I sat in my car this weekend with an incredible friend who was born in Kenya, has lived in many places around the world including, most recently, a 3 year stretch in London. We were having a conversation about American politics; a subject of which I purposely know very little.
Being an empath makes watching news and being around negative energy very damaging so I avoid it as much as possible. (I simultaneously find it very sad that our American political system fits this “negative energy” label.)
I was in awe of how much she engages in the system, her knowledge about the players and her commitment to understanding it all; not only in America but around the world. She came across as supremely intelligent and worldly. I count myself blessed to have such worldly friends in my life. I also know that a few years ago I would have crawled out of my skin during that chat because I couldn’t participate.
I would have felt a crushing sense of ignorance.
I love evidence of how much I’ve evolved. It’s truly a positive reinforcement of what’s been so difficult for me. To see the evidence however, you have to know the story.
I was raised in a family where we were encouraged to be ourselves but to “fit in”.
As I am half Portuguese/Chinese/Hawaiian and half Polish/French/Lithuanian I didn’t really “fit-in” in New Hampshire where I was raised. I remember everyone asking what I was (ethnicity-wise). The guesses ranged from Italian and Greek to Samoan. It bothered me that people were so compelled to label me.
There were also other things that set my family apart when I was in NH. We ate rice every night for dinner. I ate strange foods that most people hadn’t heard of like li hing mui and pickled daikon. Saimin soup was a staple in our house. By the age of 15 I had been to Hawaii 4 times.
All of these things made me stand out as “different”.
When I moved to Hawaii, everyone recognized me as hapa (half-Hawaiian). They’d ask if I was a “local girl”. My New England accent was a dead giveaway that I was anything but local, so I worked diligently to learn the local dialect so I could fit in more.
I remember the freedom of coming to WA and running around the streets of The Ave and Capitol Hill in the late 90s. I could be whoever and whatever and no one cared; they didn’t ask a question about my ethnicity. These free spirits, that ran round with fishnet stockings held together with safety pins and tutus with combat boots and multi-colored hair could have cared less what I was.
It was one of my reasons for loving WA. I felt like I could finally relax until I got to my first WA university and one of my college roommates made a comment about my rice crackers right before she asked me to exit our dorm room because my food smelled offensive to her.
I went outside with my crackers (which reminded this lonely transplant of her family) and cried. I was 23 and my new-found sense of freedom from labels had shattered once again.
Fast forward to my last corporate gig that had me traveling around the world, meeting people from places I couldn't point out on a map unassisted and learning customs I don’t know existed. I was educated on cuisines from around the globe complete with guides who spoke the language of the cuisine navigating my food sensitivities.
This broadening helped me be more cognizant of just how unaware my early commentators were.
It also helped me to recognize that because of my ethnic mix, most "foreigners" saw me immediately as more worldly than I saw myself.
What had always made me locally awkward had made me globally ambiguous.
Almost everywhere I went people talked to me in their native tongue first. In France, they’d address me in French. In El Salvador and Puerto Rico they’d start with Spanish. I have a contingent of friends from Sao Paulo who said all I was missing was the language (my extroverted, talkative self and lack of boundaries about hugging everyone I meet is apparently normal in Brazil- what a relief!).
I began to love how universal I physically appeared to be; how easily, should I have been able to master the language, that I could slip into the population and be welcome.
I find it fascinating that I had to get outside of the United States of America to feel welcome in the world.
I also find it amazing that my connection to the world at large made me feel more confident in the corner of the world I now call home.
I am blessed that it’s normal for my children to have friends of all different ethnicities who speak different languages at home than they do in school.
I find it reassuring that a simple, engaging conversation I had with my dear friend Karimi has given me a massive moment of appreciation for all of the above and the evolution of my own story.
It’s sometimes the most innocent and unassuming of conversations that end in the biggest personal epiphanies.
While my definition of worldly as it pertains to myself is more likely to include expertise in language, culture and cuisine and less economic, political or geographic; I’m good with it. Having a collection of brilliant minds (and hearts) to fill in the gaps is part of what living is all about.
It’s a bonus that I now have a source of love and knowledge in this arena who I can call upon when I exercise, with gratitude, my very American right to vote.
What's your worldly story?