“People are nervous around you,” my friend Jonas told me once.
“What do you mean?” I asked, even though I kinda already knew.
“Did you notice how when you walked into the room, everyone got silent? It’s not because you’re a girl.”
“Is it because people are afraid of offending me? Because really, I don’t get offended that easily. I honestly think I get offended less than some other college students, because I expect that others won’t share my beliefs and values.”
“It’s not that,” he said. “It’s like stepping into untouched snow, afraid you’ll mess it up.”
I rolled my eyes. Good grief.
“I tried to offend you right away,” he added.
I think that’s why we became friends. I remember in the early days of our friendship, in the ROV club, when someone brought sushi to the lab and there was only one set of chopsticks. “It’ll be like were all kissing each other,” he said. “Do you want to kiss all us guys, Emily?”
I laughed awkwardly and thought that was a very weird thing to say, but at least I wasn’t untouched snow. It’s hard to become friends with people who treat you like untouched snow.
Maybe I only have myself to blame. Being weird, being different, is something that I’ve always felt, but it’s also something that I’ve curated in my life. Maybe to make me feel like a special snowflake. I don’t know.
Growing up I knew that being a Mennonite made me not “normal,” yet at the same time I didn’t seem to make a very good Mennonite either. I didn’t like singing. I didn’t like cooking. I didn’t like doing things just because this was the way things were always done.
Still, I fit in better then than I do now.
When I decided to go to college and also remain Mennonite–even more when I decided to immerse myself in college, making lots of friends, getting to know my teachers–I knew that I would be weird, but I didn’t realize that I was making a decision to never really belong anywhere.
When you are a part of two cultures* at once, to learn is to wrestle. To learn is to hear your professor state her opinions as facts, and wonder if anyone else in the room knows that there’s another, perfectly relevant, way to look at the issue. To learn is to cringe when you hear your preacher say something accidentally insensitive, knowing what he’s trying to say, and yet also knowing that if your secular friends overheard him they would get the wrong idea.
It’s kinda scary, when a Mennonite goes to college, because many people end up leaving. Is it college’s fault? Personally, the more I’ve gone to college, the more I appreciate my home culture. So why?
I think I now know a reason, though I’m sure it’s not the only reason. I think people leave because it’s hard to be constantly inundated with ideologies that don’t always mesh with each other. It’s easier to pick one and stick with it.
I am now fascinated by stories about people who are both and neither.
I am fascinated by people who have lived in multiple cultures, who understand the world in such complex and interesting ways, and yet will never truly belong to either culture. It’s why I think I will probably spend much of my life living in other countries and cultures. I want that complexity.
Yet at the same time, I know that this means I will always be different. Some people will always see me as different before they see me as a person.
Which is sad. But.
Maybe I can get to the place where I view everyone else as a person before I see them as different.
*Mennonite is a co-culture (or subculture) and not truly a separate culture, and yes I am aware that this cognitive wrestling would probably be much more intense if I was from two cultures that were completely foreign to each other.