It’s sad that I had an outline for this post all figured out yesterday, but fell asleep before I actually finished this.
I remember listening to Welcome to Night Vale and not … really being into it. This was surprising because it had all the hallmarks of things that I liked: sci-fi, weirdness, magical realism of a sort, someone with a wonderfully smooth voice reading kind of a meta commentary.
But I found that the more I read about Night Vale, the more enraged I became. What kind of society was this, that took its children away and had an evil, shadowy council and, worst of all, treated this as something that was normal behavior?
Then I thought about things that I consider normal. Small things, like eating toast and eggs for breakfast, or being able to walk to work, or wearing jeans on a daily basis. If I was, say, a middle-class woman living in India and working in a bank I might eat idly for breakfast on a regular basis, wear salwars pretty frequently, haggle with an auto rickshaw man for ten minutes before navigating traffic to work. And those are just the experiences I know of, or that I’m familiar with*.
What would normal feel like, living as a refugee in a camp? Having to walk through a metal detector every time you went to school? Being so rich you could employ a battalion of people to do your groceries and laundry? Shunning electricity and modern technology and using horse-drawn carriages? Working in a job that is so secret you can’t bring any of it home, or mention it? Or being denied the privilege of driving, and having your male relatives escort you everywhere?
Some of these experiences, of course, are starkly negative. But the people living them tend to normalize them, to adapt themselves to their situations. I think we’re fairly malleable that way. And then there are those normal situations that I don’t pretend to understand — like the fact that “normal”, at least in terms of numbers in India, is living on less than US $2 a day. That’s a negative scenario, certainly. But we’ve all been conditioned into accepting that as a certain form of reality, when in fact the poverty levels should be anything but “normal”.
I’m not really sure, still, what I feel about Night Vale‘s version of normality. Also, I need to remind myself every now and then that, you know, none of it is real.
I suppose my point is: normal is something we decide, and it’s so far from being a “standard” that it’s mind-boggling how culturally de-sensitized we can be to other people’s normals. You don’t have to be okay with refugee-camp normal, or approve of being-insanely-rich-normal, but you do have to agree to see it from that point of view if you’re going to work with it.
Speaking of other people’s normals, here’s a funny story to leave you with after all this depressing talk. A friend of mine, in middle school, had a teacher tell the class about other cultures and experiences, including that of using your hands to eat instead of any utensils.
And one bright spark blurted out, “Well then, how do they eat cereal for breakfast?!”
*I am not familiar with haggling with auto rickshaw men. In fact, the thought terrifies me.