Outside in – Perspective of a Perennial Outsider


I love Trevor Noah, or the new Jon Stewart as you may know him. That dimple of course. The witty observational humor. Most of all, I see in his comedic material the perspective of an outsider. A perspective not seen often in mainstream culture. There was this one episode of the Daily Show where he dissected yet another one of Donald Trump’s maniacal tirades during his campaign run. Does nobody else see, Noah asked flabbergasted, how much Trump sounds like an African dictator?! The idea of comparing the President of what its own citizens consider the most progressive country in the world to leaders in what many consider the “third world” tickled me to no end.

In his book, Born a Crime, Noah talks about his experience as a mixed race kid in post-Apartheid South Africa. Specifically, he tells the story of how he as a mixed-race kid didn’t fit into any group. In secondary school, where cliques often formed based on the likeness of skin color and socio-economic class, he found membership in no clique. Reading about his experience, I realized why I had always had such a pull toward Noah; I recognized his purview of an outsider within myself.

Between kindergarten and 12th grade, I had been to nine schools across six cities in four countries. The feeling of being an outsider has been as much a part of me as my hair’s untamable frizziness. My middle school years were spread across three countries; it started with me realizing I would never be as good at Math as the Chinese kids in Singapore in sixth grade, sitting out all sporting activities in Australia in seventh grade since I hadn’t learned to play lacrosse growing up and struggling to pick up a brand new language in India in eighth grade. Along with spending those pre-adolescent years dealing with the usual concerns of changing body proportions, recognition of the opposite sex as the cause of my future demise, all set to the background music of Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls, I was learning to navigate whole new cultures and ways of life.

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in school. In eighth grade, all the kids in my class would wander off during lunch break with their cliques. Being new, I spent lunch eating alone but I knew better than to put a spotlight on myself eating alone where all my classmates were hanging out. So I went to another floor and took cover with a group of fifth-grade kids instead. The plan worked well until one day my younger brother walked by with his gaggle of boisterous friends and found me sitting alone with the lunch our mother had packed for us that morning. The look of horror and embarrassment on his face banished me from that floor forever.

Before you start feeling sorry for this poor, friendless adolescent, let me assure you, it wasn’t all bad. Sure, always being the new kid got old. But it taught me a lot. At an age where most kids think they are at the center of the universe, I had a razor-sharp sense of the world around me. I picked up nuances and cues like a trained assassin. I went on to study psychology in college and graduate school because God knows I spent enough time in my childhood dissecting behaviors and deciphering intentions.

As the new kid, I played the role of the researcher who silently watches animals in the wild, sifting through the details — verbal and non-verbal — for patterns.

I became a researcher the minute I entered a new world. It starts with the observable tip of the iceberg — accents. When I was in Singapore, I would tack on la at the end of every sentence, “How are you doing, la?”. In Australia, I replaced the la with a mate. In India, I learned to casually drop Hindi words into English sentences to sound local. When I moved to the North Carolina, I hit find and replace on all the Queen’s English vernacular in my speech with American-isms. I was now taking elevators instead of lifts, living in apartments instead of flats and asking for wadder instead of water. Colours became color and flavours became flavors. While it might have taken someone else years to amalgamate these differences, at 15 I was somewhat of an expert anthropologist picking up these cues swiftly and efficiently. If I only had a year or two at school, I had no time to waste starting to fit in.

I was always thankful when there was a uniform because at least I didn’t have to develop a whole new wardrobe, something I was honestly quite terrible at. But when I moved to the US in the summer of 2001 a couple of months before I started my junior year of school, I spent the summer pouring over fashion magazines, piecing together my wardrobe carefully. I picked out a pair of dark wash bootcut jeans and a blue button-down shirt that I had bought at Target for my first day of school — an outfit carefully picked out so no one at a glance would recognize that I was literally fresh off the boat.

It wasn’t like just changing my accent or clothes necessarily helped me fit in; it just helped me not stand out. Even as an outsider, I was invisible enough not to be seen as that. Noah says, in Born a Crime, “Since I belonged to no group, I learned to move seamlessly between groups.” And in fact, that starts to become a comfortable feeling. That feeling of not belonging, of not having to adhere to any one identity as your entirety.

I wasn’t a band geek or a computer nerd; I wasn’t a cool girl or a jock. I wasn’t even a loser; I was just new.

Being new is just a contextual clue but it doesn’t tell you much else about me. I started to find comfort in that identity because I usually got to leave before the newness wore off and people really got to know me. As Noah points out so correctly “As an outsider… you don’t ask to be accepted for everything you are; just the part of yourself you are willing to share.”

At some point starting in my early 20s, my desire to fit in morphed into the desire to never fit in.

Maybe I had learned it was a losing battle; that I could do everything under my control but at the end of the day it was up to the group to decide if I belonged or not.

In contrast, I felt more in control of the choice not to belong — anywhere. I imagine it to be the difference between the guy who tries too hard to impress on a date with the guy who plays hard to get. I replaced the vulnerability of a newcomer with the enigma of an international spy.

In 2011, the US government decided I had lived here long enough to apply to become a naturalized citizen. Until then I had held on to my Indian passport, giving me some sense of connection to where I was born even though the years I had spent outside the country was starting to get longer than the time I spent there. The thing about getting my American citizenship though was that I had to give up my Indian passport. When I got the letter in the mail that I was scheduled for a citizenship interview which tested whether I knew the longest rivers in the U.S. and when Thanksgiving was celebrated, I was torn. To everyone around me, it was a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t I jump at the chance to be an American citizen? But for me, it wasn’t that simple. I felt like my life and identity as an outsider was coming to an end.

For the first time in my life, I was being asked to consciously choose where I belonged and it wasn’t a choice I was ready for or even wanted to make. I had gotten too comfortable not belonging anywhere.

But now, by pledging my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, I had to admit I belonged there, or at least a part of me did.

The silver lining is that I have 50 states to choose from. Now at 32, I have spent the last seven years as an American citizen living in New York, Chicago, Florida and San Francisco. To anyone who asks whether I am running from the government, I tell them I get cabin fever and I just have to move.

But really, I want to leave before my outsider status wears off and I have to say I belong. In that sense, it probably isn’t that different from running from the government.

I get to assume a new identity every couple of years and start over. I was fast-talking subway-taker in NYC and a craft-beer-drinking, Cubs-game-watching Midwesterner in Chicago. And in case you are wondering, I am an outdoor-loving, healthy-eating, meditating, tech-loving yogi in San Francisco.