“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.
Check out Jenny’s latest post, about her birthday, here. Mom will post tomorrow here.
I agree, living in different cultures can do a lot to help us see others as people, not just weirdos, if we live with humility and respect. We don’t live in a Mennonite community anymore, and while that has shaken my identity in some ways, I also feel a greater sense of who I am and a greater compassion for the people around me.
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I meant to write “a truer sense of who I am”. 🙂
A well written post, about a real subject!
You put a lot of my thoughts into words! Excellent article.
I, a young Mennonite woman, have went through the college setting, and now work in a very non-Mennonite setting. I too have seen so many Mennonites go into the college setting and end up leaving. I have always felt that one reason they ended up leaving is because depending on your personality, it can be very hard to always be different. I am an outgoing person, and I thrive in new settings, challenges, and differences, but even I find myself at times wishing I could blend in more. Wishing I would just be another person who is not constantly treated differently because of how I dress. Thus I can see how easy it would be to ‘give up’ on always being the different one…
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thank you for the lightbulb ! I loved the paragraph of “the idealogies that dont mesh with each other”. I think thats a perfect example of why some Mennonite churches find it difficult to include people from other than Swiss German cultures. they are willing to include as long as people acknowledge that being Swiss German is what God intended us all to be. Oh they might not SAY that but thats the implication. and if someone doesn’t follow all the traits the favorite phrase is ” oh they haven’t’ been taught right” again implying its not necessary to listen to anything else the person says. That clears up a lot of why I had the issues
Thank you Emily. I experience this every day. Not only at college but also at work. It’s nice to hear someone else who gets it.
Great article! I’ve never gone to college but live in an area with very few Mennonites. Where our neighbors and friendly walmart people assume Mennonite = born a saint 😉 and wonder if there really is secret mophia amoungest us. I’m so thankful for my many non Mennonite friends who took the time to know me and my kids, that they embraced the “strange one”.
Thanks for sharing. I don’t know you and I also don’t know why your blog showed up on FB for me, but I too feel very different and not really apart anywhere. I feel out of the loop in Mennonite circles mostly because I wasn’t born Mennonite and became Mennonite at the end of my first college degree. So, not only do I have the whole college thing separating me from many people but also the fact that I think and see pretty much everything slightly differently and not necessarily because I’m trying to be difficult but because I can’t actually ever see through the same eyes as someone born into the subgroup itself. I will never be a typical Mennonite (I wouldn’t actually want to be, so it’s ok) nor can I address the non- Mennonite world around me like I could before either… Thus, somewhere stuck in the middle. Which is typically fine with me but I sometimes get a little lonely and misunderstood. I work in a completely secular environment and thankfully my current co workers accept me and even my students are non critical of it, although it is often a point for jokes and comments. I’m glad that some people are able to go to college and retain most of their originalness… That they can be unmoved in some of their views… Although I’m pretty confident you can’t stay the same. I’m glad for people who are willing to make that jump and see some value in the non-Mennonite world because there is some. I also like feeling like I’m able to identify somewhat with those people 🙂 So, it’s been nice to meet you and I’d love to hear more about your journey. Maybe you could email me sometime if you aren’t too busy (which I’m sure isn’t ever haha). Have a blessed day and may you be a light where you are… Not an overwhelming one but a comforting and useful one.
I would love to sit and visit with you! Then there’s the whole marriage question-feeling too Mennonite for the non-Mennonite guys, and not Mennonite enough for the Mennonite guys. I was born and raised Mennonite, did the college thing, joined a non-Mennonite church but kept looking like a Mennonite, then married a Menno and re-acculturated. Whew. There’s so much in this post with which to identify!
Grin. I am reading this 20 minutes before meeting three of my dear college friends for dinner. And yes – so many of your words resonated with me. I loved my professors, my college friends, my co-workers… but I too am so pleased to be a Mennonite and LOVE (almost pridefully so) my heritage. 🙂 I enjoy challenge of embracing the good in the cultures I interact with.
“Maybe I can get to the place where I view everyone else as a person before I see them as different.” Yes! I love that.
Your observations and conclusions resonate with me. Growing up with a dad who joined the Mennonite subculture as an adult and who always nurtured my intellect, from pretty young I was observing life through a different set of eyes than many of my peers. To our many non-menno family, friends, and acquaintances, we were strange, perfect, quaint, and/or fascinating. In the menno world, I was never quite compliant, restrained, or tame enough. Although I don’t feel like I fully fit in anywhere, I’m OK with that– it reminds me that this world is not my home, and prevents me from placing my value in what others think of me. I value both my Mennonite roots and my early exposure to realities outside this particular subculture. And I quite enjoy the challenge of breaking through the awkwardness and the assumptions others may have about me because I choose to remain in this subculture, and becoming a real person to them– and hopefully in the process, they encounter the real Jesus, not some “untouched snow” certain of Him.
Amazing. So much like me, I could have written it. Except for the college campus bit. But everything else
Oh I’m so happy you wrote this. I wish I could have read this when I was much younger and trying to figure out why I never felt like I “fit” in the Mennnonites, having come into the culture/church with my parents as a child old enough to struggle with all the changes. Having changed Mennonite groups several times as an adult, till I arrived at the BMA conference, and having adopted special needs children, including one with a high level of needs, has further served to heighten at times my sense of not fitting in ANY WHERE fully. It has made me long for heaven more than I ever would have thought possible. I am simply different, and as an “older adult” I have learned to accept that–maybe even embrace it–and enjoy the wide variety of cultures and people I am around. Maybe that is the healthiest even if it’s not always the most comfortable?! Bless you, Emily!
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This was a wonderful post, and sums up how I feel most of the time. Very well written. I could definitely relate to this!
Having grown up as a conservative Mennonite in a Central American culture, I was blessed to have the TCK thing going on in every direction, whether I was in the US or in CA. I was an adult before I figured out that as hard as it is to feel like I don’t fit in anywhere, it really is an advantage to know how to conform to cultures around me, even when it’s not one I’m familiar with.
And then I discovered that most people don’t feel like they fit in completely, not even that teenager that grew up in one community and still has the same group of friends that went to first grade together. I guess it’s a very human trait to feel like we’re just a little different from everyone. At least I have three cultures to blame that on and not just my own quirks!
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As a Christian we have to remember that while we live in and are part of the world we must realize we need to make sure that we are God’s shining light such as we are the one influencing our “secular friends” and not our “secular friends” influencing us. Stay strong and let God’s glory be your ultimate priority!
To a certain degree I agree, in that pleasing God should always be priority, and I should never ever compromise that in order to “impress” my secular friends. On the other hand, I have found that God teaches me things through my secular friends too. I think it’s prideful to think that secular people cannot offer us anything or teach us anything useful.
I didn’t go to college, but I’ve arrived to the same state of limbo via different means.
Though my family comes from a long line of Anabaptists, we were away from the Mennonite church for about 4 years beginning when I was 17. During that time we formed very close friendships with non-Mennos who were very solid Christians. In fact, I met my first real best friend during that time.
Since then, my family has gone back to a Mennonite Church, but our thinking is much more open than it was before. Sometimes it feels like we’re still on the outside looking in; seeing all the inconsistencies and petty differences that we were to close to before.
To further complicate things, I married a non-Mennonite and we go back and forth between our two families’ churches. At one church, I feel like a shallow, legalistic Mennonite, at the other, I feel like an outsider masquerading as a Mennonite.
But even though it’s been hard at times, I know that God has taught me so much with everything He’s brought me through and through the people He’s brought into my life. And I wouldn’t trade it for a ‘normal’ life.
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