Embracing “Otherness”

“You are the white man!” shouts the young boy walking next to me in his school uniform, a huge grin on his face. As if they’ve rehearsed daily for this exact moment, the group of boys and girls trailing us start to chant in perfect chorus “White man! White man! White man!”

“Actually, I am a white woman,” I respond.

A brief silence and then, “You are a white WOMAN!”

“White woman! White woman! White woman!”

Ugandan village kids’ grammar lesson for the day? Check.

In case it wasn’t clear from the exchange above, I am a white woman. And I’m not one of those white people with an “olive skin tone” and dark eyes who can sit for hours in the sun and then laugh about how my skin turned a little bit red and I should really be less silly with the sunscreen next time. I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, sit-in-the-sun-too-long-and-I-lose-my-top-layer-of-skin white woman. Currently living in a village in Uganda. I guess you can say I’m somewhat of a novelty here.

People often ask me why I love spending time in the developing world when my appearance makes me stick out like a sore (and very pale) thumb. Although I believe in the importance of using street smarts to protect yourself while traveling in a foreign country, there is little doubt that the way I look increases my chances of being the target of interactions ranging from the amusing (“You are the white man!”) to the annoying (paying higher prices for goods and transportation) to the disturbing (getting mugged a few times over the years). So why on earth do I continue to travel to developing countries like Uganda, where the idea of “going incognito” is laughable?

The best way to explain my philosophy is to give you an example.

In March 2010, shortly after I had moved to Bangkok to teach English, civil unrest broke out around the outcome of a recent political trial. Literally overnight, the “Land of Smiles” became anything but, with thousands of protesters camped out in Bangkok’s version of Times Square. At first the protest was peaceful, but over the weeks it began to devolve into violence and chaos. I was living right at the border of the protests, and one morning I decided that I had had enough. I quickly packed up my things, got my security deposit from the front desk, and planned to book it in a taxi to a friend’s apartment. The only issue was that cabs were no longer traveling to my street as it was so close to the violence. I would have to walk through the chaotic crowd of protesters with all of my belongings in order to get to safety.

With my head down and wearing my best “Don’t f*ck with me” face, I charged ahead through the crowd to get to the closest street that taxi drivers deemed safe enough to drive on. I could feel the throngs of protesters staring at me, a blue-eyed farang (“foreigner” in Thai) who was crazy enough to stumble with a huge suitcase through the mid-day masses. I was an “other;” an alien who had obviously found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One step at a time, I made it through the crowd and jumped into the safe, sweaty confines of a cab. We sped to my friend’s apartment in the financial district of Bangkok, where I lived for a couple of months until the city was secure again.

Was it a dumb idea to drag my suitcase through a violent mob? Absolutely. Do I recommend doing the same thing if you find yourself in a similar situation? Probably not – just call the embassy, for goodness sake. Was I twenty-two when I did this? Yes, so please forgive me.

But I will say this: eighteen months later, when I walked into a New York City high-rise for a job interview at one of the top public relations agencies in the world, with a university degree and work experience that had absolutely nothing to do with the job in question, I did not feel nervous or afraid. Sure, I was an “other” here too. But I had been an “other” many times before, and in much more terrifying ways. Instead of trying to hide it or pretend that I was someone else, I embraced my “otherness” and got the job.

Whatever your version of “embracing otherness” is – whether it’s traveling to a foreign country or simply going to an unexplored part of town, I encourage you to try it. The beauty of the world is that we are all “others,” with so many things to teach and learn from each other. Instead of shying away from the unknown, why not put your head down and charge straight into it?

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