All the diners had arranged themselves roughly in the centre of the restaurant, except for one table.
Sitting in the furthest corner away from any other diners and under a loud TV was a family; two parents and their adult child who had an intellectual disability. They were distinctly separate; removed from other diners.
Now, humans are fairly predictable. We follow well-worn paths. We clump together. We struggle to be random, even when we try to be. For example, you can tell if someone has fudged their expenses because they will often include numbers ending in a zero or a five.* Yes really. Don't get any ideas! (*Is this where I enter my disclaimer?)
I admit that there may be a myriad of reasons why this family were separate (other diners had since left or they liked the TV? etc), but I couldn't help but wonder if they'd removed themselves because of their son?
And the minute I write that I want to correct it.
Not because of their son, but due to a fear of how people might react to them.
We naturally want to protect ourselves. Who wouldn't?
I know too as a gay woman, how much my own public behaviours are modified to remove any chance of being hassled, stared at or jeered. You self-select your protection measures.
Insight 1: DISCRIMINATION can create ISOLATION on route to PROTECTION
So you don't say anything, but you feel guilty. You feel guilty because what does it mean if I don't say anything? Does it matter? Well, yeah, because it's like I'm hiding. Does that mean I'm uncomfortable by my family's difference? No. I'm just scared about how I will be treated. I want to be open, but if I'm completely honest, I worry that..... And so the thought cycle goes round and round. It's exhausting.
I have a friend who works internationally in the developing world and travels a lot for work. Picture rural areas, broken pavements, pot holes, footpaths covered by market stalls, animals lying in your path, stairs not lifts etc. She clearly impressed them in her interview as she got the job. The first they knew of her wheelchair was when she entered the interview room.
Now, imagine that. Really imagine that.
Think of the emotional energy that goes into removing the chance for discrimination.
The excitement you feel at getting an interview takes a hit when you imagine the potential discrimination and previous experiences of 'not suitable for the job'. You try to work out how much it matters to you; whether or not you want to ask for the disability assistance that's available for the interview. NO, let's remove all chance of discrimination and just turn up. This protects you emotionally whilst holding the uncertainty of how it will be received. That's all before you even get to the interview.
That's a lot of emotional energy that could be redirected into more positive things.
Insight 2: INCLUSION removes wasted energy and creates a sense of BELONGING.
I'm not sure that people who are resistant to diversity realise that inclusion is going on all around them. They just don't see it.
And in many way they're not meant to. It's not for them.
It's a bit like a hidden code - only seen by those who can read it.
For example, my wife wears a sunflower lanyard when we go through airports. It shows staff that she has a hidden disability and might need assistance. A Rainbow flag sticker on a cafe door shows me it's a safe space. A Rainbow badge worn by the nurse and doctor in the UK's National Health Service tells me I'm seen.
These visual cues are so important. We all know to be careful walking near someone with a white cane. It is no effort for us, but makes the world of difference to that individual.
BUT, we still need to listen and not assume that we understand the code. We all speak different emotional and observational languages..... and if we go back to those *fudged expenses (*ahem...insert another disclaimer here), we need to remember that we struggle to be random. Based on our own set of cultural and social reference points, we tend to assume that our own observations of an individual's behaviour equals that person's intentions. Mostly, it doesn't.
I suspect that we've all stomped along that well-worn path of human predicatibility at some point in our lives.
Insight 3: ASK FIRST - Always! and FOLLOW THEIR CUE
The woman approaches. I now see she has britle bone disease. I'm hoping she goes straight past us and doesn't see us. But of course no, she pulls up, right next to us to also cross the road. The five of us in a row, waiting like peas in a pod - sandwiched together between two traffic light poles.
Angie and I stare straight ahead, trying to act as though wheeling a rubber man around in a wheelchair is normal. Mind you, he's quite life-like so people often don't realise that he's not real.
And then I see her.
I see her slowly turn her head to look at Ichabod. The look of surprise is palpable.
She opens her mouth to speak.
I wait, worried.
And then in a broad Glaswegian accent she says Aye, and there I was thinking I was the special one! before laughing uproarously.
I'm fairly sure I then embarrassed myself by chatting to her waaay too enthusiastically. My relief burbling out with freaky friendliness.
It is also safe to say that I didn't 'style it out' particulary convincingly.
But I didn't care. She showed me how to 'style it out' like a pro.
Thank you Glaswegian woman. You taught me well that day.
A bag of oranges here. A packet of dates there. A box of biscuits.
Different food groups, but all the same within their collective packet.
It's the reason that supermarkets, haven't offered (until recently) imperfect fruit and vegetables. We like symmetry and we like to lump together.
We like to lump together when it comes to people too.
We do it with nationalities. We do it with gender. We do it with religion. We do it with..... well, everything.
It's easy isn't?
But have you noticed that we only do it when our words have derogatory intent?
When was the last time you heard someone say,
Oh that's so typical of women to be amazing at juggling family life and work?
Typical men, they're so good at raising their kids.
We lump together and generalise when we want to slag off or have our misguided judgements confirmed.
Oh yeah, but that's not always the case I hear you say.
I wouldn't say that because some guys aren't great at raising their kids.
You're right, They're not, but I challenge you.
Do you afford the same positive variations and distinctions when generalising in a derogatory way? Do you say, Ah, typical men! or do you pause and say, that's so typical of a certain type of man?
Generalising Isolates and Incites Hate
I've seen it. It's not pretty. In fact it's horrid.
Social media is not kind. Faceless 'warriors' influencing and creating fear against certain people. Massive generalisations.
Transphobia. Xenaphobia. Islamaphobia...to name a few.
Inclusion and Being a Friendly Face is Not Hard
It's not till you see someone else's every day, that you realise the reality of why we need to reach out.
On one of my last trips to the USA I was standing in a slow security queue at an airport. People were starting to get irritated at the delay. The security team were being extra thorough on one person. A muslim woman and her 3 year old child.
People smiled as he played behind her, leaping onto anything he could climb, but at the front of the queue you could have cut the air with a knife. The security guys were doing their best to be polite, but there was a massive elephant in the room, stomping down the conveyor belt.
I swear I heard it blow its trumpet, at least twice. Once when they insisted on putting the woman's bags through the scanner for a third time and again when they offered to repack her now completely jumbled bags. She fought back tears as she grabbed her bags; all her belongings falling out. No, I'm okay. I'll pack them myself, she said, clearly desperate to get away from the public spectacle.
It was awful to watch. We all knew why she'd been stopped, but no one said those words.... Muslim woman.
A few minutes later I was in the toilets and realised she was there too.
By now she was crying too. She leant forward to hug me. There we stood in the bathroom, two strangers in tears, hugging each other.
And the incredible thing...?
I spoke to her to give her comfort, but in reality she gave me comfort. That experience of 'other' was new to me. THAT reality check of someone else's life.
How is it that we've got to the point where the victim is the one who reassures the privileged? And because they are so used to being treated as 'the other', it's become their normal.
That frightens me.
I do not want to live in that world.
I'm the first to admit that I get jealous. Not always, but it's there.
I even hear the words, 'Why am I not doing that?'.
In seeing family doing something exciting whilst I'm at my desk or seeing a friend enjoying sun, as my windows rattle violently with the wind and rain, my mind wanders to imagine what else I could be doing.
I feel kind of vulnerable admitting this, as though it's some sort of failure, but I often want to be somewhere I am not. I crave external stimulation and excitement. I want to be on the go, travelling and I thrive when I am.
BUT, over the years I've also learnt 3 Valuable Lessons.
LESSON 1: People don't post the hard truths of their lives.
We project our 'best lives' - a manufactured identity. We post the activities and experiences that leave us in a positive light. Unless we want sympathy, we don't post about our financial woes, fighting with your partner about their parenting or your worries about whether you and your kids can cope emotionally with the next 2 years of your partner's global job.
We know that much of social media is a modified truth. The activities being posted are real, but they are the skimmed down, cut and paste version of life. It's sometimes helpful to remind ourselves to see them for what they are.
LESSON 2: Having a great holiday doesn't exclude people from having had a sh*t year.
You might want the wonderful holiday your friend is enjoying and posting about, but do you also want the difficult year he's endured?
When you don't see someone's day to day struggle, it's easy to not appreciate their reality - and the very real need for a much-earned holiday. We don't see the struggle so it hasn't happened. We don't see the hard work that goes into a tough year. We don't see the tears, the anxiety, the frustrations. We see the celebratory times posted online and it's easy to slip into jealously and wishing we were there too.
See your many blessings.
Cherish that your friend is getting the break he deserves.
LESSON 3: The grass is not always greener
I love the expression, 'the grass is always greener on the other side'. In thinking there's something better than our current situation, this attitude could be mistaken as being a good motivator to improve one's life.
BUT, it can sit within a context of comparing one's life to another's, wanting more without being grateful for what is, and forgetting that wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
It's a disruptive state of mind.
It leads to regrets.
So, next time you feel yourself wanting to chase something greener, consider two of the key things that matter to us most, here at Drawn to a Story:
You are who you are and your sense of belonging begins within.
I like to think that you've had a jolly good apprenticeship at being you (whatever your age).
Now is the time water the grass and become the 'best you'.
I know that you know everything I've already said, but I also know that when I'm tired at the end of the year, I'm not at my best.
I'm guessing that you might not be too.
* There'll be those of you who have not bought a single Christmas present yet. (No judgements here, that's usually me!)
* Some of you are having everyone over for Christmas Day and you're in a mild panic.
* And if you're like me, I know some of you will be looking out the window at the cold weather and missing your hot 'home' country.
So, whatever your circumstance, remember.....
AND SO FOR DECEMEBER 2019
I CHALLENGE YOU:
But as Sundae Schneider-Bean, LLC advocates:
Love the crap out of your people! "
Keep them at the forefront of your lives. Look after them in the way that maintaining the steel girders of a bridge keep its users safe.
Maintain your steel girders too. You are the user of your own bridge.
Don’t let distance stop the connection. There are always ways to keep your friendships nourishing, meaningful and as close as they’ve always been.
I feel safe. I feel secure and I feel full.
Find your steel girders.
Love the crap out of them and your bridge will stand against the fiercest of storms.
It might become a little cracked and dented in places, but these marks bear witness to a remarkable story of how the bridge survived the Force 11 storm of....
[insert your month/year].
Have you ever thought, that what's a one day joke for you, may be somebody else's everyday of not belonging?
They may offer a smile in an attempt to be accepted and not offend your joke.
But what's going on inside that person?
Maybe their smile yet again covers the sudden desperate weight in their chest that comes with a 'joke'.
It's just a joke right?
Banter, we all love banter don't we? Yeahhh!
Watch the video and after you've watched it, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
In a few months time I will be speaking at the
Families in Global Transition conference.
It's mainly a conference for people who live a globally mobile life and the companies that operate globally.
A group of us who live in different parts of the world were looking at staying together. You know? Trying to work out how to save money and fit 5 people in a 3 bed place.
And the inevitable happened...
We started to joke about spooning. Well, you would wouldn't you?
It certainly kept us entertained on WhatsApp for an afternoon....
....and reminded me of nights travelling, four of you squeezed into the tiny spare room of the friends who'd kindly put you up for the night.
Dare I suggest the new hashtag #FIGTspooning?
But seriously, it got me thinking about FIGT...
The conference has a wonderful ability to make you feel like you've 'come home'. Rather than being the odd one out in your host country, everyone in the FIGT room understands the quirks and challenges of living elsewhere.
FIGT2018 was outstanding.
It allowed me to breathe again.... I had finally found my people!
And then, this morning and completely unrelated....
another friend sent me this picture below of a dog - its owner cleverly using a spoon to stop the dog from escaping through the fence.
And it was a decision that changed my life.
I now have a new group of friends whom I love dearly and communicate with regularly.
I met my best mate at FIGT.
It's been an amazing year of laughing, talking, soul searching and deep connection.
I've started new projects off the back of #FIGT18....and emotionally,
I'm an entirely different person.
I'm settled in a way that I hadn't been for a long time.
Going to the FIGT conference sparked something that has fed me deeply this last year.
FIGT really is a wonderfully diverse organisation that promotes cross-sector connections for developing best practices that support the growth, success and well-being of people crossing cultures around the world.
There's a reason FIGT goes by the phrase, 'A Reunion of Strangers'.
It's not just big picture and big companies. In fact FIGT is the complete opposite.
Rather, it's about creating rich personal connections that thrive across the vast distances that we all live from each other.
I'll be there this year again in Bangkok doing a Lightening Presentation and Living Elsewhere will be in the bookstore.
If you're wondering about whether to come, definitely do!
You never know where it might take you.
See you there!
I remember as a child thinking I was terribly clever asking whether Brazil nuts were just known as 'nuts' in Brazil.
Or asking what's 'Déjà vu' in French?'
We all did that right? As a kid? Silly games and playing with words as we began to learn about how to use them.
Back to the Brazil nuts though....
Apparently, they are not actually a nut (rather, a seed) and it turns out Bolivia harvests more of them than Brazil. And it's not just Brazil; they grow in other parts of South America too.
But it got me thinking about labels.
What narrative do you tell yourself about who you are?
How do others describe you? Do you like the words people use?
In many ways it could be argued that we need labels to help us to function as a society. On a civil level, it protects our rights and entitlements to services (health, housing, social benefits etc) and also allows us to prove who we are.
But what about the labels that aren't for government purposes? The ones which the newspaper touts as a headline like:
MIGRANTS take ALL new jobs in Britain (The Daily Express)
the Mail Online:
How they make YOUR lunchtime sarnie: Migrant workers use their BARE HANDS to churn out three millions sandwiches a week... I refuse to link to the Mail Online, so here's the Huffington Post article that discusses it.
These are fairly extreme examples, but they are real headlines from British papers. They incite hatred and provide a slow drip feed of hate and fear that isolates and demonises different sets of people.
And I hear you saying, "but that's the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. They're known for writing like that."
Yes they are, but those headlines filter down to local communities and become the accepted facts. Too often no one checks to find out if the headlines are actually correct or what their motives might be.
I thought to myself, 'but I'm not dark-skinned or Eastern European or any other 'otherness' that's deemed 'foreign' am I? I really wanted to say that out loud, but I let it slide as it was a new job and I was worried about being seen to cause problems. I've regretted it ever since.
Yes I am a migrant in the UK, but when does that descriptor become a label?
It comes when it's used negatively against you. A while back a friend asked me what words I'd use to identify myself. I surprised myself by instantly saying, 'red-headed Australian'. I wondered why and realised that at home in Australia this was a given. It didn't need to be expressed.
My experience in the UK has been quite different. I am the one that is 'not from here', and referred to as the 'foreigner', 'the 'convict', the 'red-head', the 'ginger', 'ginga' or the 'colonial'. I've been in business meetings where people have talked about 'drowning gingers at birth'. I've had people say, 'another bloody arrogrant Australian' when I've politely answered a question. Another told me that 'all Australians are arseholes' whilst someone else even looked at my ankle and asked 'where is the ball and chain?'.
It certainly doesn't make you feel welcome. I must point out at this stage that I have met many lovely people too and live in a wonderful community. The more negative comments are definitely not the majority, but they are said with enough regularity to have an impact.
For them it's a throw away line.
For me, it's my every week, sometimes my every day.
So you decide to try to fit in more to make yourself less noticeable, not as open to the passive aggressive 'jokes'. But you're unaware that you have every chance of losing yourself. Without really realising, you slowly chip away at the fundamental descriptors that make you who you are. I ended up not sure who I was anymore and where I belonged.
However, last week I heard the most wonderful talk by Dalia Elmelige, on Radio 4's Four Thought. Her story of being a Muslim in America after 9/11 was fascinating especially her comments about being split between 2 cultures - Too Muslim for America, but not Muslim enough at home.
WHY DO LABELS EVEN MATTER?
They matter for two reasons.
And to end....
Here is to more conversations.
I've been here over 11 years now. Am I still am expat? I don't have a contract that I know will end in 2-3 years and then I'll go home. I moved for love. My wife is British and I moved to England to live with her. So....lovepat it is.
So how does a one way ticket feel for a lovepat?
It's quite something to sit on a plane, having packed up your entire life and know that you're leaving home, but not know if you will ever return. I felt excited and enjoyed the feeling of the unknown, but I was also a bit scared and slightly unsure - was I doing the right thing?
But deep down I knew that I still had choices to return home to live if I wanted to.
But what if you can't go home?
I heard the most amazing play on BBC's Radio 4 this week. 'Minority Rights and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - The Fernhill Philosophers'. In it the Eritrean character - a highly educated man, who was unable to go home said, "Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live".
It's a powerful statement isn't it? 'Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live.'
Imagine living with that everyday. Imagine our friends in Syria who cannot go home as home no longer exists. Imagine the exiled LGBTQI person that will be murdered if they go home. Imagine knowing that you will never go home to all the people and places you hold dear.
It's beyond painful....
But exile is not just about people from other countries. Imagine feeling like you're in exile because no one understands you and your autism. Imagine the stress of trying to do your job well, but your dyspraxia plays havic with your ability to remember what your boss asked you to do. Imagine people always looking at you oddly because your muscles make you walk differently.
We need to care and support people. We need to ask them what they need, because until we've walked in their shoes we know nothing of their lives.
But we can listen. We can listen openly and with love, and we can see ourselves in everyone we meet. If we listen we start to learn differently and we also start to learn the similarities. I love the Vietnamese expression, 'same same, but different'. We are the same but we are all different too.
We are all a piece of the giant puzzle of humanity. No two puzzle pieces are the same shape, all rounded slightly differently, but I know that I can't make up the picture without another puzzle piece, and another piece.....and another, and another, until we all fit together; different, but each forming an integral part of the same picture.
We need each other.
Whomever we are - what ever country we come from - and whatever our abilities.
Sometimes we're that lone piece of the puzzle that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. We can't seem to find our way. But suddenly the piece of puzzle is turned around and with a shift in perspective there's a connection - a connection to another piece and another, and as more and more connections are found, the puzzle bonds together more firmly.
It's much like life and community. On our own we may feel unconnected and wonder how we fit into 'the bigger picture'. But start to shift perspectives and you start to see others more deeply.
You start to see the intangible layers, the personal stories in people's eyes, the body language that shows their discomfort, the way they eat food that shows a rich cultural heritage, the non-stop talking that tries to hide their nerves, the accent that makes them 'not like me' and makes them hide the other 5 languages they speak, the jokes they make so you love them, the respectful silence you take as shyness, the constant movement that helps them to focus, the clothing they wear with pride but you don't understand......the.....the..... The list is endless.
All I ask of you is to pause.
Open your ears and eyes.
Open your heart.
Be the shift in persepective.
None us of want to be that lone puzzle piece.
Despite the 'technical difficulties' of me not being able to hear or see anyone, I hope you enjoy it. It's certainly very weird talking to yourself, but definitely a hoot!
Any questions? Please post them for me in the comments below.
Drawn to a story arose from me venturing across an ocean, well, a few actually.
It was an adventure with expectations of wonder and a feeling that I was really grabbing at life. Moving from Australia to southern England seemed familiar in that I knew England well, having visited several times before, but I also felt a sense of something new and unknown, just as Jean Batten describes beautifully:
The opportunities and experiences of different cultures, of meeting new people, of trying new foods, watching different TV programs, learning new social 'rules' and local traditions, is incredibly enriching and enjoyable. However, it is also a particularly strange experience.
You naturally evolve. It’s a constant change, so subtle that you’re almost not aware of it – you use a different word here and there or the foods you start to hanker after shift slightly. And then you go home for a visit and you realise that you don’t quite fit there anymore....and you start to question.
Who am I? Where do I fit? What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to be British? or English? Complex thoughts and feelings running through me in ways I couldn't verbalise. At the same time I was very grateful for the conflicting thoughts as it's through this discomfort that the best thing comes.......personal growth.
I always been fascinated by stories and people and how people make meaning, how they cope with difficult experiences. As a young adult I thought I wanted to be a historian, but I realised it wasn't so much what happened that interested me, but why and how people coped...and so then I found myself in the hot seat...away from 'home' wondering how to cope with challenging thoughts and feelings around identity, culture and belonging. And it is here that this story begins...... picking up a pencil, and over the course of a year, creating a set of drawings that utlimately became a book about life 'elsewhere'.
But it's not just about me. It's about all of us who live elsewhere, all of us who love it, but also who are equally challenged by it. I am excited about having created Drawn to a Story to explore all our stories - to inspire, to support and to break down walls of 'the other', whomever that may be. After all our similarities are more than our differences.
Next time you meet a stranger, why not start up a conversation and find out their story? You might find that it's not too different to your own.