Redefining normal

26

Sept. 16 was the 3-week anniversary of my time here in Cuba. It’s funny how people always ask you after returning from experiences abroad how you have changed. I’ve been anticipating this question a lot. Usually, it’s difficult to put your finger on it; to string together the culmination of 4 months into a few sentences that will keep the person asking (who, let’s be honest, doesn’t really care all that much) interested. What definitely changed after 20 days here was my sense of what is normal. I’ve now added to my list of “Things that are normal”:

  • A dead chicken floating in the water at the beach
  • Paying less than 10 cents for a taxi
  • Almost getting hit by cars/almost hitting people with the cars I’m in
  • Being laughed at by my host family when I go on a run and then being stared at like I’m an alien doing an alien activity by every passerby on the street
  • Strong, strong coffee
  • Being a minority

The last one is taking the most time for me to adjust to. As awful and spoiled as it makes me sound, I can honestly say I’ve never been a minority in my life. I’m used to going to schools where I look like the majority of the students. I’m used to walking down the street knowing that no one will bother me or find me strange or out of the ordinary. I’ve always felt like my presence was expected. Although I’ve always been aware that this is a luxury of mine in the U.S, now more than ever I’m forced to confront the reality of how great this privilege of mine is. The importance of feeling comfortable in a space cannot be underestimated. When I walk into a classroom here and feel all eyes on me — out of place, awkward, my face hot and sweaty — I’m too distracted to learn. It’s not that people are unfriendly, it’s that I feel that I’m imposing on something previously established. It’s a good experience for me to have because I know I will most likely never be put in a position in the U.S where I will be a minority in the same way. As a blonde, white girl, it’s eye opening to not be considered “normal.”

All this thinking about normalcy makes me think about all the other places in the world going about their daily activities and customs in ways they’ve always deemed normal. There are so many different ways to say hello and goodbye, to attend a class, to brush your teeth, to tell someone you love them. If I had to answer the question of how I’ve changed right now, I’d say that I now think that “normal” is a pattern of habits we create to feel like we belong in a place and establish it as our own, to connect to other people and to eliminate our fear of being alone. To be normal is to be comfortable; but there isn’t just one way to do this.