By Eunice Tan
Everybody is tossing around the soccer ball, passing around quips and teasing jeers. I stand solitarily by the sidelines.
It’s okay. I’m fine.
They’re talking about the football competition last week. I have no idea what that’s about.
Everything’s okay. I feel fine.
There is an invisible wall between me and the crowd. They share smiles, jokes, and experiences, and I… do not. To them, it’s like I don’t… exist.
I’m okay. I’m totally fine.
… I wish I was.
In the car on the way home, I do not know if I am mad or… sad. I probably am both. I repeatedly instruct myself to stop feeling affected by the troubles of fitting in here. I tell myself: “I do NOT care.” But the fact that I tell myself that so much is because I do care… a LOT. I care so much about every single petty interaction I have with those around me, but the feeling is not mutual– because for me, I have entered a totally different new world, but for them, I am just an insignificant, forgettable, unnoticeable speck in their familiar world.
These are the words I have been telling myself these past two months, and sometimes, I still do… because in a way, it is true.
“You’re going to America? You must be so excited!!”
Yes, I was and still am! Coming to America has opened up opportunities for me and helped me move on from past unpleasant events, and I am so thankful for coming here. God is so gracious to us to give my parents the opportunity to study in seminary here and for blessing us with a supportive church. But today, I would like to focus on an incredibly big part of transitioning into a completely new environment: The problem of fitting in.
I am NOT trying to be a downer, and I am NOT putting on a pity party, but I am just doing what I’ve always strived to do as a writer: Being honest. So, here’s my unfiltered experience as a Malaysian who just moved to Charlotte, NC.
Having attended an American online school, The Potter’s School, (where my fellow TPSers at, ayyy), for the past 7 years or so and because I had visited America multiple times, I already had a relatively good understanding of American culture coming here. Hence, I did not have a huge culture shock at all. However, what “shocked” me, or proved a bigger struggle of adjustment for me, was the community.
When I first arrived, people were extremely friendly, as they always are! I received countless “hi”s and “welcome”s! People’s smiles and encouragement put me at ease and made me feel welcome. However, after the first meeting, I was gradually forgotten, and the people around me returned to their old cliques. I felt like I just faded into the background. Of course, there would be the occasional “how are you” conversation and “where are you from” conversation and the all-too-familiar “how can you speak English so well” conversation, but after the surface-level formalities were taken care of, I was dropped. I told myself not to be so self-absorbed and not to always expect others to speak to me first. So, I initiated conversations. However, 8 out of 10 times, I would get a minimal reaction: a half-hearted smile, a one-word remark, and turning away. The words crept into my head daily: “Nobody is interested in me. Nobody wants to be my friend.” Then, I would think: “Stop being so selfish!! Always thinking about how others don’t talk to you and feeling bad about it! Who are you to blame others for your loneliness??” But no matter how “selfless” I tried to be, nothing seemed to work.
This shocked me because I thought Americans were generally friendlier. But, I failed to realize that many times, there is an expiry date and a lack of depth to that friendliness. In that way, I guess I had wrongly stereotyped Americans, as many of them have stereotyped me. Smiles and encouragement are handed out like candy, but genuine interest in others is in short supply. Most people do care but they simply are not aware of the need to take proactive steps to establish deeper connections. There are very kind, sincere Americans, just as there are very kind, sincere Asians or whoever. But this, in my observation, is the primary social interaction issue in Western culture–where friendliness is an obligation but deeper relationships are overlooked. The opposite is true in Asian cultures. People may not smile or encourage you as immediately and directly, but over time, mutual interest and relationships are established gradually. I learned that different cultures have their different social shortcomings. Regardless of culture, lack of interest in reaching out to new people is not an American or Asian problem, but a human problem.
Although it hurt that hardly anyone around me took the first step toward the new Malaysian girl, I thought to myself that maybe the only solution is to take the first step myself–a step of uncertainty, anxiety, and nervousness–but a step forward nonetheless. As mentioned earlier, 8 out of 10 of my self-initiated conversations would not go anywhere, but… that leaves 2 in 10 that did.
Intentionally taking more initiative, I pushed myself to talk to a girl in my speech and debate class, and unlike my other failed tries, we really clicked! She was extremely nice, and with an internal boost of courage, I asked for her email. We have been chatting since, and we’re currently organizing a board game meetup for fellow homeschoolers! That was my first step forward.
My second step forward happened in musical theater class a few weeks ago. I said “hi” to a quiet girl next to me, and she responded enthusiastically. We have been hanging out ever since, and I really enjoy her company.
As I reflect on my experiences over the past two months, through prayer and conversations with my parents, I am reminded to be thankful, patient, and secure. I am thankful for my family and God’s mercy in giving us the simple things and just the opportunity to come here! I am learning to be patient in waiting for the season when I’ll be able to build close friendships. And by God’s grace, I will become more secure in my identity which is not rooted in my geographical location or the community around me but in my adoption into God’s family as a child of God.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” – 1 John 3:1a ESV
If you are part of the community which is welcoming somebody else new, please be the one to take the first step toward them. NOT just by saying “hi” and asking the initial “how are you?” and “where are you from?” questions, but by sincerely desiring to get to know them better because you are genuinely interested to get to know and continue to get to know them on a deeper level. Because, as a person who dived headfirst into a totally new place, it is very, extremely unnerving and frightening to take the first step. Maybe not if you are a more outgoing person, but to tell the truth, I am not. And most new people aren’t. So, save them the agony.
Many times, we are simply just unaware of the need to reach out or we ourselves may be afraid and unsure of how to approach the new person. If that is the case, try to take more notice of them and make yourself available to them. Don’t be intimidated because the new person is probably just as nervous as you are! On the other hand, sometimes we are too preoccupied with our own lives to take interest in newcomers. In other words, we all need to stop being so self-absorbed. I, for one, am highly guilty of leading the me-centric life.
Self-centeredness is the primary thing that stands in the way of exploring and understanding other cultures.
Stop looking inside of you and noticing only your own needs. Open your eyes to look outside of you and notice the needs of others. And don’t just notice those needs, take actions to meet them.
Putting your relationship with Christ first is the first, most important step to sincerely love others.
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” – Rom. 15:7 ESV
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” – Phil. 2:4 ESV
Two weeks ago, I walked into the Third Grade Sunday School classroom as the new Assistant Teacher. With playful smiles and gleeful giggles, I was welcomed warmly by energetic young boys and girls. They innocently but sincerely asked me: “What’s Malaysia?”, “How do you say ‘stupid’ in Chinese?”, “How do you say ‘hi’ in Malay?” and many more hilarious questions. When I told them “good morning” in Malay is “Selamat Pagi,” a girl incredulously replied, “… Salami Pizza Guy??” And since then, I was never able to correct them. “Salami Pizza Guy” has become our special greeting every Sunday! As rudimentary and silly as it seems, it mattered that at least some people were interested in a new person from a new culture they’ve never heard of before, even if they are gibbering, pizza-loving third graders.