Sunday, September 18, 2016

fish out of water

Tribe. Pack. Crew. Squad. Team. Belonging feels good. Warm acceptance and feelings of allegiance boost self-esteem and confidence. But I'm a perennial outsider, springing to life as an outlier no matter where I go.

It starts in Japan. I'm a Caucasian child with curly, white-blonde hair. For homogeny-valuing Japanese, my appearance is a wonder. I stand out against the background of my dark-haired siblings and parents. Random people exclaim over my looks, touching my hair while staring with wide eyes. I grow accustomed to the petting. At the school for expats, I start kindergarten with 5 year-old boys and girls from dozens of countries. My best buddy is David Wang, a chubby Chinese boy the other kids make fun of.

Later, I'm starting the first grade in Massachusetts. Nobody cares what I look like. But I'm on the outside looking in again because I don't speak English well. "Speak some Japan!" the other kids demand. I learn to lie and say "I can't remember any." I'm tired of their laughter and crude mimicry of what is, for me at that moment, my native language. I find a friend, Joanne, a Catholic girl who lives in my neighborhood. With flaming red hair and a mass of freckles, she's been the victim of teasing as well. We understand each other.

My parents divorce when I'm eight. Now, even to my extended family, I'm an outsider. They're well-bred Southern Christians and they don't "do" divorce. My parents are the first in the family to divorce -ever. I'm not Southern and there is pity towards us as the children of divorce. In their eyes, we are now crippled. Any achievement will be seen as an amazing feat of courage.

Fifth grade finally finds me in the South. But moving to Georgia from Massachusetts means I'm a "damn Yankee", a fate worse than death. I am shunned. Only one girl befriends me, the class oddball, Lisa. And I hesitantly follow Lisa down a dangerous path to all sorts of exploits. I'm terrified at first, but she's my only friend. By 7th grade, we're smoking pot, hanging out with grown people - amateur pot dealers, musicians, and opportunistic 19 and 20 year-old men who recognize vulnerable girls when they see them.

Tenth grade and we've moved to rural North Carolina. Given some of the crazy shit I've done, it's a small miracle that I'm still alive. But now I'm a quadruple threat outsider. First, I'm not from there, a grievous sin. Second, I'm a "hippy", or so I'm told. Third, my vocabulary is WAY too big. I'm constantly being asked "what does xxxxx mean?" I'm too stubborn to change by this point.

The fourth and final threat I bring to this new environment is that I'm not a racist. My parents were members of the SCLC and have raised us to see people as people. My high school is highly segregated socially. I neither understand nor conform to that way of seeing the world. I'm soon labeled a "nigger-lover." After that, I'm bombarded with taunts and threats almost every day. A few people are kind to me - not nearly enough. By this point, I've perfected my tough exterior. Nobody knows how much I'm hurting. My circle of friends are all older people. I feel safe with them. I play guitar and sing in a band. I go to school. I graduate - barely. (Forty years later, a high school reunion photo on Facebook features a sea of white faces. Some things, it seems, never change.)

College is a huge breath of fresh air. There's a live and let live feeling that allows me to relax. And there's plenty of other weirdos with whom to bond. It's okay to be an oddball. In fact, we celebrate each other's wacky free spirits.

I've never stopped being an oddball. I no longer expect to fit in. I anticipate wariness from others. Other unique people recognize and embrace me. And I've become adept at spotting those who will be most likely to reject me. They're the conformers and the insecure. The conformers have strict rules in their head about what people SHOULD and should NOT think, say, do, or be. The insecure are those who are so fearful of rejection that they choose small, safe spaces to occupy. A few people are both.

I'm very blessed to have found good friends over the years. Not surprisingly, they're all very unique people. They're bold and colorful. They take up space. Generosity of spirit is a common trait. They're all really smart. And they are fearless.

I'm forever grateful that I never developed that skill of making myself smaller in order to fit in. I'm a kaleidoscope. And I really love all of my colors.

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