On Being An Outsider
There are many, many things that living in Ghana has taught me: how to bargain with taxi drivers (laugh, and point out that you paid half the price yesterday), how to survive in thirty degrees with no air conditioning (drink a lot of water, and stuff tissues between your bra), and how to speak pidgin (I'm terrible but I'm trying). But it's given me a small taste of being an outsider too, in a way that semesters in Paris and Abu Dhabi have not.
Choosing Ghana was about stepping outside of my comfort zone: I have said this many times on here and it has become a chant to myself as a reminder when things get difficult. Indeed I have stepped out of my comfort zone, I’m living outside it a lot of the time. This makes itself apparent to me in several ways and, given how much I’ve been wrestling with the topic in my mind, I felt it was finally time to address this issue in writing, to make sense of it to myself and hopefully to give you some understanding.
Never before in my life have I been so obviously marked as an outsider because of the colour of my skin, and it’s a privilege I hadn't really considered till moving here. Sure I was aware of race: I listened to my friends speak of their own experiences as minorities and I read endless articles about how it feels to be singled out or stereotyped. It's not that I wasn't aware of white privilege, I've lived in Abu Dhabi for three years surrounded by people of many races, but I wasn't so clearly different from everyone around me. I was somewhat paying attention, and I was definitely trying to understand how that felt, but I didn’t feel like I do now, and a lot of the time I didn’t even have to think about it.
Now, however, I stand out virtually wherever I go. When I sit in the office at my internship I am always the only white person in the room, invariably the only female. Shouts of “obruni” (foreigner) follow me as I walk down the street, and it is tiring to constantly be reminded that you don’t belong.
Now let me be very clear: I am not complaining, nor do I truly understand how others feel. I am in a position of privilege even in my outsider status; I come home to a house full of students in a very similar position to me, a small place of belonging.
Although curiously I often feel like an outsider there too, in a way I never do on my home campus in Abu Dhabi; where hundreds of nationalities sit alongside each other. In my house I am the only non-U.S American, and this builds a small barrier, one broken down daily with laughter and goodwill but one that sits there nonetheless. It is created by cultural capital, in which television programs are discussed that everyone else has seen but me. It emerges in the confusion over words I utter, phrases that fall naturally from my mouth onto bemused ears. It has taught me how hard you have to play catch up when you’re the odd one out, how you long for someone to recognise a childhood tune. I have had moments like this before: running through campus to find one of the ten or so Brits that attend my school, knowing that they will appreciate whatever anecdote or joke I have to share; the warmth that came from hearing my personal trainer use the word “plonker”, because the last person that I had heard say that was my dad; shared joy when G&Ts were sipped to the sounds of the Spice Girls. Only here I have no-one; except the odd friendly face of another European who shares my puzzled shrug over certain conversations at dinner.
Once again I am lucky, there are great swathes of overlap in our experiences. My American cultural capital has been built up over the years, from watching reruns on comedy central and discussions with my best friend from Colorado. They too know of my idiosyncrasies, albeit stereotyped ones that they garnered from films. I can’t comprehend what it feels like to be totally in the dark, desperately wanting to share a familiar food or completely unaware of the conversation; but it has given me a taste of that life, it has pushed my empathy forward into thinking about how that would feel.
I am grateful for this experience. I think it has made me more conscious of the people who uproot their life completely and step into a foreign land forever. How hard they must have worked to fit in, how tiring it must feel to have to assimilate all the time. It has given me an understanding for the Polish shops I see sitting in Cheltenham, how that small familiarity must go a long way into helping them feel at home. Assimilation is a loaded word, and one that I feel uncomfortable casting judgement on others about when I crave England in this faraway place. I am gifted it often, a legacy of those cruel colonial days and the benefit of being an expat. Sure hobnobs are expensive, but they sit in the aisle at Shoprite and it delights me more than I can say when the Americans enjoy their oaty texture. It’s the little things.
So the next time you debate foreign policy, and talk about those immigrants who won’t assimilate please think of me, a lost English girl in Africa, and remember that we are all the same. Until you are in their position it is easy to throw your opinion in, but no matter how much we want to live abroad and embrace this new found lifestyle, sometimes we all want a little taste of home.