Stranger in a familiar land

Someone once asked me if I truly belonged in Shillong. At the time, ten year old me said “Why wouldn’t I belong?” But then, time and life would end up making me doubt that answer. I say this because though I was born in beautiful Shillong, I never grew up there. It hardly mattered though. It never made a difference to me as a child. No matter where I lived, home was a small town of pine scented air, gentle rolling hills and love that knew no bounds. Perhaps, I romanticised the idea of going home because growing up an outsider in a different land is not easy. Changing schools and unfamiliar languages only made it harder. Because I did not “belong” elsewhere, I desperately believed that I belonged in Shillong.

My memories of my hometown were largely based on long summer vacations spent playing cricket with my cousins or reading Enid Blyton till I ran out of books to read. This held true till the year I turned thirteen. I had stepped into the new world of adolescent curiosity and burning desire. One of my greatest desires then, was to move back home where I belonged or at least I thought I did. After my first day in eighth grade, I went home and convinced my parents that the school I was at in Bengal was no longer enough. I needed to go back if I was to excel and with longing eyes, I persuaded them to let me go.

My parents thought it would not have been fair to rob me out of the experience of living among my own, a place where everyone knew my language and I did not look so different. So, I set out to finally become the ‘Shillongite’ that I thought I was meant to be. It is almost comical in a cruel way how high expectations can prove fatal and heart breaking to a young impressionable adolescent. In fact, too high of expectations have never been good for anyone at all. I soon learnt that I was a fish out of water even in my own water.

As a child, I struggled with being from the North-east. Other children would ask me why I spoke Chinese but did not look Chinese, the most common question being, “Are you half-bred?”. Most people asked what Khasi was when I explained that it was the language that I spoke. Some would cough and laugh.

“Khansee?” *cough* *cough*

I don’t believe most of it came out of racist or ethnocentric attitudes. Rather, it came largely out of ignorance. But, it was hard nonetheless. I was alien in my own country. That is why, I desperately needed to go back to my own land. What broke my heart was that, even there, I was alien in my own way. The plains had made a hybrid out of me.

I should never have expected an all-girls school to be made of dreams, especially for the strange “new girl”. The hardest hit for me was that I could not connect to the people. For the first time I felt like I was strange not because I was born elsewhere or spoke a different language, rather, I was strange because of who I was. The large majority of my new class were exactly like me (so to say). They dressed like me. They looked like me. They spoke my language. But I was not one of them.

I ended up living three years of my life with them. I became the Shillongite that I had wanted to be and somewhere there, I found that while the place is beautiful for all there is in it, my identity could not rest on it. I was a stranger in a familiar land. Somehow, the things the others spoke off, their shared experiences, their perspective on life, the way they did things, everything was strange to me. In the beginning, I tried hard to fit in. I tried to be like everyone else but it failed me miserably as my insecurities and shortcomings got the best of me.

But it wasn’t all bad and gloomy. Experiences are life’s best teachers and so it was my experience of trying to assimilate and conform that taught me that belonging was far from fitting in. I never could fit in but I learnt that I belonged. That understanding came out of an uphill journey that taught me that relationships and people are more important than places. I found best friends from the strangers in my own familiar town of dreams. I also found best friends from unfamiliar cities of strange languages and stranger customs. I learnt that it’s never the place that determines whether or not you are home. It is the people. Places are like paper, relationships are the stories that are written on that very paper.

I struggled with my identity for the longest time but now, I understand that my strangeness could indeed be my strength. As I move on, wandering through life, I learn that I can belong if only I open my eyes to see beyond culture and into the human heart. Perhaps I will never truly fit in anywhere, not in the way that someone else with a life different from mine might have. But, I have come to know that not fitting in like everyone else is more than okay. Fast forward to my life now, having moved out of Shillong and having experienced newer and stranger lands, I know now that I can be proud of my people and where I am from while also learning to live and enjoy my time as a stranger even in my own country. Different is after all beautiful.

  • Originally published in Orchid, the journal of the North East Society of St Stephen’s College
  • Photo – https://thecaptainpolo.wordpress.com/author/thecaptainpolo/

 

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