graffiti in chinese

Graffiti reads: “We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem” – posted on Reddit page, December 25, 2019

The image, above, has been circulating on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit) as well as the question of when we can return back to “normal.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, not only because I, like so many in the world, are feeling that we are living in very strange times, but also because, as the graffiti above suggests, “normal” is part of what got us here.

Though the picture was posted to Reddit on December 25, 2019, I have no idea how long that graffiti was there or whether it’s a commentary on COVID-19 or perhaps referring to the more localized unrest that roiled Hong Kong this past fall. Perhaps it’s a commentary on both situations—the local protests in Hong Kong and the global pandemic we are all experiencing. And perhaps it’s also much broader than that—a commentary on the current state of climate change that our entire planet is facing and grappling with.

So I want to share some musings about what “normal” means to me and why this graffiti resonates so much with me right now. Because not going back to “normal” hits not only my sense of how to move forward post-COVID-19 (so hard to imagine in the midst of grappling with this new reality we’re all living in) but issues of sustainability and what it means to be an educator in the year 2020.

I don’t want to minimize the very real suffering, hardships, and tragedies that are currently unfolding around us. But I also have seen the discussions online from climate scholars and journalists who wonder if there are lessons we can take away from what is happening now. The normal we had been living, of flying on airplanes and commuting by cars, that normal is gone and with it the amount of air pollution in Los Angeles and Beijing, which means the new normal of not using fossil fuels is paying dividends in better air quality and reducing CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.

This new reality—of working from home, of translating and transferring our working and professional lives on-line—are opening up new ways of thinking about how we do our work and show up professionally. I know there are colleagues of mine who are mourning the cancellation of in-person conferences. But I also see this as an opportunity to beta test what a virtual conference space can look like. And though I know it’s been stressful for teachers and students to transition to an on-line environment, I also see colleagues who are changing their syllabi and being mindful of the various stressors and lack of access to technology that some of thier students are facing. I wonder if this capacious and generous attitude can be sustained and implemented when we are back in our brick and mortar classrooms.

I also wonder if this isn’t all dress rehearsal—that as bad as COVID-19 is (and I’m in no way trying to minimize nor hype up its devastating impacts) what I really fear is the pandemic to come—the one with the 25% fatality rate, which also seems to be part of the climate change future that is in store for us as animals seek different climates and diets and diseases that were once contained and kept within species cross over.

“We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.” If the normal we had was the problem, how do we create a new normal to address social and climate issues for our present and future? How can we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a more humane sense of how to live our lives, whether in real space or on-line, one that places generosity and sustainability at the forefront of how we get back to normal?

Jennifer Ho
Director, Center for Humanities & the Arts
Professor, Ethnic Studies