Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Belonging

New Kid’s recent post on a person who inspired dislike has been poking at the back of my thoughts all afternoon, in ways I’m not sure what to do with. (which would be a warning that this post may not make much sense; I’m not sure I have a coherent theme here, but there are a couple of things I want to try to string together. Bear with me.)

One phrase particularly stung, as she described this woman who did not in any way fit the mold of the usual coffee-house denizens: “She just looks wrong here.” (I mean no criticism of NK; that’s something we’ve all thought or said at one moment or another, which is why the honesty of her post is so valuable). It’s what we think when we find someone doesn’t fit our expectations, when we sense they don’t belong.

I love to travel, and one of my obsessions with traveling is to blend in well enough that no one will immediately guess I’m a tourist. I know I can’t avoid giving myself away at some point, but I feel a powerful obligation to master at least a smattering of the language and the customs. I want to delay as long as possible the moment when it happens: the reaction that is never spoken aloud, but easy to see in someone’s eyes, “You don’t belong here.”

I can do this in a few parts of the world for a reasonable amount of time before the disguise fails, but one of the most memorable elements of my long-ago trip to Thailand was the realization that I was unavoidably trapped in my skin. I knew that during my brief weeks there I had no hope of mastering more than a few phrases of the language or getting a very sophisticated understanding of the culture, but I thought I could do enough to not stand out as a painfully obvious farang. It didn’t take long to realize that even if I spent the rest of my life in this lovely country, even if I made friends and got a job and settled into a community, if I spoke Thai and dressed Thai and lived Thai, the first reaction of any stranger upon observing my Anglo-Saxon features would be “you don’t belong here.” It doesn’t even have to be malicious, it’s just the observation that I’m different, but not to be able to escape it is maddening. I’m embarrassed to confess that that was my first real understanding of what most African-Americans and Hispanics and cerebral-palsy patients and folks in wheelchairs live every day in this country, the extent to which the majority of the population bases their first reaction and set of assumptions on appearance. (I was nineteen and na├»ve; these things took a while to sink in.)

It’s easy, if you listen, to hear that phrase going through people’s heads every day on my own campus, that momentary double-take of dissonance: when they encounter the overweight, awkwardly dressed student I see lumbering across campus every day; when they see black students in graduate courses; when they see female faculty in the science departments; when they see the kid with blue hair and a nose ring; when they cross paths with the janitorial staff before 5 pm. I know that at least one of my colleagues thinks it of me.

One of the comments to New Kid’s post was from marcelle_proust, who said simply that “Compassion is a learned response.” That’s so true. Compassion is not automatic; it needs to be practiced and cultivated, and never more than when we are least inclined to it. We can’t help our initial reactions and judgments when we see someone we perceive to be out of place. We can help how we express them or respond to them. We may hear that phrase flash through our own heads – you just look wrong here – but we can challenge it, and look twice at the person, and say: Do you want to be here? Welcome.