Society & Culture

The beauty of not fitting in


3547135463_5ba1bd5909_bHere in East Africa, I am Muzungu: foreign, white, outsider. Kids yell after me when I step outside my Zanzibari apartment or stroll through my neighbourhood in search of chai. After five months in the region, it has started to get old.

Still, there is something… there is something about the impossibility of fitting in that has always challenged me in the best of ways. In Nepal and India, no matter the effort I made to wear the right clothing, to learn the language, to immerse, I was always patently, immutably other. Here too.

(In Europe, not so much. I have a face that can appear French, Italian, Slavic or even Turkish depending on context. Without my backpack, I can walk through a city unmolested — my status as tourist unknown — and blend into the crowd on a subway car. The chameleon has many merits, and I have certainly enjoyed exploring new places in the guise of a local.)

And along with that, I do not like the constant attention, stares of curiosity, shouts, deference and, conversely, hostility I receive when I travel as an obvious tourist. I certainly do not like being singled out by the Nairobi police as an easy source of a bribe, and I do not like the behaviour of those men who seem to believe that as a foreigner I do not warrant the same respect as women of their own race.

But still, there is something… There is something about the impossibility of fitting in that I do like. Standing out, not because of a voluntarily articulated identifier like religion, sexuality, or dress, but because of an immediately evident, insuppressible feature like skin colour — like eye colour, height, or even language.

That experience was very rare growing up in Boston, or going to university in Middlebury, Vermont. And I think most people, of all backgrounds, shy away from it because it is uncomfortable. It is inescapable. It can be exhausting and challenging.

It is also, I think, important.

There is something about the impossibility of fitting in that forces us to confront the reality of our otherness — no greater or lesser than anyone else’s.

There is something about not fitting in that presents us to ourselves in full, and maybe, just maybe, there is beauty in what we see.

Among so many other reasons, perhaps that is why I travel. It is too easy to fall into the comfortable trap of sameness. Surrounded by people who look — and maybe more significantly, behave, speak, dress and think — like us, we relax not into multiplicity, but into uniformity.

I would rather learn how to be equally at home in my otherness as I am in my belonging.

I would rather not fit in — at home and abroad.

I will suffer the negatives — constant attention, harassment, unwanted conversations — for the chance to know myself better.

There is something about the impossibility of fitting in that can make us realise that we never fit in anyway — not really. What could be more beautiful than that?


This article was originally published on Next Stop World and has been republished with permission.

{Photo: Sara V / Flickr}

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Toby Israel

Toby Israel

Toby Israel is a feminist adventurer, a fearless explorer and an incorrigible vagabond. She travels in search of dragons, searches and cross-cultural understanding. Avid dancer, yogi, cook and lover of words, she is inspired by movement and poetry, good food and new things. She studied Anthropology at Middlebury College and now seeks to squeeze by as a freelance writer and 21st century nomad. You can share her journey on her blog, Next Stop World, Facebook and Twitter!

1 Comment

  1. 5th May 2015 at 12:00 pm — Reply

    Well said. Something i can very much relate to in another way. Being a fair-skinned Asian means the locals in Asia see me as foreign but other travellers think that i’m a local and so i’m caught in between. But then again, just like what you said, it doesn’t give me any unwanted attention…

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