On Living Awkwardly

When we’re young, we tend to think that we’re weird or awkward.  It’s just one of those constant self-conscious things that I know I went through, and I think everybody goes through at some point in his or her life – you know, the “awkward stage.”  Some of us don’t really grow out of that.  At least, I don’t think I did.  I’m just generally kind of weird (but usually in a good kind of way).

Or at least, I thought I was weird from time-to-time in America, and then I moved to Morocco, where I’m just a freak-show all the time.

Let me work on explaining that a bit better:

It’s kind of like in the television show “Quantum Leap,” where Dr. Beckett leaps throughout time “from life to life trying to put right what once went wrong.”  The fact that I’m about to even make this reference says a lot about how weird I am, actually.  Anyway, during the cold open of every episode, we find Sam has jumped into a new, awkward situation.  At one point, for example, he’s an African-American chauffeur living in the south circa 1955 ala “Driving Miss Daisy,” or in another episode, he leaps into a fighter plane he doesn’t know how to pilot.  Then, at some point, he leaps into a woman, realizes he’s a woman and nearly has a heart attack.  Like clockwork or some trademark of the show, we hear him say in every cold open just before the show’s theme song begins, “Oh boy.”  That’s my life in Morocco, because I also leap from situation to situation, and every moment is a kind of “oh boy” moment.  The difference is that I’ve yet to actually settle into those moments.  It’s always awkward.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t even occur to me how strange my life is here or how strange I am here.  But most of the time, I’m well-aware of this fact.  When our service began, David Lille, the Country Director, said something like, “Go and live wildly uncomfortable lives.”  I think I’m probably getting pretty good at that and not necessarily by choice.  I’ve been trying to describe this to a few different people now in emails, and I decided it was worth sharing on the blog with a story from the other morning.  I should add that this story isn’t all that out of the ordinary, even though it is incredibly unusual.

So, I’m sitting around with a few American volunteers at a cafe, and this guy walks up with a monkey.  Now, I should start by saying that this is already strange.  Yes, there are monkeys over in Azrou, in the forests there by the dozens, but this isn’t Azrou.  Outat El Haj is probably one of the last places you might expect to see a monkey in Morocco.  It’s in the middle of the desert, after all.

So, the guy walks up to us with this monkey and is like, “Pet my monkey.”  There’s an awkward phrase.  Then, of course, he’s like, “Oh, give me money.”  I should add that some of this is his broken English but mostly, it’s in Arabic.  We ignore him at first.  Then we ask him to leave, and that doesn’t go so well.  Finally, the waiter comes out and says, “May God curse your parents,” and the guy immediately leaves but not before using his monkey to hit some other guy who is sitting nearby.  Awkward, right?

That’s a pretty short story, but the point is that all of us in that situation felt incredibly weird.  There’s almost something silly to it, really.  On the one hand, there are things that happen to us that make us feel awkward here, solely because everything is so new and unexpected, but on the other hand, we also experience the “awkwardness” of difference, of being the only American people around for miles – something that literally does make us a surprising or shocking sight to people who might not be used to seeing (or have ever seen, perhaps) someone vastly different from them.

But there’s not necessarily something “bad” about feeling awkward, which leads me to an important point I want to make and something people sometimes miss or forget: feeling different is certainly a stressor; it’s not easy being “othered” or however you want to put that, and I can certainly empathize with people who have felt that way before.  That’s just Diversity training 101, right?

Still, there’s a sense of strength I gain from feeling awkward, too.  Being different can be empowering, and I think many people are starting to understand that the silent minority can always gain the majority when it speaks.  I think of how awkward I sometimes feel here – more awkward that I’ve ever felt in my life, and I do things everyday that I don’t necessarily want to do, having to navigate my awful Arabic (which is always incredibly embarrassing).  But after this, even though I’m sure I’ll still get embarrassed from time-to-time when I return to the States, I will no longer be able to make excuses to avoid the things I’m scared to try.

Moreover, despite the awkwardness, despite the things that sometimes scare me that I do here anyway, I can’t say that I’ve been happier anytime in my life.  I don’t really understand that yet.  Shouldn’t I feel the opposite of happy when I feel so strange and out-of-place?  Was I not really living back home?  Was I too… comfortable?  There are certainly things I did in America that made me happy, but there’s a general contentment I have here with being so out of touch with what I know and understand.  It’s something I hope to figure out about myself before this two years is up, but in the meantime, I encourage you, wherever you are, to do something that makes you feel completely weird until you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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