Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Are You Looking At?

There's a show on public television that's showing Tori Amos playing in front of some tiny audience somewhere in New York. I wasn't going to watch it because I haven't much cared for her last few albums, but then she played an older song from back when I was almost-obsessed with her, and I tried to change the channel but my inner adolescent wouldn't let me. I will say the first show of hers that I ever saw when I was in college in Oklahoma damn near changed my life. I had just come home from visiting my parents, I forget where they were living at the time. It was either Hungary or Maryland. It must have been Maryland, because I think it was spring break and I hadn't been gone that long. I flew into the airport in Tulsa, drove all the way to Stillwater, dropped off my suitcases, took a shower and changed clothes, then got back in my car and drove back to Tulsa (an hour and a half each way, this was when gas only cost about $1.50 a gallon) and watched her show. My seat was as far as it could possibly be from the stage, and she was just a little multi-colored blob with an orange head. Sometimes my eyes felt like they were about to cross from trying so hard to focus on her. But that show was really great. She was so much herself, and kind of quirky and odd, and it made me believe in my own creative voice. It was an exhilarating drive home that night, I sang along with her albums at the top of my lungs the whole way, and had a hard time falling asleep once I got home even though it had been a long day of travel.

Anyway, these days whenever I hear her songs, flashes of both Oklahoma and Maryland flicker across my mind's eye. Sometimes it's the rolling brown landscape of Oklahoma, tinted with the weird sadness that seemed to follow me around those four years that I lived there. Other times I smell the humidity of Maryland in the summer and see the lush trees above me where I would ride my bike around the neighborhood at night, softly singing her songs to myself while trying to outrun the mosquitoes (who feast upon my flesh like I'm their last meal-- which, if I'm quick enough to slay them by my own hand, is often the case). So she's been left on in the background while I write this.

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What a strange week! It was mostly good with a few stinging slaps mixed in, but none that will leave permanent scars. In fact, I can't believe it was only a week that went by, it was so up and down. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't time seem to be doing this fast-slow-fast-slow thing lately? In some ways it's flying by (Christmas is in three weeks????) but in other ways it's slooooooooow (that was only one day????). I guess it's only my perception.

So I think I'm going to wait until after Christmas to move so I can get more money together. I've worked a couple of days back at "Department Store," and everybody had missed me! They all thought I had quit and/or left the country without saying goodbye, but they were happy to see me and wanted to know what I've been up to and where I was and where I'm going. It's fun being back in a social setting at work! It's still kind of annoying at times, but working the phones at a call center has made me grateful that at least in retail people have to get up the guts to look you in the eye while being rude to you. Plus, they might be able to transfer me to Chicago! So, unless that goes through before Christmas, which I doubt, I'll come back here the first week of January and move then.

Oh, and listen to this! It's my last week at the call center, and by some strange twist of fate I got put into a training class because they're changing what my department does. So now instead of having to take calls and talk to people who don't want to talk to me (except for the old people who like chatting, which I of course let them do because I'd rather laugh for twenty minutes than talk about credit cards for six) I get to just sit back and be trained for something I will probably never have to do in the actual work place! What a gift!

Oh my gosh and speaking of the training class.....

Tonight was the first night. I'm back with my original trainer, but since she doesn't really know anything about this new thing we'll be doing either, we've got two guys from a different company location who are teaching us. One of them does just fine. But the other one was really getting on my nerves all night. First of all, when he stands up in front of the class and talks to us, he chews gum with his mouth open. It drives... me... crazy! How rude and gross! It's one thing when you're just sitting around but when you're giving a presentation? Come on. Then he does this thing where when he's talking he always squints one of his eyes (like Popeye), and instead of turning his head normally, he kind of leans it back and turns it from side to side like he's looking down his nose at us, or can't be bothered to hold his head up properly when he talks. I complained to one of my work friends about this, and how they should teach these trainers some public speaking skills before forcing us to look at and listen to them all day every day for a week!

So I sat there, alternately glaring and avoiding looking at him for about the first five hours of the day. Then, after dinner, my work friend leans over to me and whispers, "I figured out why that guy always squints one eye. His right eye is kind of lazy, and it doesn't always move at the same time as the left one when he turns his head." I stared at the guy's right eye for a few minutes and realized that my friend was right.


So I've just spend five hours thinking mean thoughts about how arrogant that guy must be to think he's too amazing to even look at us normally and is constantly half-winking at us, and can't even pick his head up all the way because it's too heavy under the weight of his own coolness... When really the poor bastard has a lazy stinkin' eye, and has to turn his head weird and squint to try to hide it! Uuuugggghhhh!!! Of course!

But the gum chewing thing is still uncalled for.

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The other day at "Department Store" I was working in the men's department with a girl who is from Russia. She married an American, she's nice and has a weird laugh (like me) and doesn't take work too seriously most of the time. She, too, thought I had disappeared to parts unknown, and so we had a lot of fun chatting and catching up all day.

Then, something kind of shitty happened.

She had been helping a customer who looked like he was in his sixties or so. I guess he bought whatever he was going to buy and left for a few minutes. Then, as I was standing next to her at the cash registers, he came back and handed her a cd that is called "The Bible In 30 Minutes" and told her that since she had never read the Bible, he wanted to give her that. I told him that they must be reading awfully fast to get the whole Bible condensed to just thirty minutes, and he said that it just included the "important parts" and "the facts just to get you interested... And have you heard about the end of the world and 666 and Revelation? Well all that cool stuff is in there, too." My poor little Russian friend just stood there staring at the cd with this sad look on her face.

I said something about how if students can't use Cliffs Notes on book reports in school, he sure shouldn't be able to pass out a cd with just thirty minutes of the Bible on it. Then he turned on me and asked me what church I go to. I told him that I don't discuss that at work, and he said, "Oh, she must be Mormon." I said I wasn't Mormon, and he didn't seem to believe me. Then he started back in on my Russian friend, and tells her that she should listen to it and blah, blah, blah.

By this time I had backed away from him and was standing holding onto the sock and underwear shelf with one hand. (Maybe I thought that by looking at the male models on the packages, I would relax and not jump over the counter and physically attack him.) Then he looked at my name tag and tried to pronounce my name.

"Igna..? Igna? How do you say that name?"
"Inga." (It's called reading. You should try it sometime.)
"Inga, huh? What kind of a name is that?"
"It's Scandinavian."
"Scandinavian, huh?"
"Foreign atheist."
(If looks could kill, the one that I gave him would have at least lopped off one of his shoulders like an axe blade.)
"I am not an atheist!"
(His eyes widened, he held both hands up with his palms facing me and started to walk backwards. I stalked toward the counter again, emboldened by his obvious display of fear.)
"All right, Inga. I was just joking!"

Then my friend said, "So you believe in the end of the world?"
And he said yes and that it's important to know where you're going to go after you die because one day the world will end.
And she smiled and said, "I know what happens after we die. But I can't tell you," and laughed her great weird laugh. He said a couple more things to her and then walked away.

I looked at her, still holding the cd in her delicate little hands, staring at it with a hurt look on her face. This poor girl hears it all. She has a noticeable Russian accent and the people around here always make "jokes" about the Cold War and World War II and call her a Russian spy and ask her all of these stupid questions. (Like this guy had assumed that just because she was Russian she must be communist and atheist and had never read the Bible.) Sometimes they're really rude to her and say horribly mean things just because of the place where she was born. They ask her if she likes America or Russia better, and if she says something about liking both, or that America is great but Russia will always be her home they call her a traitor and tell her she should go back to Russia if she likes it so much. It. Is. Ridiculous! I mean with me the most they do is start talking to me in some ridiculous fake Swedish accent and start asking me where I'm from and saying "Ja" and stuff. I never play along and always do my best to make them feel stupid without directly calling them names.

Anyway, so I started telling her not to listen to that idiot, that he was so rude and that she should move to a big city where they're used to having other cultures around, and all the time she was still staring at the cd in her hands. So I took it out of her hands and threw it in the trash and kept trying to make her feel better. Then she said, "I just feel so sorry for him, that he really believes in hell and that foreigners are atheists. I am Russian Orthodox but I don't go to church, I believe a lot of different things." And I told her how I'm technically Lutheran but I also believe in other paths too, and in reincarnation and things like that. She said she believes in reincarnation too, and that's what she meant when she told that man that she knows what happens after we die but she couldn't tell him, which made me laugh because I had been thinking the same thing.

Anyway, eventually one of our managers came around, and my friend picked the cd out of the trash can where I had thrown it and showed it to her and explained what had happened. Our manager was nice about it and talked to us about how to handle small-minded people at work. We're not allowed to get into an argument or discussion about religion or politics with customers, so she told us how to try to change the subject when people start talking to us about it, etc.

Not everyone who lives around here is like that, but many of the uneducated people are. I don't know which preachers are going around telling people that foreigners are all atheist. I am also sad that the public education system of this area has failed its residents to the point that nobody around here seems to know that the Cold War is over, that the Soviet Union fell a long time ago, and that I-N-G-A is not pronounced "Igna". But unfortunately, this is the sad truth of life for some people. I mentioned this on facebook the other day and said something about having mandatory foreign exchange programs for students. At first I was joking, but I'm starting to think it would be a good idea.

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Speaking of the difficulties of being multi-cultural in America, combined with my idea of the Viking preschool from my last post, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with one of my Top Fifteen Favorite First Cousins the other day about when I was a tiny Icelander in American preschool... [insert flashback sequence here]

When I was little, my dad traveled quite a bit for work as a Super Amazing Secret Weapon of the Government, so my mom just continued with business as usual, raising her two large-cheeked Icelandic-Austrian babies now living in America to be, basically, large-cheeked Icelandic babies living in a mostly Icelandic house (meaning my little brother and I, my sister had not yet been born).

Due to my extremely high intelligence during early childhood (what happened to me since then, I am not sure), I have very vivid memories of those formative years, including the one spent at Our Shepherd Nursery School. We had two teachers, snack time, various play areas, story time, lots of crayons, etc. For the most part, I think I fit in fine with the other kids, except I was not affectionate with strangers and my normal facial expression was very serious. In fact, my dad used to call me "The Professor" when I was around four because of that.

Since I was raised by an Icelandic mother, I did not eat things like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It wasn't until college that I even gave these foods a chance, and even then it was only because my roommate told me that I would like them if she made them and if I got hungry enough, which proved to be true.

One day at snack time, I sat down at the little table with my fellow tots, and saw to my dismay that there on the tiny paper plate before me was.... A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now, even at the age of four, I already knew that I did not like peanut butter at all. I think I might have seen it on Sesame Street and asked my mom to buy some, and then when I tried it I found it disgusting and spat it out. I thought it would taste like the Icelandic spread Mysingur, but it didn't.

Anyway, I pushed my plate away and told my teacher, "I don't want peanut butter, I just want regular butter."
She replied, "Well we don't have regular butter, so you'll just have to eat this."
What?! No regular butter? What kind of a hellish nightmare of a school was this?? What kind of a pathetic excuse for a civilized human being doesn't have a ready supply of BUTTER on hand? How could my parents have left me in the care of this horrible, butter-less woman?! Clearly, I must try to reason with her.
"But... I don't eat peanut butter. I don't like it. I just want regular butter on my bread."
"Well we don't have any regular butter, this is all we have. You'll just have to eat it."
Hadn't my mother explained to her that I liked my bread covered in smjör with the crusts cut off? What was happening?
"But, Miss Sharon. I don't like peanut butter."
"Just taste it, Inga. Take one bite of the sandwich, and if you don't like it, you can have something else."
Ok, there may not be a manual for raising children, but every single adult on planet Earth knows that attempting to force a child to "take one bite" of something they know they don't like will only end in disaster. To my four year old self, this was like asking me to stick my hand into a blazing hot fire just to make sure it wouldn't burn me. I felt my chin start to wobble...
"I don't like peanut butter! I don't want to try it! I just want...[here come the tears] regular... buuuttteerrrrr!"
The other kids stared, fascinated, and tried to console me. "Don't cry, Inga. Peanut butter is good! See? We like it! Try it! It's good!"
I was horrified by their sticky, peanut-butter-smeared fingers and faces. They ate like barbarians, while I was already on my way to mastering eating my food with knife and fork. The tears kept flowing.

The teacher let me cry for a few minutes. When the other kids had finished their snacks and I was still sitting in front of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my chubby cheeks drenched with tears, she finally gave me a few cookies and told me to stop crying. What a bitch.

Another time when my mom came to pick me up from school, the teacher pulled her aside and said, "We're having a little trouble getting Inga to use the magic words."
My mom looked at her blankly, "Uh... What are the magic words?"
"The magic words are 'please' and 'thank you'."
"OK. I'll talk to her."

I remember this "What's the magic word?" bullcrap very clearly. Every time you asked the teacher for anything, whether it was a crayon, a piece of paper, a book, whatever, they would hold it just out of reach and say in this annoying sing-song voice, "What's the magic woorrrddd???" I refused to be taunted in this manner. I would just repeat, "Can I have the crayons?" Then they would hold them higher and say again, "What's the magic wooorrrdddd?" This would go on until finally I decided that I would rather not get the basket of crayons than be forced to perform like a trained circus animal for their sick, sadistic pleasure.

In Iceland we don't really use a word like "please" much. We have polite ways of asking for things, but you usually only resort to our equivalent of the word "please" if you're almost begging for something. We do say "thank you," on that one I was just being stubborn. But little kids don't go through this whole humiliation of being forced to use the word "please" before they get the thing they're asking for. It's just a linguistic thing, but it proved to be yet another barrier between Preschool Inga and her teachers.

Those teachers were weird, anyway. They always accused me of coloring too slowly. Like the picture of a cow that I colored turquoise. I was having so much fun and thought they would be impressed by my unconventional color choice. But my teacher just stood there yelling at me to hurry up and color faster because of some other crap we had to do. I'm pretty sure I ignored her until the entire cow was turquoise. I think that I didn't realize that their rules applied to me. I'm pretty sure that has followed me throughout my life. It'll be a rude awakening when one day I'm arrested for dangling a burning Justin Bieber poster over the side of a Las Vegas hotel room balcony with Jon Bon Jovi holding the lighter and screaming, "Come back when your balls have dropped!!!!"

1 comment:

  1. This is a good one. Oh, Miss Sharon she sure had problems with Inga not listening or obeying the Our Shephard Nursery School rules. Then with Sigrun not talking at all. I guess my daughters were different than the other kids, but they were mine and I thought they were perfect.