For the first time in my life, I feel like an outsider.
If you’re aware of my background growing up, this may seem a little strange. I’m a Filipino that lived for a year in the UAE, about three years in Singapore and then the rest of my life until graduating from high-school (13 years) in Shanghai, China. I’ve technically been a foreigner my entire life, but I never felt like that growing up.
My earliest memories begin in Singapore. Perhaps it was because of my age, but I was never of the impression that I didn’t belong due to my nationality. I don’t think I was old enough to be thinking about cultural contexts and identities. It may also be because I’m brown. Brown people are pretty common in Southeast Asia, so it’s not like I stood out very much.
In Shanghai, it was much the same. Because my family moved to China when I was around five years old, I basically grew up there. I also have some Chinese blood, so I didn’t even look like a foreigner! It took awhile, but I eventually picked up the language at a reasonable level of fluency with a reasonable non-foreign sounding accent by the age of 13, so I could get around as if I wasn’t a foreigner. Of course, I’d slip up a lot and use the wrong intonation for certain words, and get occasional comments from locals like “Your Chinese is good for a foreigner!”. For the most part, however, it didn’t feel like I was an outsider.
Moving to Holland for university was the first time I’d lived outside of Asia and lived without my family in my life. I was recently reminded of this phenomenon known as “culture shock”, in which a disequilibrium caused by different cultural realities leads to feelings of anxiety, stress and frustration.
I didn’t have that. While I am of the opinions that cultures can differ dramatically, I think my (relatively) unique upbringing in an international school environment gave me a natural capability for interacting with different cultures. In fact, I never consciously viewed this multicultural competence as a skill I’d developed, because it’s always just been a part of me. That’s not bragging in any sense; this is merely me saying that it was a part of my upbringing. Almost everyone I knew from my high-school and other international schools were capable of the same.
Thus, while I wasn’t quite discomfited with the change in cultural contexts, it was still extremely strange to walk through the streets and not see other Asian people. In fact, it was strange just not seeing a lot of people to begin with. Shanghai is, obviously, filled with Chinese people, but it’s also saturated to a much higher extent than many European cities. Hearing Dutch spoken everywhere was also peculiar. For most of my life, Chinese had filled my ears when roaming the streets, so hearing foreign languages like Dutch, Spanish and French was what turned my head. Now, just a couple words in Chinese causes my head to snap around in search of the source.
The prevailing culture at school also felt a little different. I felt very much like the mentality of a lot of students, both in my course and others, was that achieving just a passing grade would be satisfactory. Having high expectations and goals like mine where only barely scraping by was akin to actually failing was viewed as an overachieving attitude, when in my previous reality at high-school that was viewed as a norm.
I don’t think this feeling of being an outsider is necessarily bad. I actually think spending time outside my comfort zone is inherently more valuable than all the time spent inside. It’s not necessarily easy, but I enjoy the challenges that come with it. As someone with a slight fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to meeting new people and trying new things, I’ve done my best to do just that: meet new people and try new things. While I find that I often have to force myself to do so, I can think of no better place than this home away from home.