My friend, Diane, send me this picture of a pink polka dot balloon. The polka dots reminded her of me, and my blog. The picture we agreed was bittersweet, in that the balloon was clearly past her prime, slightly deflated, and alone in the woods. We started to imagine her backstory – was she a birthday gift? Did she slip out of the fingers of a little girl who was devastated at the loss? Was she part of a bunch of balloons, perhaps, at a wedding, each floating to different destinations? We assumed that she brought cheer to someone.
I then started thinking about the assumptions we were making and realizing that we just didn’t know. The balloon might have been a final gift to a dying child or a consolation balloon for a child whose parents just divorced. We just couldn’t know. Yet, we first made lots of assumptions, just like most of us do about everything – including people.
Most of the time, when we meet new people, we make assumptions based on how they look and act and dress. It’s how people try to make sense of the world and figure out how to interact with each other. Most of the time, this strategy works okay (to some extent), in that we manage to negotiate social situations without constant conflict. Yet, I am also aware of the times when this strategy clearly breaks down in dramatic ways – take Ferguson for an example (knowing that this case is much more complex and nuanced than a mere making of assumptions). However, I don’t want to talk about the “extreme” cases here, except to point out that they are unfortunately relatively common in our society. Instead, I want to reflect on the subtle ways that assumptions shape how we act and react to others, and explore the invisible stories that we have in our lives.
For instance, people assume that I was not born in the United States because I am Japanese-American. “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” have been frequent questions in my life. I was born in Cambridge Massachusetts and grew up in a suburb of Boston. This is usually not what the asker expects, and not really what they want to know anyway. They want to know what country (in my case) my grandparents on my came from. The other common question, “What are you?” I find quite offensive. I often think “Vulcan” when I get asked this. Most of the time, I don’t say it, as I am too polite and know that they are really asking is what is my ethnic background. One time, when I lived in San Francisco, a census worker came up to me at a gathering and assumed I didn’t speak English. In truth, I only speak English and sadly don’t speak Japanese at all. I doubt a person of European background would get asked these kinds of questions even if she or he were a visitor and were not American and didn’t speak English at all. The assumption, based on appearance would be that she or he belonged here.
In addition to the assumptions made from appearances, the pink polka dot balloon made think about the untold life stories that people have and the ways that appearances don’t tell the whole story at all. I grew up in a suburb of Boston and people could assume my family was upper-middle class based on my address. Yet, in reality my mother was always scraping to make ends meet. In our neighborhood we were the “odd” family, mostly because my mother was of European descent and her children were mixed heritage Japanese-Americans; we were lower-middle class in the sea of more privilege; and my mother was mentally ill and suffered from bipolar disorder. We did not fit the nice white middle class profile and could feel the subtle discrimination and judgment of others. Yet, there was much more to our story than the bits people knew. Although often troubled, my mother was tough too and had a good heart. Yet, very few people really knew her as they kept their distance.
So I am thinking that when I start to write someone else’s story in my head just from their appearance that I need to stop and realize that I don’t know unless I talk to them and ask. And luckily for me, people can share their stories when balloons cannot.