A flash fiction piece I wrote this week elicited unexpected observations on the motivations of a character, and started me reflecting on comments made to me over the years, and the intentions behind them.
When I was a very small child, I lived in a blissful world. As children do. Differences were barely noticed, and didn’t warrant mention.
When I was a bigger child, differences jackhammered into my consciousness.
My first encounter was with a self-appointed cultural border guard when I was eight. She was in her thirties, or forties. Somebody’s mother, taking lunch orders.
She asked my name. Four simple letters; A-S-H-A, pronounced ah-shah.
She decided my pronunciation was wrong, and I became ash-ah from that day until the year I turned 18.
It was an off-hand comment, said with a chuckle. Something fleeting and insignificant in her life. She probably never gave it another thought. I, however, have had more than 37 years of pseudonymous confusion, saying my name clearly three times, and spelling it over the phone before I’m even asked.
That was the first time, but not the last, that I felt different in an unalterable way.
The adjusted pronunciation of my name permitted other impositions. All justified with a crescendoing chorus of “I didn’t mean anything by it”, “don’t take it so seriously”, “you’re way too sensitive”, “I thought we were friends”, “why are you being so mean to me”, “it was just a joke”.
Criticism-compliments on my hair, my skin, my parents’ clothing choices, my cultural differences, were liberally sprinkled throughout my childhood by children and adults alike.
I wanted to fit in. These were my friends, after all. They were just joking, after all. I joined in the joke. I started the joke. Drawing laughter around me as a shield before it could suffocate me. Haha, why yes my father does wear a tablecloth and my mother a curtain, haha.
As a teen I had a new group of friends. We navigated the pubescent minefield of who was trustworthy and who was not, with bated breath, and heart in mouth. The intentions grew more obscured. Were the slights because of the colour of my skin, or because of the piranha pit of hormonal fluctuations?
When I started at university, the elephant in the room became suddenly more militant, and the approaches to it more sly. Name calling and teasing were replaced with the more ambiguous “but I don’t see the colour of your skin”, “but you’re not like the others”, “but you’re different” refrain that tips a person of colour to the edge of madness. The back-handed compliment that insists on a throat-constricting thank you. Here, there be dragons of insanity.
Marriage provided no inoculation to the rampant verbal diarrhoea that afflicted random strangers in our presence. The tally of just how many people subtly-not-so-subtly sang, hummed or whistled Original Sin by INXS around us, fully believing it an original thought, is well into double digits. Then came our children.
Others’ discomfort metamorphosed into fetishism, a bizarre obsession with appearance, the particular shade of their skin. I was regaled with imaginings of how our as-yet-unborn-but-inevitably-handsome-son would one Summer wear a white bathing suit at the beach, his latté-brown skin shining in the sun, water glistening and beading off his broad chest, girls flocking to him.
Now that the children are in their teens, their swarthy good looks are the focus of attention.
The worst of it, the most maddening, is that the path to this particular perdition is paved with so very many good intentions and well-meaning ignorance, and so very little thought.