8 Lessons From a Life of Trying to Fit In
The key to belonging is to stop trying and just be you.
I’m one of those third-culture kids who spends most of their lives wandering around looking for a sense of belonging. It’s human nature to flock together with your “birds of a feather”. For many, that feather is their nationality and culture. But that wasn’t an option for me. I had to find a new kind of feather. Here’s a tale of trying and failing to fit in — my quest to belong.
It was easy, in the beginning
The first time I found myself completely alone, I was six years old. I vividly remember that moment, standing in the middle of a large, uninviting playground, very aware of the enormity of the empty space around me.
My new primary school was a far cry from my cosy home, 7 hours’ drive away. (This was happening in Zambia, by the way, where I was born and brought up.) My parents had just said a trying-to-be-cheerful goodbye before driving away down the dirt road, not to return for another 3 months. I didn’t fully understand the impact of that. Yet.
I did, however, instinctively know that I needed a plan. Right then, I came up with my first survival strategy: make a friend.
Looking around me, I saw a blonde girl playing in the sand, so I went over and said, “Hi”. And just like that, we were best friends.
As it turned out, I made the right move that day. Being friends with the pretty blonde girl gave me cred. All through primary school, I had people lining up to do me favours because they wanted to be friends with her too, like I was some sort of gatekeeper. As everyone knows, in primary school, it’s the best friend who calls dibs.
Lesson 1: Make friends with blonde people, and you will go far.
The challenge begins
When my parents dropped me off at secondary school a few years later (another boarding school in Zambia), I had to start from scratch again. This time, I was swimming in a much bigger pond and I needed more than just a friend to make it here.
My new survival strategy? Be popular.
Easy — all I had to do was make friends with the popular people. And there they were: the bunch of girls in the social room who seemed to be constantly laughing. The kind of laughter that made me want to be in on the joke but at the same time wary that I could be the subject of that joke. I approached them and opened with the line that had worked so well for me in primary school: “Hi.”
All that got me was a few raised eyebrows, as they looked me up and down and informed me that I am white.
That was news to me. I had never considered the colour of my skin before. In this school, the tables were turned.
Lesson 2: Being white is not cool.
But I was far from being defeated. I had a card to play: “I’m not white, I’m am half-Indian,” I told them.
I didn’t have much to back this up with though, as I had never been to India (my family live in Zambia), I couldn’t speak any of the languages, and I couldn’t handle spicy food for the life of me. However, my Indian blood did give me an advantage. I could tan.
So, to avoid being called “white” again, I’d go to the swimming pool every day after class, baste myself in olive oil and rotate under the hot African sun like a roast chicken. Soon, I was five shades darker.
But still not popular.
Time to play my second card: “I was born in Zambia.”
To prove it, I had to stop acting so white. I had blend in with the cool crowd. Which meant I had to toughen up and go gangster, like them. So I sat down and memorised Eminem’s lyrics like I was studying for an exam (yes, I see the irony). And this was in the days before the internet, so it was hours of sitting with my tape recorder and a notepad and pen, pressing play, pause, rewind, play, pause… on and on.
After a few years, I was the most gangster not-white-but-half-Indian girl in school. I wore a bandana and shades. I didn’t walk, I bounced. I didn’t say “hello”, I said “‘sup”. I even got detention for saying “shit” like the popular girls.
But I still wasn’t popular.
Lesson 3: The line between cool and just plain weird is a dangerous one to tread.
A new strategy
Fast-forward five years, I found myself alone again — this time on the lush green lawn of an A-level college in England. By now I had given up on the idea of ever being popular, so my survival strategy this time was simple: just blend in.
On my first day, I kept a low profile as I sussed out my new environment. But by the end of the day, not one person had approached me to make friends.
Lesson 4: English people do not like to make the first move.
That’s ok. I had no problem making the first move. In fact, I was pretty good at it by then. So, on the second day, I made many first moves.
Still no luck.
Lesson 5: English people do not like it when other people make the first move.
The only thing anyone said when I approached them was, “Where are you from?” But it wasn’t an interested, I’d-like-to-get-to-know-you “where are you from”. It was half-confused, half-alarmed, “where are you from?”
I tried to reassure them with my third card: “I’m half British.”
But there was nothing British about me. Apart from having roasts on Sundays, I didn’t know much about British culture. So, I sat down in front of the TV and studied Big Brother and Little Britain every night. And I practiced dropping my “t’s” from “wa’er”, “Li’le Bri’ain”… “I’m half Bri’ish, yeah”.
They didn’t buy it.
Not even when I ended all my sentences with “innit”.
Enough is enough
At that point, I had had enough. How could I be expected to play the game with nothing but a few half cards in my hand? I wasn’t Zambian enough, or Indian enough or British enough to fit in anywhere, and I had somehow ended up with an American accent. It was time to take things into my own hands. This time I will decide where to abandon myself. I will choose a place where I can be accepted for who I am, a place where I can belong.
People, I’m moving to China.
Best decision ever. In China, I was the centre of attention. People were attracted by my outsider status, not repelled by it as they were in England. I had people coming up and asking to be my friend. They wowed in delight at my long eyelashes and wowed in horror at my long arm hair. I was offered cups of tea, dumplings, jobs… everything.
Lesson 6: Be a foreigner in China and you will go far.
It felt amazing to have so many friends, even though I knew a lot of them were only hanging out with me to get cred for knowing a foreigner. I knew this because I couldn’t escape the inquisition into my exact geographical origin — it was everywhere I went. So, I experimented with my three cards to see how people would react.
“I’m from Zambia” was met with, “You can’t be, you’re not black.”
“I’m from India” got a kind of a disinterested silence.
“I’m from England” was received with praise… applause almost. So I stuck with that.
But it wasn’t long before another foreigner came along. Her American card trumped my British card and just like that, she was the centre of attention, not me.
Lesson 7: Be an American in China, and you will go even further.
Finding my feather
One day, I took a train south and as I crossed the border into Hong Kong, something wonderful happened. I found myself surrounded by different people: different from me, but also different from each other. Everyone I met seemed to be as culturally mixed up and messed up as me. At a hip-hop yoga class, I glanced over at the girl rolling out her mat next to me and said, “Hi.” And just like that, we were best friends.
As many people here don’t identify with just one nationality, culture or language, we bond over the shared experience of being an outsider in one way or another. Where there’s more diversity, there’s more empathy and that makes it easier to make friends. Sure, Hong Kongers are always interested in where each other are from. But culture is not a prerequisite for friendship. Because my cultural identity no longer mattered, I was released from the desperate need to be like other people. I could be me.
Finally, I owned — even loved — my weird mixed identity and stopped trying to fit in. I owed it to myself to be myself. Fully. Loudly. Proudly. After learning to find a home in and be at home in myself, the quality of my friendships transformed. They deepened into the kind of dynamic, honest, long-lasting friendships I’ve always wanted. Looking back at all my efforts to be included, I realised they were the very reason I was left out.
Lesson 8: People don’t want to be friends with wannabes.
It’s another of life’s paradoxes. Wanting to be accepted gave me an air of neediness that repelled people. Because I thought I had to be like them to be liked by them, I put on an act. And my act kept my friendships shallow. True connection can only happen when the pretending stops.
Maybe one day, we’ll all be able to see past the categories that determine how we interact with others. The conditioning that makes us reject a person before we’ve even met them. Maybe one day, we’ll give everyone a chance, no matter how different they are. But until then, the best way to belong is to be true to ourselves. Because then, we’ll find others who are being true to themselves, too. And we’ll flock together with a truer kind of feather.