Outsider: A Call for Connection
I wrote this poem about being an outsider in China in an effort to build empathy for what I have never experienced: being a new immigrant in the United States. I wrote it primarily for monolingual English speakers in my country who ask about immigrants, “Why do they stay together and speak their language?” “Why don’t they learn English?”
I wrote it for all of us who have ever felt like the outsider, to illuminate the universal themes beneath our diverse experiences: we want to be valued as the individuals we are, and we to connect.
I wrote it for every student in U.S. schools who ever feels his or her own language, culture, skin color or sexual orientation is a barrier to belonging.
I wrote it for every human, hoping to inspire us to take those small, courageous actions to express and connect across differences, so we don’t have to live with limiting assumptions about one another.
Not a Direct Parallel
I know my experience as an outsider in China is not a direct parallel to what it is like to be an immigrant or minority in the United States. In many ways, my experience was much easier. Five primary differences are important to consider:
- Choice – I was in China by choice, for one year of employment. I had the economic means, passport and opportunity to return to my own country when I was ready to leave.
- Status of language – English, in China, is a language with high status. I was often approached by strangers with requests to teach English and practice English together. In the United States, many of the languages of immigrants are given lower status than English. There is a backlash by some groups against translation services, bilingual education, and anyone’s use of another language as “un-American.”
- Status of race/ethnicity – In China, peopled stared at me constantly for having different skin and eyes. “Big nose!” some shouted and pointed when they saw a white person. The attention was neutral curiosity more than derogatory racism. Stereotypes about my race, even if faulty, were positive about wealth, power and status.
- Status of culture – With American movies and business prominent in the world media, many people I met in China were fascinated by American culture. I was hired to teach a class on Western culture. Compare this to the fact that in my home country, Arizona banned ethnic studies classes. The cultures of many immigrant communities are devalued in schools.
- Cultural norm of staring – In China in the ‘90s, away from the larger cities, it was quite normal for people to stare, non-stop, at anyone who was different. I could stare back and meet someone’s eyes, and they would keep staring, unembarrassed, because it was a normal thing to do. This meant that every day, everywhere I went, because I was different, crowds gathered, stared, pointed and shouted “outsider!”
A Call to Action
Despite these differences, I hope my story of being an outsider encourages my fellow Americans to value and connect with individuals who are new to our country, culture and language.
Don’t just ask people to assimilate and lose who they are. Dare to listen, learn, and speak other languages, so you can expand your world as well. Dare to communicate across differences rather than living in the boxes our faulty assumptions create.
* * *
How do you value your own identity, and the unique identities of others?
What actions do you take to connect across difference?