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Month: June 2008

one n, no z, no h

Nobody gave a damn about how to pronounce my name for 26 years, until I moved here. I’d let kids I knew for years skate by on calling me Suzanne, Susan. Misspelling Susanna and Suzana and Suzannah in emails when the reply-to box clearly contains only one n, no z, no h. My bud since grade 9, Tyson, by grade 12 math class still couldn’t be bothered to tack on the extra ‘a’ at the end. I just let it slide. My last name, with it’s grammar-defying letter sequence and abundance of RRRs gave people enough confusion (Ferarra? Ferrari?), and if I stopped to correct people every time they messed up my name, I’d have wasted a lot of my life. Anyway, it could be worse. The kids with first and last names a mile long, with too many letters to fit on a place card or too many syllables to wrap around a white tongue, usually just got short nicknames, like “Jed”. But my name is close enough to a typical anglo name that people walk into it feeling like they know what they’re doing, no surprises, and with no reason to pause mid-way to wonder why the letters be so off. I stopped correcting people (“Susan?”) when I was a kid (“Yeah, sure”), and was probably more than a little grateful for the ability to slip under the radar. I idolized the names Megan and Heather especially, for their normalcy, for all they represented. There was one of each—a Megan and a Heather—in my elementary school for about a month in kindergarten. I think their parents pulled them out as soon as they’d realized their mistake. That busted-ass school, with its unwashed, raggedy masses of immigrant children, was no place for their little girls.

I grew up in west-end Toronto in the 1980s, a time and place where difference was the norm. We didn’t know words like “diversity” or “multiculturalism” back then—everything just was as it was. My first best friend, Angelina, was from Sri Lanka. The Guzman family across the street, six kids and three adults squeezed into a tiny apartment, were from Venezuela. I went on bike rides and started a summertime detective agency with my two next-door neighbors, Jean-Pierre, French Canadian, and Terry, Guyanese. We never solved any cases, we just mostly got in trouble and ran our mouths. Most of the kids in my grade school were from different places too; many of us still learning English because our parents didn’t know the language either—except for Giovanni, whose parents grew up in Canada and even went to high school in Toronto. He talked to his parents in English, and all of us thought that was so cool. We called him Johnny. Everybody called me Suzy. I lost touch with Johnny and the others after grade eight. Angelina, the Guzmans and JP eventually moved away. Terry’s parents still live down the block from mine, but he and I haven’t exchanged friendly words since high school, when he started running with some of the dealers in the neighbourhood. He’s probably still in jail right now.

Then there’s me.

Ten months ago I walked into my first Ivy League classroom, and didn’t know what to think when my professor strained to Latinacize my name. All soft, hissing esses and rolling arrrs. I was amused, but not surprised. Spanish-speaking folks had been calling me Sssusssana for years, taking their cue from my spelling. I wouldn’t have bothered to correct my prof if he hadn’t gone out of his way to be extra-super-ethnically-authentic. Is that how you pronounce it, he asked?

Oh. How do I pronounce it? I, uh…

The quick answer was, “I don’t.” I let other people pronounce it however they want. However it makes them feel most comfortable. The way my mother says my name will always be the closest thing to true, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters to me. I know who I am, and I’ve got bigger battles to fight than the subtleties of my name. My name isn’t yours, anyway. It’s mine.

I told him it didn’t matter. He pressed on. To him, it did. It felt weird, but I obliged and pronounced my first and last name in front of the class: none of the sharp edges or brashness of English, but all softened tones, rounded hills, and elongated vowels. He repeated after me. Soozaahnuh. And he called me that, Soozaahnuh, every week for the next few months. I was amused. My classmates started doing it too, calling me up “Hey Soozaahnuh, are you coming out for a drink?” And I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t tell if they were tiptoeing around something, trying not to offend me by being culturally sensitive, or if they just genuinely wanted to make an effort to say my name right. The sound was strange in my ears for the first few weeks, coming out of their mouths.

It gave me pause. Have I gone about this all wrong for the last 26 years or so? If, as a kid, I had corrected the lazy, the xenophobic, and the inattentive as they mangled my name, would that have meant something? Would I have grown up feeling less disconnected and alienated, or more?

in my anger, i am not blind

“My father always says ‘You are what you do, not what you say.’
Well, what you do makes me cry at night.”

Address to the Plenary Session, Earth Summit, 1992. She got a standing ovation, and brought several delegates to tears. Sixteen years later, still moving, still worth revisiting. Still.

The video has popped up and multiplied on youtube recently, with over a dozen re-ups in the past month alone. Why the sudden interest? What is it indicative of? And, what is the Suzuki clan saying about the current election?

Always more questions than answers.

wash the sand out of my hair

I got my first mosquito bite of the season this weekend in Savannah. I felt the prick, paused, put down my newspaper.

Man: We need to go bomb I-ran now.

Boy: Why? (Eating a fry.)

Why? (Eating another.)

Why? (Swallow.)

Man: To kill off some rag-heads.

I’ve always been told that you can’t really feel a bite until it’s already happened, until the little critter pulls its proboscis out. Then, with the irritant already settled just under your skin, it starts to sting. If you’re quick, you can still catch the mosquito in time to swat or squish it, but there’s really no point by then. Damage done.

And if you’re allergic, like me, that mess will swell up like a balloon. It’ll take a while for the itch to stop.

In some parts of the world, that kind of thing can kill.

essentials, credentials

I’d like to step up the pace, if you don’t mind.

Tourists in plastic blue rain slickers were lined up on both sides of the falls, waiting for their ride on a Maid of the Mist, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Crossing the border at Niagara is so much nicer than crossing through Buffalo, and not only for the view from the Rainbow Bridge. The Homeland Security folks here are so much gentler than their Peace Bridge counterparts, probably softened from years of dealing with day-trippers and blue slicker-clad families. Our entire bus was in and out, passports stamped, in about five minutes. I stuck behind a minute longer to have my papers signed and answer the standard questions.

“Where you going?”
New York.
“Why?”

It was the close to a refreshing, ful-filling week in Toronto. I biked for days. Bumped into familiar faces. Picked up some magazines, some music, some stories. Caught up on the Globe and Mail, and I don’t think I’d ever noticed so many American references in their pages before. The Walrus and Maisonneuve are one thing — they’ve always been in love with New York and DC stories — but the last thing I wanted to do was read a New Yorker’s perspective on Toronto in a Canadian newspaper. Really now? I haven’t been paying close attention, but I’m certainly not the only person rolling their eyes at the Globe’s behavio(u)r. I’m far better versed on this sin of Watching The Elephant As It Sleeps as manifested in the arts, and it is no less wack in a rap song.

But, back to the border.

While officer Cavelli processed my visa documents, I seized a rare opportunity to actually have a conversation with Homeland Security.

“Have you heard of a show called ‘Border Security USA’?”
Yeah, he knew it. ABC was behind it.
“Have they ever filmed here?”

I was expecting a no, but it turned out that a camera crew had come around twice already, in February and again during Memorial weekend. I read about the new reality show just last week, and was secretly hoping to cross paths with them when I hit the border. Here’s a whet:

The security agents depicted in the show stop a wide range of criminal behavior. In one episode, customs finds a human skull shipped through the mail. In another, a Coast Guard boat chases cocaine smugglers.

Yet it’s the show’s depiction of the government’s post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts that’s bound to draw the most attention. In one story, two young men of Iranian descent are denied entry into the country when one is found to have relatives with ties to a terrorist organization and the other carries a fake ID.

“That’s (the agents’) No. 1 mission: to protect the country from terrorists and from terrorist materials, such as bombs,” Shapiro said. “We haven’t been there with a camera when an actual terrorist has been caught, but we’ve seen a few people not admitted because they’re on watch lists. Nobody wants to be the officer who lets in the next terrorist.”

[…]

Shapiro said “Border” will tell “the other side of the story.”

“I love investigative journalism, but that’s not what we’re doing,” he said. “This show is heartening. It makes you feel good about these people who are doing their best to protect us.”

I can’t imagine that the Rainbow Bridge, locale of cascading waterfalls and funnel cakes, will get much screen time on this feel-good, head-knocking reality series. I’ll have to wait to watch the show myself, but I’m willing to bet that Border Security USA’s camera crews are more keen on shooting Suspicious-Looking Brown Folks, especially Brown Folks Who Look Like They Might Possibly Once Have Met Someone With Ties To Terrorist Organizations. I wonder who is supposed to feel good about this, and why it makes them feel good. Is it different from the feeling you get when you help someone? Or when you bake a really amazing cake? Or when the new Pharaoh Monch record finally comes out and it doesn’t suck?

I wonder, too, how the timing of this show — set to air in the fall — will interact with the presidential campaign. Immigration, terrorism, the culture of fear, the myth of The Enemy, and the protection of the empire are all very big, enormously sensitive elements in this game.

Cavelli didn’t mention that the camera crews would be back, and I didn’t ask. He wasn’t around on the days they were shooting anyway, he said, but I couldn’t tell if he was lying. He shuffled a few more papers, looked me in the eye, and said,

“Sorry, we can’t admit you today, you’re not authorized to cross.”

Then he cracked a smile, laughed the way Homeland Security officers always laugh when they make their favo(u)rite joke, and told me to be on my way.