped out of school by age 12.  

This isn’t just Honduras. Something like 80% of the world lives on less than $10/day. Poverty is normal. The threat of diseases like malaria, dengue, HIV-AIDS is still normal. Gender inequality, racial discrimination, violent armed conflict – these things are still all too normal.

TGI Fridays is not normal.

It’s only natural to feel more comfortable in places that look familiar, or to connect more with people who share your background, your interests, and your outlook on life. But to see these things as the norm is dangerous. When we have the idea that “normal” means “like us”, that means that those who are different are somehow “abnormal”, and, thus, that they should change.

This is sneaky rhetoric. It happens in the United States when the goal for immigrants or ethnic minorities is “assimilation,” which often secretly means, “act, talk, and think ‘normal’,” which often means, “act, talk, and think like the white, male people in power.”

Acting “normal” becomes the test for which the reward is professional advancement, integration into social groups, and the constant murmur of, “why can’t the rest of them be like you.”

But a world in which all think, speak, and act alike is no world I want to live in.

It’s easy to come to Honduras and connect with people who are like me, friends who grew up on the same U.S. media, graduated college, and enjoy travel and hiking and coffee shops. It’s harder to connect with the girl in my neighborhood who dropped out of school at 15 to have her first child, who makes what living she can selling gum and newspapers by the bus station, and who’s too tired to have many hobbies.

It’s harder, but there’s more to learn in that friendship than in people who reinforce what I already think and know. We have a problem in our world where powerful people know and interact only with other powerful people, and view those with less education, fewer connections, less experience as less interesting, less worthy of attention, less normal.

Until we know and care for people who aren’t like us, we can’t be their advocates and they can’t be ours. We can’t start the work of reconciliation across culture or class or position. We’ll keep thinking “their” underprivileged position is because they aren’t enough like “us.”

It’s not that I shouldn’t enjoy lemongrass tea with friends when I am in a position to do so. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with karate or Netflix or Instagram. But it’s important to recognize how rare and unusual these privileges are where I am – and how rich lives can be even when they don’t contain them.

This is a challenge to myself to redefine normal and stretch my boundaries of the familiar, to appreciate the wealth of differences this world hosts, and accept humbly that I’m not normal, not remotely, and that that’s okay.  

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