I had a fairly good childhood. I was bullied a bit in elementary school, but as far as bullying goes it was pretty mild. In high school I became sort of a floater. I wasn’t really popular. I didn’t get invited to the “cool” parties and the in- crowd didn’t spend much time noticing I was alive. However, I wasn’t really unpopular or “weird” either. I mean I was weird, totally weird, but bullying wasn’t a huge issue in my school and I wasn’t that kind of weird. I had groups of friends from a few different cliques, but I never really felt like I fit in 100% to any of them. Although I was generally liked, I felt a bit like an outsider a lot of the time. This feeling intensified as I struggled with depression and grief. When I developed asthma I inched a bit further outside of that “normal” range. I thought I understood what it meant to be the one that didn’t fit in. That was until I moved to Mexico. Now fitting in has taken on a whole new meaning.
Jay and I are definitely the odd ones out in Mexico. We don’t fully understand the culture, the way things are done, and most importantly the language. Everyone here has been patient and understanding as we muddle our way through grammar and vocabulary, but it’s still very clear that we are considered foreigners. It’s hard to explain the feeling you experience when you are trying to express yourself in a foreign language. You know exactly what you want to say and it sounds as elegant as fuck in your head, but when it comes out it sounds like a garbled mess. You feel stupid. You sound stupid. Do people actually think we are stupid?
When I joined the gym here in Cancun it initially brought out a lot of emotions. I was proud of myself for being healthy. I was anxious about being thrown into an atmosphere where no one spoke English and I would be forced to learn. I was happy that I was getting back into something that I hadn’t done in a while. After a couple of months I mustered up the guts and started going to fitness classes. At first everything was great. I made my way through the classes by watching closely and using context clues. I started picking up some of the language the instructor used and I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself. And then, one day, the instructor started doing group work. Bleh. The first time we were in large groups and I didn’t really notice anything. But overtime I began to notice that people kept their distance from me in class. Mostly during group work, but even during the aerobics part, the area around me was just a tiny bit bigger than it was for everyone else. I understand. They know I don’t speak Spanish well and they are trying to avoid an akward interaction. Intellectually I get it, but emotionally it hurts, just a little. How am I supposed to get better if no one will practice with me! I’m not sure I would have been confident enough, even 6 months ago, to go back to a place where I am avoided week after week.
Last week I injured myself (mildly- but stupidly) while at the gym and someone came up to me to ask if I was okay. Not only did it make me smile to have someone approach me like they would a Mexican, but I responded in the moment exactly the way I would have if I spoke Spanish fluently. I CAN form basic sentences on paper, but when something happens suddenly it’s human nature to revert back to what you are most comfortable with. So, usually, when someone speaks to me randomly and without warning my autopilot kicks in and I answer in English OR I freeze and it takes me so long to get a sentence out that they give up/switch to English (if they can). This was the first time my brain thought in Spanish BEFORE English and it gave me hope for the future.
I thought I knew what it meant to not fit in or to be singled out. I’ve always sort of felt that way. But living in a foreign country with a foreign language has given me a whole new appreciation for just how hard it is when you can’t communicate or interact in the same way as those around you. There are many people who deal with this on a daily basis with no end in sight. It takes a lot of courage to keep on keepin’ on in this way. So next time you see someone who is different, struggling, or uncomfortable, make the effort to be kind and helpful. It’s a small gesture for you, but it might just make that person’s day.