Have You Ever Felt Like an Outsider?

Have You Ever Felt Like an Outsider?

Have you ever felt like an outsider, or as if you just didn’t fit in somewhere? Maybe it was at school, on a team, with a group of friends, in a public place or even in your own home?

If so, what was it that made you feel different? Was it your race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality? Maybe it was it your economic status, political views, religious beliefs, nationality or language? Perhaps your ability, cultural values, personality or interests? Or maybe it was something else entirely?

What was that experience like for you? In general, did you enjoy standing out, or did you find it challenging?

In “On Being an Outsider,” Christina Thompson writes about her children’s experiences of feeling like outsiders because of their mixed ethnicity:

Before I had any children of my own, I spent a decade and a half living in places where I was an outsider. While I never lost the feeling of estrangement that comes from missing basic cultural cues, for me this was a period of great liberation. I loved the freedom that being a stranger gave me. I loved the fact that people were unable to “place” me and that I was also largely free of preconceptions about them. …

When we began having children — three boys in seven years — I was excited by the idea that our kids were going to have a complex identity. It would begin simply with the way they looked. My husband is dark, I am fair, our children are a range of in-between. They all have dark eyes, dark hair, neither curly nor straight, and skin that is light in winter and goes brown quickly in the sun. Ethnically speaking, they are quite difficult to place; over the years they have been mistaken for Latino, Iranian, Turkish, Pakistani, half-Korean, half-Japanese.

I loved the idea that our children were ethnically ambiguous. I saw this as their passport to freedom and viewed our boys as citizens of the world. I wasn’t sure how long it would take them to understand it, but I was confident that the rich complexity of their ancestry would become apparent to them in time. It never crossed my mind that it could be anything other than a bonus. …

Our three sons are now grown, and it recently occurred to me to ask about their experience of being hapa. Some of what they told me came as a surprise.

One of my sons described his childhood in terms of being “culturally unmoored.” “We were like expats,” he said, which, in fact, we were for much of his early life.

But it was a feeling that stuck, even after we moved back to live with my family in Boston. He always felt that we were different from the people around us, an experience he likened to being “not quite a native speaker.”

He conceded that being different was in some ways an asset, in that people were interested in him, but also that “it makes the game harder.” When you’re different, he said, you stand out, regardless of whether you want to or not. “Not everyone is suited to it,” he observed.

This was certainly the case for another of my sons. “From the first day of school,” he told me, “I felt different from my classmates.” He described this as a “slightly bad feeling” and said he’d been bullied, something he’d never told me before. For him, difference was not an advantage, it was a burden, and his looks, which are somewhat exotic, were “a card you could play but don’t really want to.” He, too, acknowledged that this exoticism could be an asset, but it was not one he had ever wanted and the price he’d had to pay for it was steep.

My third son had an entirely different take. By the time he was in middle school, he told me, he had recognized that being unusual gave him a social advantage. “I knew it was something that was cool,” he said. He told me that he got a kick out of the fact that people couldn’t pronounce his surname (something that caused his brother endless misery) and observed that the social cred effect had only increased with age.

And in “Some College Students Choose a School Where They Don’t Fit, on Purpose,” Kyle Spencer writes about college students who purposely attend colleges where they stand out:

Amir Goldberg, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, who studies outsiders inside the workplace, says being an outsider can cause culture shock. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

“If you have support, that shock can be translated into an advantage,” he said.

That was the case for Jonah Shainberg, a fencer from Rye, N.Y., who is Jewish. When he was accepted to Notre Dame, a football-heavy Catholic university in Indiana, his mother balked at the idea.

“I’m not sending my Jewish son to Notre Dame,” Mr. Shainberg recalled her saying. He was also skeptical.

But once he was there, Mr. Shainberg, who graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, discovered something about himself he had not totally understood before: His faith was central to his identity.

“I think Notre Dame made me more Jewish,” he said.

For Elyse Hutcheson, 21, the opposite was true. Her time at Hillsdale College, a Christian college in Hillsdale, Mich., helped her get in touch with her views on reproductive rights, immigration and social welfare programs.

When she arrived, she said, “I knew I wasn’t a conservative, but I didn’t know I was a liberal.” By her junior year, she had re-energized a defunct club for campus Democrats and realized she was agnostic.

She graduated this year with a degree in psychology and art and took a job as a research assistant at Brown University, a liberal-leaning college in Providence, R.I.

While Ms. Hutcheson admits it’s a relief to now be around like-minded thinkers, she says fitting in comes with its own pitfalls.

“I don’t want to become complacent because the ideas I have aren’t being questioned anymore,” she said.

Students, choose one of the articles to read in its entirety, then tell us:

— Have you ever felt like an outsider somewhere? What made you feel different from the people around you? What was that experience like for you? How do you feel about it now?

— Have you ever purposely put yourself in the position of being an outsider somewhere? Why did you do it? What did you learn from the experience?

— In the second article, Nikki Bruno, an admissions coach in New Jersey, says being an outsider isn’t for everyone. Students should have an “adventurous spirit” and seem particularly confident before she would suggest an environment that is outside their comfort zone. Do you have that “adventurous spirit”? Do you prefer standing out or fitting in? Do you thrive when you are around people who are more similar to you or different from you? Why do you think that is?

— If you had the chance to be an outsider somewhere — say, to live in a foreign country or attend a college with people who have very different beliefs than you — would you take it? What do you think might be gained from doing this? What do you think would be challenging about it? Over all, do you think it would be a positive or negative experience for you? Why?