If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to be different, and not only meaning standing out from the crowd in a good way, then you probably want to tell your mum you’re moving out.
I think it’s the case that a lot of people have experienced difference, but are used to the other people being the ones who are weird. So they’ll go to Thailand for example, and coo about how different the place is, how strange the food is, how it’s dirty, how it’s chaotic.
But the fact is, in Thailand you’re the freak.
Unless you’re Thai.
That said, it’s fascinating that everyone pegs difference to what they see as the norm, and are quick to jump to the conclusion that their way of life is the best, or at least the least strange. And it’s for that reason I think people need to get outside their own comfort zone every now and then, if not only to see what other societies regard as the status quo.
Travel is the obvious panacea to this problem, and one I’m proud to see New Zealanders embrace with a passionate fervour. Again, if you’ve never experienced difference there’s a good chance it’s because you need to get out of the country for bit.
The trick though is not just to go to Bali and sit in a resort with other Kiwis and Aussies, but maybe go to someplace like East Timor, who really need the tourist dollars, and who are completely unused to the kinds of luxury you take for granted. Like regular work.
If you haven’t got the time and inclination to travel though, there’s plenty of diversity within New Zealand for you to get out of your shell. Which is just dandy. Mind you, this assumes that you actually want to know what it’s like to feel different, which many don’t, and more fool them.
I’m insisting on this one for a couple of reasons. First of all, unless you know what it’s like to be the different one, then you’re unlikely to have any sympathy for ‘aliens’ you encounter. And second, it’s just plain good for you to feel out of place every now and then. If anything, it makes it easier to feel closer to ‘your’ people.
There’s the danger of course that experiencing the rest of the world will just reinforce negative stereotypes and opinions about other countries and peoples, but if you use your experiences not to learn, but to back yourself, then, why bother?
Like I say, if you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone, there’s plenty of scope to feel alien right here in New Zealand. Hanging out with farmers always kind of freaks me out for example. Or just pick an Asian restaurant to eat in instead of McDonalds. But, for a more concrete example, read on.
Back in 1998, I started working at Auckland Coop Taxis to keep food on the table while waiting to head to Melbourne, and moved up the ranks from call booker to dispatcher pretty quickly. Not a bad job, although the money was abysmal.
The thing to note about the phone room at Coop is that there ain’t a lot of white folk. Other than the Manager, who was a very full-on queen, and a couple of Pakeha dispatchers, the whole crew was pretty much Māori or Pacific Islander of some description, and almost all women. Being a skinny white boy in that environment wasn’t too difficult, but was enlightening.
Naturally, the work was in shifts. Auckland does not sleep, I can assure you. There are a few classic stories, such as seeing a white person for the first time in days and my reaction. But my favourite is sitting quietly waiting for calls and overhearing a couple of the younger women talking about something on the TV.
The first one goes, “Hey, check him out…”. The second one goes, “Yeah… not too bad, considering”.
I pipe up, “You mean, he’s not too bad, for a white man?”
They turn and look at me and say, “oh… yeah, sorry Che, forgot you were there…”
Which is kind of flattering in a way, I guess.