Culture

How it Feels to be an Outsider: Making Abnormal Normal

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“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers . . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

In many situations I’m an outsider. My personality, gender and nationality often mean I’m not “normal.” Which is hard for someone who wants to fit in. But it’s been that way so long I’ve become accustomed to the workarounds. So for my own interest I began to journal a list of what it means for me. Many of the situations that find me feeling strange I have chosen (although perhaps I wouldn’t have if I’d only known!) and the rest have been God’s doing. So my tone is not one of complaint or victimhood. Instead, this list helps me understand why I often feel weird or alone, why ordinary things often take a lot more energy for me. It feels good even to name the trivial things.

I share it partly to help those who are more “normal” see the work that goes on behind the scenes for outsiders. But I mostly share it in hopes of making it more normal not to be normal, so that others can begin to name their experiences. I hope that, without sounding whiny, sharing this might help others who also feel like outsiders see that, strangely, they are part of a community. So that finally, outsiders will feel they belong. The more multi-cultural our cities become, the more globalization and hyper-mobility affect our culture, the more it’s normal not to be normal.

We will learn how to welcome the stranger if we understand how it is to be strange.

So here are the notes I’ve begun gathering in my journal. I share them to begin a conversation and a community.

How It Feels to Be An Outsider:

  • The inside jokes often leave you out. It can make you feel alone. Or resentful.
  • Assumptions often don’t include you. Which leaves you ashamed, disconnected.
  • The things that are normal for you to have or to eat are not readily available. You have to special order your underwear. The kind of ordinary, comfort food you had in school lunches is now considered “gourmet” or “imported” and is expensive or hard to find. The things that seem normal to you are discontinued at your local store because you’re the only one who buys them.
  • No one knows when it’s a special day for you—life goes on as usual around you without the communal celebrations you once knew. And you are the only one who doesn’t know what to do when everyone else around you is celebrating a special day (“Oh! No one told me today was the day everyone wears red.”)
  • Your parenting choices, the way you run your home and family are seen as odd. Your idea of which family needs are met by the community and which are met the family don’t intersect with the families and community around you.
  • You spend a lot of energy understanding the people and culture around you, running your own thoughts through a filter so you can communicate well. Every now and then you let the filter drop just so that others can see how hard you’re working, inviting them to learn your language. You spend a lot of time explaining your way of seeing, wishing your way of seeing was the norm so that others had, instead, to explain themselves. You wish you could just cruise, with the wind of “normal” in your sails.
  • Ways you’ve specifically been taught were the wrong ways to do things, you now have to do. And ways you have been taught are the right ways, you now have to stop doing. (American spelling was marked as incorrect on any spelling test I ever took. Which explains why I still cringe a little every time I write “color” or “liter.”)
  • Some people feel threatened by your difference, so you learn to reassure them that it’s not a judgement on them. You get used to people assuming you’re trying to be different for the sake of difference (all the while, reminding yourself that there is a place where it’s normal to be like you.)
  • You treasure those rare moments when someone genuinely wants to know how you see the world, wants to expand their vision to include your perspective.
  • You know your voice brings something to your church, your neighborhood, your workplace but you wonder if anyone knows what the novelty of having a minority costs the minority. Is it worth it to you for what it brings to them?
  • Your natural rhythms of life collide with the rhythms around you. You miss others’ unspoken invitations into relationship and community, just as others miss yours. (Few people in the US understand that an invitation to have tea is not really about whether or not you’re thirsty. It’s an invitation to take communion.)
  • People value skills that you’re not good at, don’t value the things you are good at.
  • Because you have a foot in two (or three worlds) you remember the time before you knew what you now know, when both feet stood firmly in one world. The fact that one foot now stands in a place you once didn’t know existed allows you to create a space in your own understanding called “Other things I don’t even know I don’t know.” You long to help others also create that space, especially since your experience would fit there.
  • Others wonder why you’re always self-conscious, why you overthink everything, why ordinary things take so much energy out of you. You feel like you hover above life, like a critic of the movie, while others are able to be actors in the movie. Belonging here is such a conscious effort because your heart also belongs elsewhere.
  • You trust that God can use what you’ve learned, that although it’s painful, it brings perspective. You hope that you find ways to share, while also humbly listening to what others have to bring.
  • You seek out venues where you can talk your first “language,” feel part of a community. Or even where you can be with other outsiders, even if they’re different in a different way than you.

Welcome to a community of people who don’t fit in. How does it feel to be an outsider?

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