Friday, January 25, 2008

Too bad for you because we're taking over the world.

I'll tell you a little story about me today.

I'm at Yonge and St. Clair and I go into the subway station through some revolving doors. No one else is around. No one that I notice at least. All of a sudden I hear a woman's voice mumble quite casually: "I don't like Chinese or Indian people." I am so confused. I'm not sure why this is said because I haven't done anything. I didn't even see this person coming but there she is. Some random lady insulting me because of my appearance. Not because of my actions or behaviour or words because I haven't acted, done or said anything. I feel doubly insulted actually. She doesn't know this, but my parents were born in India so I have a special connection to the Indian culture. I turn around to see who it is. She looks at me and stops. She moves to the other revolving doors. I suppose she wants to avoid me. I don't think she expected me to turn around. But I'm not going to let her off the hook so easily. I meet her at the other entrance.

"What did you say?" I ask her.
"I said, I don't like Chinese or Indian people," she replies. She doesn't seem angry or upset. Maybe slightly embarrassed now because I'm confronting her, but for the most part, she says her words very matter-of-factly.

I'm appalled. Completely and utterly appalled. I start following her and talking out loud. My voice is steady. "OK. I'm not really sure why you would say that. It seems like a really bad, mean generalization to make but I guess if that's how you feel I can't really do anything about it. But wow. I was just walking along, minding my own business and you have to say something like that to me. I don't know. I guess you can say what you like but wow." We walk through the TTC turnstile. I go first. She again moves to the other turnstile. I wait to hold the next set of doors for her. I'm not trying to be nice. I'm waiting for her because I feel like something more needs to be said. I'm starting to feel desperate. I need to know why this woman feels this way. I need to expose her to the fact that she shouldn't feel this way. Most of all, I need to gently stalk and berate this woman because I feel like she just gently berated me.

"Don't hold the door for me," she says. I do anyway. She walks through (because there's no other option) and I continue with my even-toned rant.
"I just don't know why you would insult me like that when it is so clear that I'm Chinese," I remark.
"Well, that's too bad," she replies.
"Yeah. Too bad for you," I rebut.

I follow her down the stairs. I want to get on the train with her. In my head, I have this image of me pointing at her to other people and saying, "Do you know this lady just told me she doesn't like Chinese or Indian people?" But then I realize I'm on the southbound platform and I need to go north. Silently I'm upset she's not heading in the same direction as me. I need more time. But I finally give up. I decide it's not worth it anymore so I go back upstairs and across to the northbound platform.

This incident kills me for a few reasons. I have many thoughts swirling around, trying to make sense of the situation as I ride home. First, she's a black woman in about her mid-30s and fairly well-dressed. I take this as a sign of middle-class education and prosperity. I figure, OK, white supremacists not able to handle racial diversity, yeah. Not that it excuses a white person to say the same thing. Or someone who is poor and therefore poorly educated - I get that too. But a black person?... Someone who probably has at least an elementary education? I guess I expect more from a black person considering how much discrimination and exploitation blacks faced in history and still face today. The second thing that kills me is I really want to talk about this to someone as I'm on the subway, because it's fresh and raw and is searing through my blood and bones, my entire being. I really need to hear someone else say, Hey, this lady is crazy and close-minded. Don't listen to her. But I start to worry. I think, Here's this woman living in one of the most diverse cities in the world and she is willing to completely disregard 1/3 of the entire global population based on what exactly? But before I decide I need to create a forum of racial discussion on the subway, a fear sparks inside, What if I talk about this to a random stranger and that person agrees with her? What if this is the day where all of people's subtle prejudices come out and I end up bearing the grunt of it? I can't deal with that. I can't possibly deal with someone agreeing with her, or making an excuse for her, or simply not caring. Instead of being numb, I would be in a blind rage if something like that happens. And the other thing that kills me is it's not actually true what I said. I'm only clearly Chinese to me. Some people say they can easily tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other Asians but I know I can't; so what if I wasn't Chinese? Would she tell me she doesn't like any Asians in general then? Thereby disregarding 2/3 of the entire global population?

I know I'm very lucky to live in Toronto. I haven't experienced racism to the degree I hear about in the United States or some European countries but this type of subtle, matter-of-fact racism still kills me inside. It's been over two-and-a-half-years of my university education and I feel extremely grateful for the type of post-secondary schooling I've received so far. I definitely feel like a more enlightened person when it comes to how society has been formed and why these cultural tensions exist. But if there is one thing I was taught in my elementary education that I've carried throughout my life is the basic idea of not to generalize.

Could I have possibly enlightened this woman from the time it took us to walk from the street entrance of the subway station to the train doors? Could I have given this woman a 60-second education on why as human beings we need to be respectful of one another and unlearn the discriminatory practices that seem to be embedded in our minds?

I don't think I could have. It may not have been the most clever or eye-opening retort, but that's probably why the only thing I could leave her with was, Yeah. Too bad for you.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Everything feels like it's moving fast, slow and standing still all at the same time.

I want to catch my breath. But it seems locked inside my lungs. Breathing. It's something so natural that we forget it's even there until it's gone.

I have mood shifts. Different places, different circumstances make me act a certain way, think a certain way, feel a certain way. I've often felt like my head is full of truthful contradictory thoughts. I'm on my way to school like any normal day. I've parred down my travelling time now to exactly the length necessary for me to walk outside of my front door to arrive in my seat in class. But I still hurry along. I still beat past people in a whirlwind. Eyes, my walking, even my breathing seems focused at the task at hand. I relax myself on the bus or the subway. I try not to check my watch because on a bus or the subway train, I cannot control the speed. I cannot control the direction. But walking. I'm in control when I'm walking. So I walk fast.

From the bus to the subway cart, I weave and dodge through the crowd. I quicken my pace accordingly and I sometimes feel like I'm jumping ahead, skipping ahead. I sometimes catch the eye of a stranger walking toward me but for the most part, I couldn't possibly care less. I'm only concerned about my destination, about what I'm in control of - getting to that subway cart.

"Shit," I say with disdain. I squeeze through the doors past a meandering young woman just as the bell chimes. I swear a lot these days. I'm trying to cut down but it's so easy to lapse into profanities when my mind seems to be racing and no one seems to notice how intense everything is inside. I stalk through the cart to the end and plop down in a seat. I'm ready to relax, read my Chatelaine and forget the world. But my eyes flicker up. Even if I want to forget the world, it still exists so I scan it anyway. And a shock goes through me. Actually, it's more like a sudden pinch. Quick and stinging but innocent and playful. It's my cheeky friend Mike. Mike is definitely like a pinch.

He's sitting across the aisle from me. I realize it's him in a second but it feels so sudden and unexpected, like I've tumbled into a fairy tale. I get up and plop myself into the seat next to him.
"What's wrong?" he sincerely asks. I exhale loudly, take off my hat and tousle my hair.
"I guess it's just one of those days where everything's wrong," he answers his own question.
"No! No, that's not it. I'm just...Nothing's wrong," I rush to reply. I don't like it when people make up my thoughts in their head. At least, not when the thoughts are wrong. I think I want to say exasperated but words aren't exactly forming in my mind. I'm still trying to catch my breath.
"Actually, you know what, it does feel like things have been going wrong this morning. I completely wiped out on my stairs," I explain. My voice is coming alive. I feel my lungs expanding. "I need to leave my house at 9:15 the latest to get to class in time and it was 9:11 when I was coming down the stairs. I was rushing and I just completely wiped out. And now I think I have a bruise on my arm that will go along perfectly with the huge bruise I have on my knee when I wiped out on Friday night in a parking lot because I was tipsy and wearing 3-inch-heels."
"Ohh. That sucks. That really sucks. I can't remember the last time I wiped out but I think girls do more than guys because girls are just generally more clumsy," Mike responds casually. I know he means nothing by it but I feel the need to defend women against this callous generalization. Instead I shift the focus back to me.
"I don't know about most girls, but I know I'm really, really clumsy."

We arrive at Dundas station and I glance at my watch. It's 10:07 a.m. Ryerson standard time is every class starts 10 minutes after the hour. "I should have known I was going to be slightly late because you're always slightly late and if I'm with you then I'm going to be slightly late," I comment to Mike as we walk out of the darkness of the subway and up into the snowy darkness of downtown Toronto.
"And you're going to be even more late because I bet you walk fast and I walk slow," he retorts. We round the corner of the stairs on to the street and I'm at least already eight paces ahead of him. I glance back, grab him by the arm and drag him across the street.
"It's almost a yellow light! You're not on the pedestrian walk! Ah! And you're going the other way!" he yells at me. "I'm serious about the last one, you know? Don't you think this way takes longer?"

I'm breathing quickly again. I'm in control of my walk again and I refuse to let Mike slow me down.

There is something about breathing that seems so mysterious to me, particularly during the times when my breath is escaping me. Not when I'm exhaling. No; it's when I'm gasping, panting, trying to arrive somewhere, be somewhere, go to a place to feel settled.

"See? We're not late," Mike remarks as we walk through the classroom doors.

I'm still at a loss. I'm still feeling out of control because I'm unsure where I'm supposed to sit. Where do I anchor myself? I realize I should sit with Mike even though we both know enough people in the class of all 3rd-year journalism students. I find a few empty seats, tell Mike to sit with me but still, I'm scattered. I may seem like an extroverted character. I chat fairly easily with most people. I love to laugh. I'm good with names and I try my best to be cordial to everyone I meet. I have a few good friends in journalism who I really get along with but journalism students are funny. We all seem to run in overlapping circles. And sometimes you fit in and sometimes you don't, and sometimes all it takes is one additional person to be thrown into the mix for you to feel thrown out. I inhale and exhale but everything still feels slightly out of place. Something is missing and I know exactly what it is.

My best friend Jessica walks through the door. As Jessica smiles and sits in the empty seat next to me, I finally catch my breath.

Friday, January 18, 2008

There's a bitter sharp taste in my mouth.

My tongue keeps pushing through my teeth. The bottom right side of my lip is swollen and the stinging is constantly there.

It's New Year's Eve and I'm at my friend Andy's house for a potluck. We've all decided to get dressed up even though we're just staying in because we need to make this night different from every other night of our lives. There's eight of us, five guys and three girls, and we're in the kitchen. Some off to the side where the table is set up. Others are coming in and out of the fringes from the living room, chatting, laughing, twirling around in silence in our own heads and thoughts. The smell of salmon being fried perfumes the air. I say perfumes because it's not quite making me hungry nor is it causing me to lose my appetite. It's acting as the scent of the night hanging above us and around us and beneath us. In these last hours of another year gone by, we are all tied together. The pan sizzles, crackles and hisses, and Elvis serenades us with Christmas tunes.

I don't remember how it happened but it happened. "Shit. I bit my lip," I yelp and cry with the pain of a whining child. This becomes a theme for the next hour. A dark Hungarian wine has put me under a spell. All my senses seem to be giggling. Every part of me is creeping up and trying to burst out but I'm trying to stifle it all back. I try to resist the urge to spin on my toes. I try to resist the urge of the corners of my mouth turning up without a reason. I try to remember not to bite my lip but my senses are in a state of runaway glee. My mind doesn't have the faintest idea that my lip has already begun to swell so it's inevitable I bite it again. And again. And again. And at least five more times after that all with the same exclamatory point: "Shit. I bit my lip again!"

A kiss means many different things to different people. In it's most basic definition, a kiss is the act of two people putting their lips against each other's. But who are we kidding. Most of the time, a kiss is more than just a physical act. It represents something. Sometimes a kiss can represent the whole world. Or a celebratory moment like when the clock strikes midnight on new year's day. Or a reminder of the love and affection you hold for another person. And other times a kiss is like that first taste of cool water on those days where you run around for who knows how long without a drop of liquid in your mouth. You're hurrying past strangers on the sidewalk. You stop to chat inanely to routine people about what you did last night. You're rushing to class. Or to work. You're panting to catch a bus. You're in a room with no windows. You can't breathe. The air is dry and stale. You need something clear and crisp. You need water. And when you finally get it... Sometimes a kiss is like that.

Days have passed since new year's. The bite on my lip left a cut and the cut has developed into a canker sore. Actually, it's developed into four canker sores. Two enormous ones that eventually meld together and two smaller ones right underneath, all hanging out on my lip like one of those annoying dishevelled-looking families in the mall that don't know how to keep their kids or themselves in order. I feel like I'm tripping over the simplest sentences. I'm not quite drooling but I do feel like I have a facial disfigurement even though it's hardly noticeable to the people around me. "Oh yeah. I can kind of see it. Your lip is a little red," says my cheeky friend Mike in the first class of the new semester.

Ten days of the new year have passed and the canker sores are still there. Still rubbing themselves against my teeth. Uncontrollably of course because they're right there and I can't possibly spend the whole of my days with my bottom lip constantly hanging out. I have to have self-control when it comes to complaining about the pain because the pain is always there. Even something as simple as brushing my teeth has become a new experience. I have to hold my lip down so I can actually get to the teeth that the sore is rubbing against. Trickles of red stream out of my mouth along with the dissolved toothpaste. Throughout the day, blood, germs, complete infestation is manifesting itself against absolutely everything all from this sore.

It started with a small bite. And then I got drunk. So it got worse. I didn't think anything of it until it became a constant pain that I had to deal with. Rinsing it out with salt water didn't help. The salt numbs the pain for a bit, provides temporary relief, but all I really want to do is fall asleep. And at the back of my mind, for some reason, I'm still thinking of a kiss. How could anyone want to kiss me with a disgusting infection on my lip? More importantly, how could I possibly want to kiss anyone with this pain throbbing? No one can see this pain until I show it to them. Expose the open wounds. Explain a situation of drunk merriment where the hurt I've caused myself is unintentional but it hurts anyway. And even when I expose it, how silly do I feel to make such a big deal out of such a small matter.

My lip doesn't sting anymore. But the room still feels dry.