I recently contributed to a collaborative zine project between the Riso Pop riso print studio in Amsterdam (operated by Aafke Mertens) and US-based graphic designer Veronica Romero. This zine explores the theme of “self-identity as the ‘other’. Becoming comfortable with having discussions about race and culture and how that ties into how you see yourself, especially from unorthodox backgrounds”. Otherness is a concept that is important to explore, as it taps in to one of our basic needs as humans: the need to belong.
Though I have been seldom directly impacted by issues of race and culture, my experience of otherness has been very real. I hope by sharing my story, my contribution to the project, you can relate better with your own sense of "otherness", and maybe even embrace it.
Image credit: Veronica Romero, printed by Riso Pop in Amsterdam.
What I Am Not - Anne van der Giessen
‘Otherness’ is a difficult sensation to feel. As humans we are wired to seek a sense of belonging. Of sameness. Because sameness means safety, protection, survival.
But what if you are different? What even is different?
It took me almost 30 years of life to overcome this feeling of being different. Not fitting in. Not like the others. Feeling not good enough to make the cut. It has run as a consistent pattern for most of my life. The thing is, my version of different was connected largely to the stories I had running inside my head rather than something that was perceived externally.
I was a smart kid. Through school I achieved consistently high grades. A ‘B’ on a report card would be an anomaly which would likely be questioned at home. Not in a negative way, but inconsistencies always seem to pop out. I was an ‘A’ girl. Despite the name calling I received from the other students (“teacher’s pet”, “goodie goodie...”), I continued to strive and work hard to get these grades. Internally it meant a lot to me. In class I’d try to adjust, play dumb by never putting my hand up when I knew an answer and avoiding conversations about grades with my peers.
High school became a little easier as other bright students entered my circles and I wasn’t the only goodie goodie. But I still felt different. Was it my strange Dutch last name in the context of a public school in the Australian countryside? Was it the fact I didn’t have many friends and the boys weren’t interested in me like they were the other girls? Was it that my sporting abilities left a lot to be desired? Was it that my family was split while the majority of those in my peer group consisted of traditional two-parent households? I don’t know. But I always felt this sense of otherness. I was not like everyone else.
Through university I looked back on my challenges as teenage drama. I thought “I am not that different after all.” Many Australian universities are characterised by a beautiful sense of multiculturalism. There are many students coming from countries across Asia, some Europeans and some Americans. Ages range broadly. There were country kids. City kids. But everyone was on a mission to get their higher education. Perhaps to varying degrees of conviction... But everyone wanted to pass. Finally, I was the same. Because being different meant I fit right in.
As my professional career in financial consultancy began, those old struggles I used to feel as a teenager began to resurface. The otherness returned.
I took a job with a Big 4 accountancy firm in the city of Adelaide. Most of my colleagues were male. That was okay - I was used to having male friends. But the vast majority of these men had been through private education in Adelaide. They knew each other before working together. They had vast networks of contacts across the city. They were so well-connected that they seemed to form a fabric of familiarity and safety. Many even knew each other’s families.
Then there was me, feeling smothered by this fabric. Educated in the public school system. On an island (literally - I was born and raised on Kangaroo Island, located off the coast of South Australia). Barely any contacts in the city and certainly not professional contacts that could help to advance my career. Operating in this industry as a woman also began to accentuate my otherness. And the only thing which could help me retain the respect and cement my value in the team - ironically - was the intellect which had caused me to feel so different in my early formative years. Hanging on only by my ability to produce rather than assimilate left me seeing only what I was not. I was not part of the fabric.
So there I was, feeling like an island in my otherness. An island formed inside my own mind by the story of otherness that I told myself.
As the years ticked by and life blessed me with the experiences I needed, I found myself taking an opportunity to work in the financial industry in the Netherland. Almost as if I was pursuing my otherness - making it feel so familiar that it could not affect me anymore. Here I was, an Australian girl (albeit with a Dutch name), working in male-dominated environment, unable to speak the local language and having literally no network, no family, in this strange land.
I may not have realised it at the time, but facing my otherness in such profound ways over the years has brought me resilience and a broader perspective on life.
After more than a year out of the financial game, pursuing a new freelance career in complementary therapy and coaching, I have come to realise that my otherness, that I so badly wanted to push away, was always my strength.
Perhaps I never really overcame my ‘otherness.’ Perhaps I stepped into it. Perhaps the reframe and realisation that it’s truly those things which make me feel different which give me my power was the only healing I needed to embrace what I am not. Different doesn’t mean not good enough. Actually, it’s what I am not that makes me so unique and valuable in the way I show up in the world.
So, dear reader, though I don’t know you personally… I dare say the same is true for you.
You earned your seat at the table. With all that you are, and all that you are not.
If it doesn’t yet feel that way, have patience. It will come.
For more information or o purchase a copy of this zine, you can head over to the Riso Pop website.