Today I picked 74 eggplants, 3.5 lbs of jalapeno peppers, and 34 lbs of tomatoes (both red and green), and just like every other day I’ve spent picking produce at my favorite u-pick farm, I find complete clarity in the wide expanse of flat fields full of abundance, of promise, and of satiation. It is extremely primal to be surrounded by food growing straight up from the soil, to pluck it from the earth and carry it against your chest to your home where it eventually placates your winter hunger and reassures you that starvation is still just Tuesday’s nightmare.
I think a lot while I’m picking. I love it best when I have music with me to help distill everything into notes and guide my meditative thoughts into salubrious channels. I forgot my music this afternoon which means that I spent a little more time talking to myself out loud than I like the crows to notice. It was just myself, the crows, and a small crowd of morning doves out there in the autumn fields. The crazy lady with the birds; can there be a better symbol of my madness than a stand of corn from which a rash of black squawking birds rises in chaos? I was talking to the green tomatoes about how many ripe, un-frost-damaged red ones were left on the vines like a freak abundance of nature going to waste which I couldn’t let go to waste even though I swore to myself I wasn’t doing any more red tomatoes this season…
The green tomatoes answered back with blemish and blush and between us all the birds cried out against the breeze and the quiet that commenced was like a great peace asking us “Who are you?”
My thoughts were more calm when I began to pick the eggplants, oblate, tight, and smooth with the kind of shine that reflects future sunrise. I heard myself repeating the question “Who are you?” over and over to every interesting person I’ve ever met that I didn’t have the guts to really ask that question of. It brought to mind one of the best people I’ve ever met and someone with whom I’ve had the most honest discourse possible between two people with very different cultural backgrounds.
When I was a design assistant I got to train a new design assistant named Cam who was first generation Chinese American brought up in Oakland. All my life I’ve had an affinity for Asian people I can’t pinpoint. Maybe it’s because my hippie parents were mostly Buddhist (my dad studied to become a Tibetan monk in Tibet for a while) with just enough ex-catholic and ex-jewish guilt to keep them from floating off to the Eastern continents.
In a completely unrehearsed and quick fashion Cam and I found ourselves able to meet each other honestly and without offense inbetween our cultural differences. She could make observations about white people without giving offense, she could show me her view of race, her experience of racism, of cultural divides, and it came from such an honest place, such a raw and real place that it never occurred to me to be offended and I could do the same with her. I could ask her if it was just my white-ass misconception that lots of old Chinese ladies smell strongly of mothballs and she would tell me her take- (no, it wasn’t my white-ass misconception, lots of old Chinese women fill their closets with those gnarly chemical moth balls)- we could discuss, without rancour or disrespect, what it means to be first generation Chinese American and what it means to be first generation hippie American.
Cam is a rare and wonderful person who sated my racial curiosities which don’t come from a place of suspicion or bigotry but rise from the genuine desire to ask everyone I meet “Who are you?”
You can’t ask that question without wanting to know what a person’s racial, religious, sexual, social, and cultural experiences and backgrounds are. You can’t honestly ask that question without wanting a context for a person, wanting to know truly what makes them tick and what drives them forward every day. We ask people superficially who they are every day but if you really want to know a person you have to be able to know why they love men or women, or why they’re scared of Germans, or how they came to Islam even though their background is white wasp. You can’t have an honest discourse about who a person really is if you can’t ask the questions you really want to ask without being mistaken for a bigot or a homophobe or an impertinent ass.
I was thinking about this today because I have discovered that someone I know superficially (but haven’t seen in a long time) has undergone a tremendous change and I don’t know how to approach it. It’s a sensitive issue for which there is no guidebook. I’m troubled by my inadequacy in a situation that isn’t common enough for Emily Post to have formed a poncy opinion about. In fact, I don’t think it’s a situation that even existed in her lifetime.
Someone I know and haven’t seen for a long time has undergone a sexual transformation from a female to a male. I want to talk to him. I want to acknowledge him and the incredible change she’s gone through to become a man. Is there a polite way to say “Hey, I notice that you have grown some serious facial hair since we last met and while I liked you quite a lot as a woman I’m sure I’ll like you just as much as a man…how are you doing?”
What do you say? What is the polite way to approach someone you like and respect who has assumed a completely new identity which is so different from yours? Where do you start that conversation?
I couldn’t help but wonder if everyone was like Cam and me wouldn’t it be much easier to find our commonality? Wouldn’t race issues and gender issues be so much less fraught with misunderstanding?
What if I could just say “Hey, I notice you underwent a sex change. What should I call you now? Can I ask you questions? Should I reintroduce myself as though we’d never met or are you essentially the same person now except with the addition of facial hair and possibly a penis? Who are you?”
What if every person had a chance to tell their story and be heard? What if every person’s life experience was listened to and respected? What if we all had a place and we could ask each other questions, personal and poignant questions, not to alienate or divide but to come to a greater understanding of each other?
It feels lonely to me not to be able to ask black people I meet what their experience of being black is. It isn’t widely invited. Sometimes I feel that the thing everyone needs to do is to talk about our little gritty details with each other in order to come together. We have this incredibly connective human sameness and we make the greatest divides between ourselves sexually, racially, and culturally. Sometimes I think a lot of our division would melt away if we were allowed to ask each other the questions we really want to know.
I worry about people who have undergone sexual reassignment. I worry about the danger they’re in being so very different. I worry about the loneliness of not being understood by the majority of other people in the world. I can’t say how but I understand what it feels like to not feel right in your own skin, to feel you weren’t born with the right body or the right parts. I am so worried that a person like me, who is compassionate and empathetic to those who have undergone sexual reassignment, can have no clue how to approach the subject with someone I know casually who has gone through this tremendous change.
I am intolerant of many things: willful ignorance, bigotry, smallness, racism, and homophobia. I am uncomfortable with how much hate rises in my chest when I hear Asians referred to as “zipperheads” which, by the way, I actually don’t understand.
I can’t in all honesty say I am without my own prejudices. I have a fairly fierce prejudice against organized religion, the more cultish the more fiery the prejudice. Even so, I have found my way to loving and appreciating many religious individuals.
In the end, I wonder, how much more understanding could we all reach together if we were allowed to really ask each other “Who are you?”
Do you want to know who I am? Ask. If you ask with genuine curiosity without malice I will answer you as honestly as I can and not be offended. Want to know what it’s like being mentally ill? I would rather I tell you who I am and how being mentally ill permeates my life and have you come away knowing more about mental illness (and me) than you did before. Want to know what it feels like to be a fat woman who can’t see her own hoo-ha? I will tell you. Want to know what it feels like to be a one-kid-mom in a community of four-or-more I will tell you and I won’t give you the sanitized version.
How can we know how to talk to each other if we can’t ask each other who we all are? Nothing is obvious. How can I know what’s it’s like to be a first generation Chinese American if I can’t ask honest questions about race and culture? How can I dissolve my own ignorance if no one will give me the knowledge to replace the ignorance? How can I know what it’s like to be a gay male couple outside of San Francisco if I can’t ask you what it’s like? If I can’t ask the silly questions that you’re tempted to think are too stupid to be worth answering but which tell me so much and give me so much context for your particular cultural and sexual experience of the world.
I’m more shy than I appear to anyone. I’m afraid to hurt, to offend, and to ask the wrong questions. I’m afraid to be willfully misunderstood and contorted. I want a world of peace but not of homogeneity.
So how do I address the cross-dresser who isn’t gay, the transsexual who is, the Asian who grew up in a very different Bay Area than I did, or the straight Christian who’s actually quite nice but doesn’t drink or swear (WTF?!), or the bipolar woman who punches me in the face but didn’t mean it when she’s on her medication again, or the gay restaurant owner in the conservative little town who thinks his gayness is a secret?
Can I ask: “Who are you?”