appreciating what we don’t expect

On the first day of my study abroad program this summer, the program staff had us watch a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “the danger of a single story.” We watched through blurry eyes, trying to keep from succumbing to jet lag in our chairs. The program – the Council for International Education and Exchange (CIEE) – used the “single story” concept to remind students to be aware of their own biases, that they might have a lot of preconceived ideas about a country and its people.

It was interesting, but dizzy as we were with new information, the excitement of being in Paris, and severe and crippling trans-Atlantic exhaustion, it could have easily faded from memory. However, it turned out that CIEE loved the phrase “single story.” As the internet can attest, when you hear or read a phrase a lot, it starts hanging out in the front of your mind and on the tip of your tongue. We heard “single story” so much it became almost meme-like.

Thanks to CIEE’s effort, “single story” hovered, waiting to spring into speech.  We couldn’t shake it, so we turned it into a bit of a joke, using it to point out every stereotypical thing that we saw. And it turned out there were a lot of things that could reinforce the stereotypes that we hold about Parisians. At the Bastille Day parade, the couple in front of me spent 25 percent of the time arguing, 50 percent of the time making out, and the remaining quarter of the time searching for the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on their phones so they could make fun of us for being American. Rude, overly PDA-embracing Parisians? Single story: check.

So yes, it became a game. But I also began to realize that CIEE had picked its phrase with care, choosing something catchy enough that we’d repeat it. Every time we joked about something reinforcing our single story, we were also acknowledging that that’s exactly what it was: a single story, one-dimensional and far from the whole picture. They’d taken our impulse to roll our eyes at goofy taglines and turn them into jokes as a way to get us repeating something enough that it would sink in. Single story. Single story. Single story.

While we sat in a public park, tossing glances at the couple deeply involved in each other’s mouths to see whether they might’ve just gotten engaged, joking about how they pretty much confirmed everything we suspected about Paris, what we were actually doing was reminding ourselves that what we were seeing wasn’t everything about Paris. It was one couple, on one bench, in one park, on one warm afternoon. “Hey guys, I don’t know about you, but this is reinforcing my single story.” What I am seeing is a single story.

Another method CIEE used to make us think more seriously was the assignment they gave us for our program’s weekend trip to Prague: “Obvious/Curious.” We were supposed to take photos of stuff we thought was “obvious”—things that we recognized, that felt familiar—and stuff we thought was “curious”—things that were culturally different, that surprised us or didn’t make sense right away.

“Curious” is such an uncomfortably unintuitive word to use in that context that it just sounds ridiculous. For the first couple of hours, we went along with the assignment half to fulfill it, half to joke about it. But like “single story,” it became sort of a game: when you see it, call it. Street signs in the middle of the buildings? Curious. Rice and hot dogs for breakfast? Curious. Soviet-era metro-entry escalators that plunged at sharp angles and breakneck speeds into the earth? Definitely, definitely curious. Curious food, curious language barrier, curious that the language barrier caused one of us to accidentally order identical meals at lunch and dinner. Giant metronome overlooking the city? No idea why it exists. Curious. Between the five of us walking around the city together, we probably called curious on a hundred different things.

I don’t think I realized until I left just how smart CIEE’s choice of “curious” was. Unusual and clumsy in that context, it became free of associations. It pointed out things that were unexpected, and since it had a touch of joke about it still, it did so in a way that made us feel fond of them. When I got home, I still had the impulse to say it but instead would swap it out with other words out loud. Most of the time, my go-to word was “weird.”

Words are powerful things. There’s a concept I’ve read about in linguistic anthropology classes called performativity, which is the idea that language doesn’t just communicate, it also does something by being said. When a couple says “I do” at the altar, those words actually marry them. By saying, “It’s a girl,” a doctor designates the gender role that society will expect the child to fill. The words we choose to describe our reality also work in turn to construct it.

“Weird,” said idly, isn’t really a judgment, not exactly. At least, we don’t usually mean it that way. It’s a placeholder word for a thing that is unexpected or for which we don’t necessarily have enough of the context we need to understand. But while “curious” is often a positive word, “weird” is definitely not. It has a tone of alienation. While we might not mean it in a judgmental way, that sense of it lingers. Nine times out of ten, if you interrogated me about the way I’d just used the word “weird,” I would deny having meant to label whatever it was as strange and unnerving and other. But the words we use can shape the way we think about things. The more we label things other, the more we avoid them.

Our first morning at breakfast in Prague, I did think that hot dogs for breakfast was a little, well, weird. It didn’t sound appealing, and it didn’t make any kind of intuitive breakfast sense. It was not part of my single story of what breakfast is supposed to be. But what I remarked to my friend next to me wasn’t that it was weird, it was that it was curious. We laughed a little, and then I let go of that strong human impulse to make things other, just a bit, just for a minute, and tried some.