My Privilege of Being an Outsider - and Why It's Worth Holding On To

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I recently wrote about my experience of finding connection and belonging in a new place through having cups of tea with strangers. This is a sequel in some ways.

As I migrated from my home country of India to Australia, the excitement of starting out on a new life adventure was palpable. While we had the usual anxieties they were pushed far back in our minds. The positives outweighed any worries or practical concerns about the future. This was a great feeling while it lasted. This was the feeling of newness.

As the new began to get old over time, I started to feel something that wasn't so happy anymore. While I couldn't shake off the feeling that I wasn't quite myself, I also felt ungrateful for not counting my blessings. Everything was falling in place, things were moving ahead slowly, but surely. Good people kept appearing in our lives and there were more people ready to help us than we had ever hoped for or imagined. We were making new friends and meeting lovely people.

What exactly was I feeling then? Shouldn't it have been contentment and gratitude? I knew deep down that it wasn't either of those. I was unable to put my finger on it. It took a new friend to help me understand, who said it simply and matter of factly, as we sat chatting one afternoon. It dawned on me how right she was and that I had missed the obvious.

I was feeling a sense of loss. I was in mourning and I was grieving. I was grieving the loss of everything I had left behind; a well-settled life, a thriving career, a life that looked and felt familiar, people who shared my identity, history and culture, a life that felt comfortable and intimate, a culture that I knew my way around with my eyes and ears closed. I had left all of it behind. Most of all, I was grieving the loss of my identity.

Just a few short months ago, I knew who I was and what I was about. My confidence and sure-footedness second to none. And here I was, no longer sure of who I was or what I was about. My confidence shaken up and lost in the unfamiliarity of this change that felt so alien and untrustworthy. I looked around, but I couldn't see myself anywhere. Now when I glanced into the mirror, I was the 'diverse' one, not the others. I was the foreigner in a land that did not belong to me. Displacement was a word I now understood.

We had willingly uprooted ourselves from our home country, so this made no sense at all. It felt confusing why I wasn't waking up bright eyed and bushy tailed to make the most of this move. Instead, I was spending my days processing the loss I now decidedly felt. Yet, a sense of sadness wasn't as much of a surprise as was what I felt after. This slow, but steady realisation was certainly unexpected.

I discovered that while I had lost one privilege - that of being with my own, I had earned another one - that of being the 'outsider'.

I am now the outsider who wears a fresh pair of glasses that are no longer rose tinted. In fact, they are stripped bare of filters I had grown accustomed to. Most times, I can see myself and others clearly through a lens that doesn't have default settings. I now recognise my own and other people's biases much faster and confront them with greater courage. I didn't realise I was as biased as I now know I am, and had always been. Similarities have a way of hiding biases and prejudices in a way that is so hard to catch. Now I have nowhere to hide mine.

Most times, I am able to see the people around me with compassion and empathy. I make a consistent effort to judge less and question more. I stumble on my resolve every now and then, but catch myself and put myself back on track. I find challenging my beliefs a healthy way to discover that which my previous self would have quickly judged and pushed aside. If the person standing in front of me is a bigot, then so am I. That's an accusation none of us can safely make at another, but remain unscathed ourselves.

My significant discovery is this, and I hope you find something in my experiences that resonates with yours, too.

When we live in similarities for most of our lives, our sameness gets magnified to a point that it dwarves the fact that underneath the sameness we continue to be different. In a mass, we are still individuals. Within our similarities, we are still diverse.

What we share with the people of our own land is often exaggerated, what we don't share with outsiders is magnified, too. Our identities are an illusion to some extent then. We willingly surrender our unique, personal identities to the larger whole, so we can belong and feel connected. We give in to our shared identities in part to hide the conflicts and discomfort of having to stand out and be held separate from our tribe. Our most primal, intimate and deeply embedded need is to belong; to have something or someone to call our own, so we can look deep into their eyes and find a reflection of ourselves.

There is joy in finding a piece of ourselves when we look around. Which is why leaving a legacy so appeals to human beings and we go to lengths to be remembered. We want to share and contribute more than we want to do anything else with our lives. When we find a part of ourselves in another it is one of our greatest joys. We live for that sameness, we thrive on our shared identities and we protect our similarities with a passion. Bias follows quite naturally from that deep inclination to be similar.

While we talk and write and preach to everyone else about how being unique is a great thing, it's not as socially desirable as one might imagine. Uniqueness is often preached more than it's practiced. Ever found yourself silencing your inner voice in favour of the tribe? That's us not being unique or fair or objective. That's us wanting to belong more than anything else we've ever wanted. We call it conforming, and it's got little to do with our lack of judgment and everything to do with our desire to be part of our community.

So, why is being the outsider such a good place to be, you might ask? Why is it a privilege and not my curse?

Turns out, our identities aren't defined by geography or even history. Our identities aren't written in stone as we've come to believe. They are surprisingly flexible and pliable. It's us that is the problem, not our history and our culture. Our cultures are willing to be molded and redefined. We choose to define them as permanent and lasting because it feels scary and uncertain to see it any other way. If we aren't our culture, who are we? If we aren't our history, what are we? Most of us might not gather the courage to walk through that door and find out for ourselves. I wouldn't have either if I hand't got pushed to do so.

I now know that we don't necessarily have to be with our own to find connection and meaning and belonging.

This has been an accidental outcome of stepping out of my country and landing up in another. This has been my process to come out of my own sense of loss. This has been very personal and long-drawn.

I began to ask myself, who was I if I wasn't my history and my beliefs and my culture? As I struggled with the answers, the easy way out could have been to become critical, to deride our cultural differences, to isolate myself, become protective and fearful, judge and strike down the uncomfortable instead of fairly debating what wasn't easy to understand, rationalise or ignore. I am guilty of having done all of the above at some point or another. I am glad I tested each of my coping mechanisms. None of them helped to bring things back on track or make me stop grieving.

Except for one.

The only thing that worked and continues to work beautifully was to open myself up to new experiences, new people, new practices and new conversations. To let go of the baggage of having to be someone I thought I had to be.

The only way that worked was to risk being affected and changed in some way that I might not be able to control or even be conscious of. I had to run the risk of letting new experiences and new friendships rub off on me. Here's the paradox; the more I willingly sought to understand, the more people and opportunities I found to express and share who I was. People flooded my life asking me what I was about and where I was from and what I believed. I now find myself the most comfortable and most myself when I am truly open and non-judgmental about the person standing in front of me. I can see myself clearly when I look at others with love and patience. I can find myself easily when I reach out and help someone feel like they belong. I discover my space when I seek to understand where the other person is coming from.

Our connectedness is not at the mercy of our borders, it doesn't matter if we share nothing. What we share as human beings is so ancient and deeply embedded that no amount of geographical distance can diminish that urge to find our connection when we do meet.

In valuing another's choices, beliefs and their history, I have been able to better understand mine. My new found personal identity no longer imprisons me, it serves me, so I can try and become a more balanced and empathic person. I am the outsider who now revels in my status of being so. You are an outsider, too. You just have to find the context in which you can take off your glasses and wear a fresh pair. The fun part is, we don't have to uproot ourselves to do that. Who knows what you might discover once you open the door and step out of your comfortable place.

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