I can’t remember where it was I read that one of the key elements to writing a ‘tween or young adult book was to make sure you had an awkward, relatively weird, outsider kind of protagonist. This made sense to me since teenagers, especially pre-teens, are all kinds of awkward. In fact, today we needn’t think any further than Twilight and its leading lady, Bella Swan, who embodies clumsy, awkward and weird all in one package. When I was younger, I used to be drawn to these kinds of characters as well. Deenie, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Blubber, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and of course, Anne of Green Gables, were all books that I adored when I was younger. I’d go to the library, check them out, read them, re-read them, take them back and repeat the process the following week all over again. I loved them because each protagonist was, in a word, weird. Since I considered myself to be weird too, reading about kids who were awkward and totally different from the norm allowed me to believe that I had a posse of like martians ready to hang out with me at any given notice. Books were my escape and my entertainment, more so than television or anything else available to me (which, let’s face it, was very limited). I was constantly fighting against being different and desperately tried to be “normal” like everybody else.
When we first arrived in San Francisco, I can safely say that I didn’t notice that I was different. My classmates were all different too. Some were Chinese, some were Korean, some where Russian, others Italian. I had a Mexican friend and a Filipino friend and I sat behind a red-headed boy named Billy in class who was probably of Irish-decent or something. We all attended Catholic school and as such, wore uniforms to school everyday. Because of this, no one noticed if someone had “cooler” clothes and the concept of “designer” anything just wasn’t our reality due to our age and our different backgrounds. Then of course there was the ONE thing many of us had in common besides this: being the first generation “Americans” growing up in a major city. When we went home, yes, some of the kids spoke English with their parents and siblings, but many of us went home and spoke a completely different language! You’d see the influences of our parents’ heritage in our packed lunches which ranged from PB&J to sushi to some kind of Chinese soup that was heavy on the cabbage. Sometimes you’d go over to a friend’s house and notice the traditions there: removal of shoes before walking in, eccentric, colorful art hanging on the walls, spicy cooking and the rich smells associated with it and multi-generational households that included the grandmother and sometimes even the great-grandmother! We lived in a city so many of us took the bus to school and as is the norm living in a city, many of us lived in apartments or flats, not always houses. And you know what? Because of this, I don’t recall any of my school mates and/or friends having pets.
To me, all of the above foster great memories of my childhood. I wasn’t weird because we were all “weird.” I wasn’t any different than my Korean classmate who removed her shoes before going inside her apartment and who brought sushi for lunch. Whereas I went home and spoke Spanish with my mom and ate “lentejas” for dinner, my Chinese, Mexican and Italian friends had their own traditions and day-to-day at home that greatly differed from my own. Such was the melting pot of my early years that soon took a nasty turn to dullsville Suburbia when I turned 14. It was at this age that we left San Francisco and moved to the Peninsula, 30 minutes south of the city. With this move came a change of school and a new chapter of my life that took an eternity to shake myself out of: weirdo martian from another country chapter.
From the time I was 14 to oh, about age 28 or 29, it was a constant battle to be considered part of the crowd and “normal.” I moved to Edward Scissorhands town and realized that the melting pot that had been my home for as long as I could remember, was no more. I found myself in a place, in a school, in a town, where every single person was “normal” and even those of a different ethnicity were, to the naked eye, diluted. I became self conscious of the fact that my mom didn’t speak English fluently. I was anguished like only a teenager can be over the fact that we didn’t live in a house like everyone else did. I didn’t grow up playing soccer so I immediately signed up for AYSO soccer and made a fool of myself trying to perform with non-existent skills. At 14 I had never shaved my legs because my mom never told me about it (in Chile people wax and she grew up always waxing, something she obviously thought I would do too once I was old enough.) All of a sudden I was the brown, hairy girl who moved from SF! No I didn’t have Guess jeans but realized soon enough that if I was going to be anybody at the new school, I NEEDED GUESS JEANS (is 14 too young to be sporting $80 jeans, anyone, anyone?) I didn’t even know about the GAP until I moved to this said Edward Scissorhand town and apparently, by the time I hit high school, it was the only option for my wardrobe. That and Eddie Bauer’s flannel shirts, what with the grunge thing in full effect.
I looked around and realized something that rang true in high school, college and some time after college as well. To be popular, interesting, solicited and listened to meant that you had to somewhat blend in and only stand out in the most traditional of ways. In high school this meant that I had to be in student government (all the cool kids were in student government.) It also meant that I had to be in drama but this only lasted through my freshman year and I gladly gave it up in lieu of the school newspaper (which incidentally, wasn’t “cool” by any means.) So I ran for Student Body Secretary my senior year in high school and lost to one of my classmates who was (and continues to be) Ms. Overachiever (actually now she’s Dr. Overachiever). That was a blow but thankfully, since I ran for a “big” office, I was given a pity prize and co-chaired something that had to do with school clubs (my co-chair was another popular girl, known more for her work in dance and performance arts.) I didn’t wear the right clothes, didn’t run with the right crowd (though GOD KNOWS it wasn’t for lack of trying!), didn’t play the right sports, I didn’t dance or do drama (which in my high school was the epitome of cool.) I did manage to break into Honors/Advanced English (again bc all the popular kids were in that class) and ONCE even pulled off the 2nd highest grade on a term paper (the highest grade went to Dr. Overachiever, I believe.) Still, I felt I had proved something to the “right” crowd.
By the time I got to college, I’d somewhat mastered the wardrobe mess I had when I first arrived at a public school and found my own style (or lack thereof). This wasn’t a major issue in college for me. The major issue was once again being the one “foreign” girl in a sea of … politely speaking, non-foreign boys and girls. Many grew up in suburbia, had a mom and a dad (dad was always a lawyer or some corporate executive and mom was most likely a school teacher) and I just had my mom. My mom who was a nanny, a great one at that, for a very successful, very wonderful family. No, there was no dad. No we didn’t take vacations to Tahoe every winter and summer. No, we’ve never owned an SUV. What was that? Was I going to Europe after graduating college? Um, no. I guess I could have done myself a favor and NOT gone out and join a sorority which only served to remind me how different, poor, weird, and non-mainstream I really was. Instead I DID join one, proceeded to binge drink to fit in, gain 15 pounds my first year at Davis, spend money I didn’t have on monthly sorority dues and pretty much drag myself through the mud trying to “be cool” and fit in with those I considered to be cool. That’s not to say or imply that people weren’t NICE. They were nice, actually. It’s just too bad that I was so awkward about being different that they couldn’t get to know me for me. It wasn’t their fault, it was mine. I assumed they thought I was weird and so I took that as fact and acted accordingly to try and fix it. The irony is that people who are NOW my good friends post-college are women who 1) weren’t in a sorority or 2) are the “cool” girls I wanted to impress who are more impressed with my weirdo foreignness than whoever it is I was pretending to be in college.
Life works in the kookiest of ways, really. Post-college it was through work, my career, travel and my accomplishments in the workplace that actually helped me shed all embarrassment for being different. I was given opportunities at a relatively young age that NO ONE my age had and that made me feel like a bad ass. I ended up working for a Japanese company and getting to know a culture that was a million times removed from both my own and actually LIKING and APPRECIATING it. It dawned on me that different was funky and I liked it. It also finally dawned on me that “normal” was so boring, I could die. Yawn. It helped that I was back in San Francisco (albeit for work only) and that I could once again be reminded that the melting pot existed and that I was a fabulous part of that.
The irony is this: I’m now living in Chile and again, I’m reminded with constant lucidity of how different I am. I’m a gringa in a Chilean world. I’m weird, I’m a foreigner and I’m not “normal” (what’s this about wearing open-toed shoes before October??!!! Owning a Bulldog? Not partaking in “once” and checking my blind spot when I drive?) That’s ok though. This time around in life I’m fine with it. I’m actually in the process of maintaining said weirdness, working off it and finding my place in this Chilean world. I’m sorry to tell you Chile, I don’t plan on playing the role I once did of fitting in. This is me, foreign and awkward, take it or leave it.