Over the past 8 years I’ve worked as an English teacher, a social worker and a yoga teacher and have been fortunate to work in many different countries including Palestine, Thailand, Turkey and India.
I’ve always found myself in work where I interact with the locals daily, taste fruit I’ve never seen before, try to learn snippets of their language (emphasis on try!), go to their local concerts and parties and weddings… and always stand out like a sore thumb.
When I think back to the work that I’ve been doing and the places I've been, I realise that there is an ongoing theme… That no matter where I go, I never really fit in. And no doubt there are others out there who feel the same.
I wanted to share a few little moments when women have helped me to learn the joys and struggles of not fitting in…
My nomadic journey started as an English teacher. I am very lucky to speak a language that many people around the world want to learn. And I acknowledge this privilege and the ease with which I have been able to work and travel abroad as a teacher.
Working as an English teacher in the West Bank in Palestine, we sometimes had interpreters with us in our classes. I worked with this young woman who interpreted for my lessons with kids. One day, I remember walking back to the centre from our class and she turned to me and asked, why do you foreigners always cover up so much? I was surprised to hear this question and responded by telling her that we wanted to be respectful, to be sensitive and considerate of her culture, religion and way of life... and she laughed.
Although I still stand by dressing in a culturally sensitive way and learning at least a few words of the local language, this really made me think -
Sometimes, the more we try to fit in, the more we end up standing out…
A few years later I found myself in India (again), this time working with survivors of human trafficking. I’m going to say this was the hardest “home” I’ve ever lived in for too many reasons to name here.
One moment really sticks in my mind though when I think back to this time… I worked a lot with a young mother of two. Her eldest daughter, who was 2 years old, wasn’t well at the time and one of my roles was to accompany the family to the public hospital to meet with doctors on a regular basis. I was working with a local organisation so there was no funding... so we took the bus. One day on the way to the hospital I was carrying the oldest girl, she was a small 2 year old, but 2 nonetheless. We were on a local bus and needless to say it was busy! So I was standing, holding this little girl. when another woman on the bus, a stranger to me, offered to take her and sit her on her lap.
My response - no way! I shook my head politely and continued to struggle away, holding the girl, trying to balance, while my arm was going numb. I justified my decision (and still do to a point) because I was being a cautious social worker - this child was in my care and I wanted to protect her. But ultimately, this moment highlighted to me that in the West we are so individualistic - this is my responsibility and mine alone, no one else can be trusted.
In societies like India, they are collective. They work together, even when it may not seem like it from the outside. They support each other. They raise children as a community. So I not only didn’t fit in because of the colour of my skin or the dismal number of Tamil words I spoke, but my very outlook on the world clashed with those around me. — The lesson? Well firstly, how much do we lose by being overly cautious? And secondly...
How could it be that the thing that made me not fit in, was my lack of trust in my fellow humans?
I really struggled in this role for so many reasons. And at the end of my time in Chennai I found myself quite lost, but I learnt a lot from this experience. One thing that I took away was the absolute need for self-care and a seriously solid work/life balance.
Fast forward another 2 years and I was living in beautiful Istanbul, working with a local Turkish organisation delivering dance movement therapy programs to Syrian children. And again, here I was, not fitting in… not because of the colour of my skin or the language barrier or cultural differences but because of my hard line on self-care and work/life balance.
I loved this work and I adored my colleagues but I bumped heads with the top women in this organisation when I started to say no.
No, I won’t spend my pay pack on a smartphone.
No, I won’t be available 24/7.
No, I won’t work overtime (unpaid) every single day.
And I began to realise just how much I didn’t fit in there. I ultimately left this organisation. I didn’t fit in because I wouldn’t do what everyone else was doing, but...
by not fitting in, I stood true to who I was and what I believed in.
A couple of years ago, I started my own business, called Camino for Social Change and now I’m a yoga teacher here in Berlin. I am still a social worker at heart and I specialise in yoga for teenagers and survivors of trauma.
Running a “business”, I find myself faced with three major challenges (and a multitude of other little challenges!) on a daily basis. I don’t have any answers to these questions, so I wanted to pose them to you all...
My first major challenge...
How do I run a business when I don’t fit in to the business world?
How do I run a business without being a business woman?
I have tried and tried to find my place in the world of entrepreneurs - I’ve volunteered at start up conferences, tried out co-working spaces, been to meetups - but I never feel like I fit in.
I thank my interpreter in Palestine for reminding me that the more I try to fit into this world, the more I’m just going to stand out anyway.
My second major challenge...
How do I embrace collectivity?
How do I work in a pretty solo, often isolating job while learning from those Indian women (and other collective communities I’ve been privileged to live and work with)? How do I live in a way that feels really inclusive and collaborative when this often doesn’t fit with the ideas I grew up with in the West?
My third major challenge...
How do I maintain a healthy work/life balance when my work and life are so interconnected?
Well, thanks to those strong women in Turkey for challenging me to really know who I am and what I can tolerate, I know I need to stick to what I believe is important. I need to set boundaries. Even if this means that I don’t fit in with those around me. Even if they are the ones writing my pay check.
So I want to leave you all with an invitation... not to shy away from the places where you don't fit in, but in fact to boldly step forward into those places. Because ultimately...
This is where we learn, where we grow and where we connect.
Adapted from my talk, Between Two Worlds: The joys (and struggles) of not fitting in at the International Women's Connection Networking and Lightning Talks event, hosted by Kontist on 31 May 2018 in Berlin.