I’ve never fitted in.
I grew up in the Seventies in a small village near Edinburgh – to a Scottish father and an Iranian mother. My siblings and I were always oddities at school, the darkest children there, exotic and unfamiliar. My seemingly fearless older sister bore the brunt of the insults that were thrown at us. I was shy and, for some reason, that didn’t make me a good target, but it was hard to hear some of the names she was called because of the color of her skin. And when she wrote ‘I wish I was white’ in one of her school workbooks, it felt very, very wrong to me.
We later moved to Canada where we were exotic not for our skin color, but for our accents. The school we went to was a mixed bag of races, but the way we talked made us stand out. I was often asked to ‘say something in British’ or teased (albeit playfully) for how I pronounced words like ‘moon’, ‘food’ and ‘boot’.
We moved again a few years later, this time to England, and once again we stood out for our accents, which were by this point almost Canadian. I was labeled an ‘f***ing Yank’ by cocky 14-year-old boys until my accent (driven by my teenage need to conform) morphed back into something less alien.
Over the years, filling out forms has been an interesting challenge. The kind that ask for personal information like ‘ethnicity’. There has never been a category for ‘Scottish-Iranian’. And that’s fair enough – I’ve only ever met one person, outside of my family, who fits this description. So, I’ve fiddled about with European/Middle Eastern, but generally I just check ‘Other’. I used to be irritated that I was left in this strange hinterland of a place, but these days it gives me enormous pleasure to be different.
That feeling started creeping up on me as an anthropology student at university in London. When I described my background, people were excited and curious. They asked me questions, and some expressed envy at my perceived exoticness. They seemed to want a little of what I had.
Today, being an ‘Other’ is like a badge of honor for me. I’ve put up with the jokes and the sense of not fitting in. Now I enjoy my misfit status. I like being an outsider. It has certain advantages.
I’m not limited by geographical boundaries. I can be a misfit absolutely anywhere. There is, after all, nowhere in the world that Iranian Scots can return to and call ‘home’, not in the real sense at least. Except the world. I’m proud of my brother who speaks Thai and my sister who speaks Japanese. I’m proud of my father, who, after my Persian mother passed away, married a Hong-Kong Chinese and moved to Hong Kong.
As an ‘Other’, I believe it’s easier to see both sides of debates. It’s easier to be flexible. I’ve always had to be. After all, I’ve been Iranian in Scotland, British in Canada, and a Yank in England. Sometimes I end up tied in knots over my open-mindedness, which morphs into indecisiveness, but in general I think it’s better to be confused than bogged down in preconceptions. I also have endless sympathy for underdogs, having felt like one for years.
These days I live in Los Angeles and have a daughter who is one quarter Iranian, one quarter Scottish, and half Russian/European American. It’s hard to describe her in any useful ethnic terms. She has friends who are Korean-Iranian, Korean-Guatemalan, English-Taiwanese, German-Polish-Guatemalan, and even Iranian-Indian-Native American-Irish-Swiss-Scottish.
Sometimes it seems like there are more ‘Others’ in her generation than there are non-Others. As she grows up, I know she won’t go through what my siblings and I did. There are just too many Others to be made fun of.
And yet, there are other ways in which Others are made fun of – for their sexuality, belief system, career choice, hair color or even nose size. The human race has a strange need to place people in boxes, a need that often tortures individuals for existing outside the box.
At the Academy Awards in 2015, screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) used his acceptance speech to urge non-conformists to ‘stay weird’. On the television show The Voice, recording artist and record producer Pharrell Williams openly pursues ‘Others’ in his choice of singers to mentor. The umbrella company for his many ventures is called ‘i am OTHER’. Angelina Jolie, perhaps the world’s most famous actress, regularly talks about being teased for being weird when she was young, and Justin Timberlake, at a recent award show, spoke about always feeling ‘different’.
I’ve created this blog as a forum for Others. As the world becomes increasingly ‘Otherly’, I want to celebrate what it is in each of us that makes us different and unique, through stories about individual Others. These stories should serve to remind us that it’s our differences that make us stronger. And hopefully they will inspire younger people who are struggling with their ‘Otherliness’ and haven’t yet made the connection between diversity and strength.
I believe wholeheartedly that difference motivates and generates positive change in the world. I hope you enjoy this blog, and if you would like to contribute to it, let me know.
* This blog post has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on Been Seen.