Let’s stereotype

June 26

My almost-Dementia is one of the secrets behind my regret-free, generally grateful and optimistic outlook on life. It is this friendly forgetfulness, at least in part, that makes looking back at my past such a bittersweet and pleasurable activity. I’m not like Sonya, who wades in murky streams most of her days, her skin wrinkled and pale because of the time she spends feeling bitter. She has a picture-perfect memory and can recall the purple plastic watch her best friend was wearing on her right wrist on the fifth day of first grade. But her memory kind of works like he media – bad news sells, it sticks and draws more attention. The thorns sticking into her feet, scratching her arms and holding on to the cloaks she wears are too prickly, their sharpness stings so much that she cannot feel the softer, silky petals of happier days.

And so Sonya spends more time thinking about the time her mother got so angry at her for repeatedly asking to go to a friend’s party that she finally sent the mint green china she was cleaning flying off the table, and even now, 15 years later, she can see her six-year-old self standing barefoot with a million shards of chinaware around her while her mother stormed off… the time when her father stayed late at work and missed her 12th birthday party and really didn’t seem to care what the big deal was, when her cousins told her she was too annoying and they didn’t want to play with her, because after all, she wasn’t even their real cousin…

It was as if her mind had a little secretary sitting inside, filing away all the complaints and grievances that fell around her, dutifully picking each one and putting them in metal cabinets, alphabetized and neatly arranged. She could whip out any memory on demand, and it wasn’t just a piece of paper she would read out, it was a real, living, writhing memory that would materialize and you could see Sonya reliving it, the expression in her eyes, the tremor in her voice …

Coming back to where I started, my Dementia means I do not have a meticulous filing system in my brain. I also think I’m an optimist and I believe in thinking the best of people and their actions for purely selfish reasons: it will keep my heart at peace. So I will tell myself it wasn’t personal, or maybe the person had a bad day or a bad childhood, and so on. But then things happen and there is a distinctive rewiring of the brain. In this case, it was my social justice class in the first semester.
It was interesting to step out of my third world, and observe the problems that occur elsewhere, to experience the pain of Latina mothers who have to explain the concept of race to their four-year olds, or African-Americans who talk about being followed around in retail stores. I remember thinking to myself that even if I had been followed around in a store, I would have either not noticed it or thought that these salespersons were just that chummy.

Of course, most of the time the rewiring happens without us noticing.

And so, when Hera and I went to pick up her mail from the post office downtown and the white man behind the counter was abrupt and rude, saying her passport wasn’t enough and she needed something with her address on it, my sensors perked up. Was it because we’re South Asians? Because Hera had a Pakistani passport? And when we came back with her lease, a few hours later, there was a black lady behind the counter this time. “Hang on to your lease and give it to her if she asks,” I told Hera because I wanted to know if it was a regular policy or a white man rule. And whether it was mild racism or coincidence, the lady didn’t ask for the lease and we got Hera’s documents, simple and easy.

I’m not sure I’m happy about this rewiring. Sure it means I’m more aware of other people’s feelings and experiences, but at the cost of reinterpreting my own life. Who says social work is easy?
Everything in social work is serious though. We deconstruct to the extent of insanity, to the limit that we can barely speak a sentence without someone pointing out politely the emotional baggage behind the words we are using. And I am all for understanding where our language comes from and I would never devalue the power of words, but seriously, sometimes I just want to be politically offensive. Also, I’m going to head back to Pakistan and if I am to survive in the society, I can pick on things every now and then but I have to take a step back and adapt. Without feeling burdened by guilt.

We all abide by stereotypes, and we make fun of them. Like the funniest jokes, they make us laugh because they are – in large part – true. I always find it interesting how we can make fun of “our people” (brown, South Asian, Muslims, Punjabis, girls, etc.) but others cannot. Of course, every time we joke about finding all the Asians in the business and engineering schools, or desi families packing coolers full of food every where they go, we are playing a part in perpetuating these beliefs. Of course, many of these are harmless and they do tell a story about how we are. I guess one of the smartest lines my Dementia has allowed me to remember is how the trouble with stereotypes is not that they are untrue – it is that they are incomplete truths. And that, I suppose, is the key thing to remember.     


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