More often than not, I am the first person in the room. Pink-skinned, jet black hair with green and blue tinges, glasses, and an “exotic” background, I rarely realize that I will be the only person in the room from Asia, let alone Indonesia. As students pile in, I am still oblivious. But slowly, as discussion rolls on, I can sense a sudden tone of uneasiness: whether it was the inability to vocally deliver my message or the stink-eyed look people would flash at me as I talk about cultural tendencies in Indonesia.
Gradually I become much more aware of the fact that being different physically might be a disadvantage. I retreat into my shell. Afraid that someone would call me out. Afraid that someone would ask “why?” and I am left to hesitantly babble some shallow analysis of the wide Indonesian culture at a moment’s notice. Uncomfortable, that’s how I often feel in these situations. Yet, when you are pushed to the brink and see everything that you love fall into the abyss, you start to relax and stop caring. I began to list all of the things that makes me different and how they will make me indispensable. I even make it a point to test these hypotheses during conference and seminars. Suddenly, relief washes over me and I am able to be fearless, again.
In small schools such as Sarah Lawrence, to be different quickly becomes a compulsion. Each semester, I would shuffle into a brand new class and realize that, once again, I am the only Asian in the room. Although, I am a self-professed outlier and did consider the possibility of being different even before I stepped foot on campus, lack of shared experiences between friends and peers have become somewhat of a shortcoming, especially when it comes to discussions over readings and recent events.
Slowly, I had to relearn that being different is not so much of a curse as it is an invaluable asset. Perhaps you will find yourself in these situations and instead of fretting, let me assure you that being the odd one out will get you far in life.
Rather than retreating into your shell, share your coveted knowledge to the class. For instance, as a freshman I took a class on Children’s Health in a Multicultural Context in which we read a book about the Hmong people. Although I did not know much about the Hmong people in particular, I was familiar with where the tribe is often located, such as Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. As the only Southeast Asian in the class I had the upper hand on most of the discussions and felt a strong connection to the material, which speaks to the experience of seeking medical help in a foreign country.
Remember that everyone enters the field carrying their own baggage and treasures. Sometimes we are at a disadvantage, whilst other times we lead the race. However, to determine our vantage points often appears more challenging than identifying our flaws. Here are some tips that might come to use during times of solitaire.
- Review the reasons why you got into the pond in the first place. Before jumping into any pool, we have to meet its requirements. Look through the applications that you sent in and any evaluations that you received from the college. If not, meet with the people who are in charge of your acceptance, such as the Dean of International Studies and Dean of Admissions. Speak to your boss or professor for feedback. Knowing how these people benefit from your participation would point towards a better understanding of the things that you could improve. In addition, these people may indicate aspects of yourself that should be abandoned or fixed.
- Advice and evaluations will be handed to you right and left, just like I am doing right at this second. Look over these handouts, before taking action. If someone’s suggestion bothers you then chuck it out. That applies to all the information that is available to you, including this article and everything else that is in the palm of your hand.
- Make concrete decisions. Self-consciousness for being different might point towards low self-esteem or high insecurity. Whatever it might be, avoid ruminating unless these fears impair your daily function. If you are uncomfortable in a class for being that strange student and someone is deliberately making passes at you, talk to your teacher or find another class that might be of equal interest and of more convenience. This applies to strategies for improving your assets. If you are well versed in a particular subject, conduct an independent study on it to attain extra points. Or offer your services to your professor, who might be working on a project pertaining to your special expertise.
- Be yourself and be proud about it. Friends were often dumbfounded by the things that I say about Indonesia, whether it is about the availability of chauffeurs or nannies, or the fairly peaceful relation between different races and religions. Remember that you are the expert. If someone looks confused, explain as best as you could until he or she or you lose interest. Own your weirdness and use it to your advantage.
Being the odd one out can be both disturbing and satisfying. By having control over your treasures and trash, you are able to value the unlikely information that you have. Trust me, your friends and professors will appreciate your perspective once you overcome your fears.