Settling in: Utah Edition

For ten years, my project was to understand Hawaii, my life in Hawaii. I lived in small communities where one person has a big impact. You know everybody-- or they know you. Or their auntie does. You can't step on too many toes. It keeps people polite.

As a white American, I had a lot of learning to do. I thought I was pretty cosmopolitan, anti-racist, and politically correct. But lots of Nice White Americans (tm) think that about themselves for only as long as they live in all-white liberal enclaves. I had to confront the fact that things I thought were universal values actually weren't. When I taught sex-ed, I received training from the Planned Parenthood-co-created Pono Choices program. It was designed to be culturally sensitive-- to be inclusive of all kinds of families, and use metaphors about hoewa'a (paddling canoe) navigation to explain the importance of healthy community. But the script used the words, "unwanted pregnancy" over and over. And my teenage students' pregnancies? Were very much wanted. By the kids themselves, by their parents, by the whole community. The social studies teacher even admonished the 11th grade girls to have babies with the cute Niihauan boy in the class-- "He's full Hawaiian, "she said, "keep the bloodline strong!" My initial reaction to that is shock and distress. No-- they need to go to college, get good jobs, support their....families.... When I pause and look a little closer even really good values, like preventing teen pregnancy, I realize there is a paternalistic sheen; a colonial mindset. I know better, I'll help lift up these kids. Yeah, as a teacher that was my role, but to empower them to do what THEY want with their lives, not to make them conform to my ideas about what their lives should look like.

Anyway, it's complicated.
And it was a good and hard project, to try and stay open to learning things, stepping back from my assumptions, and dismantling prejudice and bias as I encountered it in myself and others. I was tired a lot. I experienced bias and had to be patient and gently wry when people held up stereotyped mirrors to me ("I don't even think of you as haole!") . I realized that by just continuing to show up, and basically abiding by the rule of "don't be an ass," people eventually got to know me for myself, and I was accepted and welcomed.

But now we're in Utah, by every definition my homeland. I was born here. My parents grew up here-- they met in elementary school. And my ancestors were Mormon pioneers who emigrated here from Denmark. As a kid I came to visit every summer and played in the neighborhood park and went to the drive in movie theater and the outdoor summer concert series. When I was teenager we moved here for my mom to die close to her family. I graduated from High School here and got my undergraduate degree. I have a dozen relatives in this city, and hundreds up and down the state.

But it feels like a hostile planet. I cannot figure out what is going on. I moved away in 2003. At the time, I remember the overwhelming weirdness of Mormon singles wards, of squicky worthiness interviews to attend BYU, and the cultural homogeny that was exhausting and irritating. But I had a few close friends, intense family relationships, and a new marriage, so Utah itself was background noise.

But now, after nearly 15 years away, I just can't get my feet under me, culturally. I have conversations and I miss all the cues. I laugh at serious things and frown at jokes. Navigating new friendships is a minefield-- all my invitations are refused, all my offers turned down. I'm baffled. I feel like I'm speaking a different language, and if people would just BE NORMAL all of this would be so much easier!

At BYU I remember presenting my opinion about a text in a Shakespeare class, an article about an African tribe reading Hamlet.  The evidence suggested to me that stories don't have universal interpretations-- cultural lenses scramble meaning and invalidate authorial intent, and that's cool. The teacher told me that I was utterly wrong. The text suggested the universality of shakespeare. I was stumped. I must be dumb, I thought, and diminished in the class, determined to read better.

And I remember voicing my caution of old white guys in suits and the unlimited authority they held in the LDS church-- this was while I was an active LDS member and a BYU student in good standing-- and the young white guy was so kind, so SAD about me. So personally hurt that I would harbor and nurse that kind of negativity toward such good men.

A former mayor of Provo was at a city planning meeting discussing Utah Valley's air quality health crisis. While the people and council members were brainstorming solutions, he stood with great authority and sadness and said that we must be careful to consider the message we're sending about cars. We must be sure not to harm the car dealerships and their hardworking owners by including any official language that cars are not good for air.

The word "gaslighting" keeps buzzing in my mind; that's what bothers me about Utah culture. I feel anger, fear, doubt; the culture says, Shush, be happy. Water your lawn. Get eyelash extensions and a boob job. You'll feel better-- actually you won't. Get a pill-- which accounts for the opioid epidemic and the staggeringly high rate of antidepressants.

I feel loneliness, and the culture says, "Keep that kind of negativity at home. Fake it till you make it." A few days after my husband committed suicide, I ran into an old friend at the library. "How are you today?" he asked cheerfully. "Actually, really terrible," I said. "Oh well, tomorrow will be better!!" he said and bolted.

There's an impenetrable discomfort with the shadow side. And I am pulled to be a counterbalance, walking around growling and scowling like Sparrowhawk's cast off Shadow Self in Ursula Le Guin's novels. Which isn't who I want to be either.

I can take my medicine from Ursula Le Guin, too. I can run from it, I can chase it, I can battle it or hide it. But I need to go to the far reaches of my own self, own my own darkness, in order to survive in a sick world.


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