“Vote! For the love of god, vote!” my Facebook feed screamed, hours after the First Presidential Debate between Trump and Clinton.
Funny thing about being an expat: I already have. Absentees were sent ballots weeks ago, meaning that from now until the election, we can select our candidates and mail it in. (Funny side note: for all absentees, an “envelope” is included, by which I mean origami instructions for a not-quite rectangular glob, THANKS AMERICA). Still, it hasn’t stopped me from tuning into debates and facepalming my way into a red forehead.
It’s a different experience being in China during a very divisive election season, not only because expats and Chinese alike always ask for an analysis and bullet-pointed list of why the world is and why why why, but also because after debates like this, I have to wait that 12-hour gap to really see the articles and thoughts churn out. On one side of the world, my friends were having drinking games for how many times Trump said “China.” As for me, I drank coffee in China, trying to wash out the aftertaste of Trump shouting “WRONG WRONG WRONG” as I packed up my bag and headed to class.
In a way, it makes the issues seem very far away. In another, very very close at hand.
Way over here in a stuffy classroom on the fifth floor, I listened as my aesthetics professor told us, “Some women just look like moms,” and said, “Islam is a very terrible religion because of all the prayers. Too many! What kind of idiot needs to pray that much?” and “What is beauty? Well, many women are beautiful…you know, the younger ones” and then the one that sticks out to me most from the previous week, after I told him who my advisor was: “Well, be careful not to end up in his bed.” (Which he then repeated in English just to make sure I understood the crass joke).
He’s an older man with a crass sense of humor, who tells it straight, as many students say with fawning adoration. He has a mole in the middle of his forehead, and eyebrows that stick out like tips of prairie grass. He also has a penchant for rambling for a long period of time, usually after 1) telling students that they need to talk more, and 2) telling presenters to talk less to keep track of time. Like any philosophy professor, he asks big (albeit cliche) questions like “What IS aesthetics? What IS beauty?” and while I tried to pay attention today, in my mind he was upstaged by the soft breeze that ruffled my hair as I thought to myself “my god, beauty can be so simple.”
Today, during one of his rants, he asked me “Do you know [Chinese name of Western person I can’t recognize]?” I responded “I’m not sure, because I don’t recognize the Chinese name.” He said “How can you not know them? They’re famous!” He said it again, and I shook my head. His response: “You don’t know anything. You don’t read enough books, and are another witless millennial.” (Later when I looked up the mysterious person, I found it to be “Jane Goodall”).
Let’s pay attention to that one word: witless (or, the more commonly-used cousin: stupid).
I hear that word being thrown around a lot, especially in election season. While sometimes it’s said jokingly between friends or families, and sometimes it’s said in direct response to something admittedly silly that someone has done, more and more it’s become the response when one is not willing to consider another person’s situation. You like Trump? You’re stupid. You trust Clinton? Dumb. You cut in front of me in the checkout line? Idiotic. Or, in my case: You did not know this one thing? You’re useless!
“Stupid” is such a lazy argument. It cheapens our interactions in the world, and prevents us from actually taking the time to understand others. It especially draws lines between people, which I think we can all agree, has not been helpful when it comes to unifying broken people.
I think we owe it to our jumbled, multi-faceted, contradictory world, to give every person we meet the benefit of our imaginations. Let us think about the potential secret lives others have, rather than pin a probable one on them. Maybe they won’t seem so stupid in the end. Maybe that slack-jawed foreigner in the class just didn’t understand one key vocabulary word (not that I’m bitter or anything).
The world will be all the richer for our efforts, because it will not be the grand-sweeping political promises that bash us around every election season with the empty “I’m for the common man” promise coming from gilded lips, but a more personal story born on the words we choose to shape our communities around.
I’ll keep tuning into the debates, though I’ve already voted, and will keep flailing my way through classes I don’t understand. It’s stupid, perhaps.
But then again, you won’t know until you ask.