How To Be When You Don't Belong : Rough Translation Your stories and creative solutions to not quite fitting in.
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Boxing Back

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Boxing Back

Boxing Back

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner.

VANESSA LOPEZ: Hello, Gregory and company. My name is Vanessa Lopez (ph). I just listened to your episode on boxes and belonging.

WARNER: So many of you responded to our last episode about not fitting the boxes that people try to put you in. Vanessa Lopez sent us this story about filling out a census form and trying to answer the questions as best she could. So it starts when she gets to the question, are you of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?

LOPEZ: And I marked off Latino/Latina. I am first-generation Dominican American.

WARNER: And then she moves her pencil down to the next question about race.

LOPEZ: I don't refer to myself as Afro Latina or as a white Latina. Actually, I have a wide band of misfit friends. We refer to ourselves as RAW - racially ambiguous women.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOPEZ: And then I actually - I got a call from the census. And the census was like, excuse me, ma'am. We noticed that you marked off all the boxes. And I was like, yes.

WARNER: She says, yes, as in, yes, she fits many boxes. As a Dominican, she says she identifies with white and Black and native ancestry.

LOPEZ: I know that the story of what made a Dominican is a Spaniard, an African and a Taino.

WARNER: But the census officer persists in trying to get her to choose.

LOPEZ: They were like, if you had to just mark one box, which box would you mark? And I was like, I wouldn't mark one. They were like, well, if you had a choice, which box would you mark? I'm like, all the boxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The census allows you to check more than one box to identify your race. That started with the census of 2000. But to Vanessa, it seemed that this census taker who gave her a call was pushing her to limit her selection to just one.

LOPEZ: So it was a really funny conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOPEZ: The census person was, like, really perplexed. I stayed with all the boxes, by the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: On our last episode, we heard your stories of belonging or longing to just be. You told us the ways you've been misread or boxed out. But this time, you shared the ways you're boxing back.

SIONA: The most creative thing I can do is be loud, and I can take up space.

WARNER: We asked for your creative solutions to this feeling that you don't quite belong.

TERESA: When it's time to click a box, I see North Africa and Middle East is grouped under Caucasian, and I do not click that box, nor do I want to click Caucasian to identify myself.

SAUL: I used to pick other, and in the blank I would put human.

STEPHANIE: I kind of pause and blankly ask, why would you ask me that? You can also just do a - don't do that.

WARNER: And you told us about how you've carved out a space to feel more at home.

JIMIN: I realized then that I didn't have to choose between these identities. I could be all these things.

NADIA CHUNG: I don't think it's about where you are. In the end, it's about how you make yourself comfortable.

WARNER: Coming up, your life hacks, your strategies and more of your stories when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner, with more of your stories about your creative solutions to not quite fitting in. Nadia Chung reached out to us last year after she heard our episode about a young Chinese dissident trying to make asylum in Taiwan. Nadia was born and raised in Taiwan, but she told us it's a place where she's never felt at home.

CHUNG: The first time that I was sure in my heart that I didn't belong was when I was in kindergarten and I had, like, a "boyfriend," quote-unquote. And, like, everyone saw us as a couple, even though we were, you know, small. And then finally, I was like, oh, are you going to marry me when we grow up? And then he just looked at me, and he said, no, I would never marry a foreigner. It would be, like, the hugest insult to his family. And I was just heartbroken at 6 years old. I was like, why am I different?

WARNER: Nadia knew why. Her dad is a local from Taiwan, but her mom is a white American.

CHUNG: I have a different hair color, and my skin tone is different.

WARNER: When he told you, no, I would never marry you because you're a foreigner, did you break up with him?

CHUNG: Yeah. I had another boyfriend (laughter). And I decided never, ever to ask that question again.

WARNER: The word she was called, it doesn't just mean foreigner.

CHUNG: Laowai. Laowai means old foreigner, outsider. So I've always been called that all my life.

WARNER: So even as a kid, you were called old foreigner.

CHUNG: Yeah, yeah. Or they would call me the little old foreigner because I was little (laughter).

WARNER: As she got older, she realized it was more than just she was seen as an outsider. She remembers this one conversation with some kids in junior high.

CHUNG: So, like, kids were talking about, you know, girls, just like, oh, when'd you get your period? And then one girl heard that I already had mine. She was like, oh, my gosh. Like, I didn't know mixed people could have periods, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHUNG: Like, I didn't know you could procreate. And it's like I'm not a mule, you know? It's like, what?

WARNER: Nadia's mom was also called old foreigner, but she seemed to embrace the term.

CHUNG: My mom speaks virtually perfect Chinese. And for the past 30, 40 years, people in Taiwan would always comment on how well she spoke Chinese. But, like, when people say the same thing to me, it has an entirely different meaning because I grew up speaking Chinese. So it's like, what do you mean? It's like, I'm just one of you. Why are you telling me I speak good Chinese?

WARNER: And so when - at what age did you start to hatch a plan of escaping?

CHUNG: Grade school because things were a lot better when I was in the States.

WARNER: You would make trips back to the States as a kid?

CHUNG: Yeah, my mom brought my brother and me back to the Twin Cities basically every summer or winter. So she would put us in, like, summer school just to make sure that, like, we could - we're able to speak the language.

WARNER: No sooner did Nadia graduate high school than she left Taiwan. And she escaped to the most obvious place - to the country where she'd spent those happy summers and winters. She enrolled in the University of Oregon, but she barely lasted a year. She felt so out of place. And so her dad suggested she try college in a place which really did feel foreign to her - mainland China.

CHUNG: When I was in China, I mean, I went in feeling like I was an outsider, I was a foreigner. So I never minded any of the pointing or whatever. I think what you identify as really affects how you feel about the environment you're in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In China, Nadia discovered something that her mom had seemed to realize all along, that one way to feel like you belong is to expect that you won't.

CHUNG: When I was traveling, you know, I did a lot of thinking. That was one of the conclusions that came up.

WARNER: The conclusion would be that you would stop trying to fit in.

CHUNG: Yeah. I think, like, people who are looking for their roots, they're all just looking for a place where they would feel accepted, where everyone would just, like, like you for who you are. I don't really think this place geographically exists. In the end, it's about how you make yourself comfortable. For me, I think traveling makes me feel most comfortable. I just go to different places, and when I'm not happy, I move on to the next one.

WARNER: It's just so interesting that you feel most at home or most comfortable when you're traveling. I do relate to that. I feel, like, weirdly most comfortable when I don't fit in into a place. I've always wondered why. But when does that come up? Like, you feel like you could just get on a plane and leave, that's when you feel - I guess you have your exit strategy.

CHUNG: Yeah, yeah. I actually felt it most starkly when I was traveling in China, and that's exactly what I did. Like, I went to, like, a whole bunch of different cities in China. And if I liked a place, I would stay longer. If I didn't like it, then I would just get on the train, go on to the next place. And that was - that made me really happy.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: We did this interview before the pandemic had curtailed everyone's travel. We checked in on Nadia. She has been surprisingly content to spend her time in Minnesota. She's made her peace with staying in her mom's hometown and it feeling something like her home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: So many of you wrestle with the complications of being raised by an expat who did not seem to have the same need for belonging that you felt. Listener Lily Huber (ph) left us a voicemail with the opposite problem.

LILY HUBER: I'm a parent to a 4-year-old who holds four passports, and I hold two passports. Her dad holds two passports. And we now live in a fifth country.

WARNER: Lily's own father was a German refugee who always pooh-poohed the idea of national identity.

HUBER: He was just like, oh, whatever. It's like, don't trust anyone, just trust yourself. So I grew up without roots. And I'd like my daughter to have more roots than I had.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUBER: I don't want her to be as rootless as me. And so with a lot of the stories that you had in this episode, it was actually about people sort of talking about their parents. And I'm a parent now trying to figure out, in a way, like, in terms of national identity, what's the best thing I can do for my daughter?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: After this break, more of your stories, including one woman whose mother went to great lengths to try to give her daughter a national identity with some unexpected results - when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

Hey. We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.

So many of you talked about probing questions from strangers. For one listener, Stephanie (ph), this seems to happen all the time. Her voicemail had example after example.

STEPHANIE: Pregnant couples, pregnant biracial couples, multiracial couples, multiethnic couples with child will walk towards me smiling, which I find creepy. And my first instinct is to say, no, I don't work here. But they will ask, what are you mixed with? We're wondering if our baby will look like you. No, your baby will look like you. That is how it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEPHANIE: This has happened actually way more than you think it would. I had to tell another couple ambiguous people actually don't look ambiguously similar because this face is mine. You have yours.

Another example - the person bagging my groceries could not stop staring at me and then just had to ask, are you Lebanese? And I was like, no. Are you sure? And I had to say, I feel confident about my response, and yet you seem way more confident than I do. Remember, you don't know me. So, yes, I am sure.

Another example - an important visitor at my job asking me just directly, like a hello, this is my name, et cetera, and are you Mexican? I said no. My head was spinning a little bit because I thought, were you looking for someone Mexican? Did you need a Mexican person? I didn't know if I disappointed someone on a mission. I don't know.

So I guess in all these instances, I am so curious about the habit and the behavior because I feel really distant from it. I don't think I've ever walked up to a person and wondered about their face, just not in that way and not knowing them at all.

WARNER: At the end of the voicemail, Stephanie signs off with this question. Why do we even try to play this game of reading faces? And then, only at the very end, she states her own background, like it's the last thing she needs to tell you, not the first.

STEPHANIE: For the record, my name is Stephanie, she/her, born and raised in Houston, Texas. I'm currently in Seattle. I am Black. My parents are British and Caribbean, Jamaican and Trini. And I love your show, so thank you.

WARNER: This last story, it also comes from a listener from Houston, Texas - Chisara Iwuchukwu, who spends most of her time far from home in national parks and wildlife preserves. She gets seasonal work as what's called a biological technician.

CHISARA IWUCHUKWU: It sounds so fancy, but it's usually mostly just you taking tape measures into the field and, like, measuring the widths of rivers or, like, seeing what species of flowers are growing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This turns out to be the perfect job to have during a pandemic. It literally forces you outside and away from people. But the story she told us took place a few years back, when she had a job in eastern Washington State counting ducks. That was her job - counting ducks - which means getting surprisingly close to the ducks.

IWUCHUKWU: (Laughter) So sometimes, they just try to tuck their beak into the crook of your arm like they're trying to hide. If they hide their face, they'll hide their whole body.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: Like, if you don't see them, they're not really caught.

IWUCHUKWU: (Laughter) Apparently.

WARNER: All day, she's out alone with the ducks. And all evening, she's mostly alone because she has no friends out there.

IWUCHUKWU: Yeah, I'll be honest. That job was - it was pretty lonesome, that one.

WARNER: But then she hears about this writers group that meets right in town, and she's a writer. She likes to write short stories.

IWUCHUKWU: And they're meeting at a restaurant. So I went out there, and I walk in, and I see where the group is sitting, and I see that there's another Black woman there. And I'm like, oh, my gosh. Like, it was kind of like relief because I can't even remember the last time I saw a Black woman, to be honest, around here. And she seemed to react the same way. At first, we were just talking about generally being, like, the only Black people in this, like, area. And then she started talking about Juneteenth, and I was like, oh, what is it?

WARNER: And the woman just looks at her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IWUCHUKWU: She was like, how have you not heard of this? You're literally, like, from Texas. That was where, like, the last slaves were freed. Like, that's literally where it occurred. Pretty much the instant I made that fumble, it was like, oh, no - mistake.

WARNER: Chisara had to Google it - Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. It marks the June day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas were told that they were free. Chisara said she never learned about this because her parents weren't part of that story. They're immigrants from Nigeria.

IWUCHUKWU: Most of the Black people I knew growing up were all African immigrants or the children of African immigrants. It felt like a thing I should know but that I didn't have anyone to know it from.

WARNER: If you heard our last episode, you might remember this one listener, Doreen, who came to the U.S. as a child from Uganda. And she didn't feel that she fit in as an African American, but she also did not feel Ugandan either. Chisara's parents did not want her to feel that disconnect. They were Nigerian. They wanted Chisara to feel it, too. And so the summer before Chisara entered sixth grade, her parents sent her to Nigeria to live with family for a few years.

IWUCHUKWU: I felt like a fish out of water. Like, I did not fit in at all. They called me oyibo (ph), which is foreigner.

WARNER: Chisara didn't even feel like she could tell her parents how lonely it was.

IWUCHUKWU: I feel like any - anything negative of my experience would be taken as something negative towards Nigerian culture in general. I think what the trip did was it just kind of, like - I felt untethered, in a way.

WARNER: The trip that was meant to connect her to Nigeria - it left her feeling disconnected from Nigeria and from the States.

IWUCHUKWU: I basically had been plucked from my life for three years and then dropped back in. And after that, I was just not as tied down by really anything.

WARNER: And when she came back to Texas to start high school, she felt like she had missed a cultural step. The kids at school teased her.

IWUCHUKWU: I got called an Oreo sometimes, like Black on the outside, white on the inside.

WARNER: And she did not know how to answer them - until, she says, one day in school, she got her chance to show them her culture in a way that she actually felt good about.

IWUCHUKWU: So I had a Spanish class, and we were supposed to do presentations on our culture. So I was like, oh, I know what will be perfect - if I brought in my different Nigerian dresses. I was going to lay them all out in front of the class and lift them up and show them, have people come up and, like, feel the fabric and look at them up close.

WARNER: Can you describe them to me or describe maybe your favorite one?

IWUCHUKWU: I remember my favorite one was this two different shades of teal and, like, very intricate, repeating patterns all over.

WARNER: Each dress was one she'd gotten for a special occasion.

IWUCHUKWU: Graduations, birthdays, going to church, different things like that. There's a lot of tailors around here in Houston who make the dresses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IWUCHUKWU: And so I grabbed all my dresses, and there was a lot of dresses, and I couldn't find anything big enough to pack them in. So I packed them in a trash bag.

WARNER: Even today, Chisara replays this moment in her head of taking the trash bag full of dresses to the school, bringing them to the Spanish teacher's office, finding the office locked - the teacher isn't there - and then deciding to leave the bag of dresses in front of the door with a sticky note.

IWUCHUKWU: And then I left for lunch, which, looking back, was not a great idea.

WARNER: When she comes back after lunch, the Spanish teacher is in her office. The trash bag is not.

IWUCHUKWU: And so I started talking to all the different cleaning ladies, trying to figure out if any of them had seen the bag. I went out to the dumpster. I was crying and pawing through the dumpster and desperately trying to, like, find those dresses until, like, the security guard was finally like, OK, you have to, like, get back to class now. And all my favorite dresses were gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Did you go home and have to tell your mom what happened?

IWUCHUKWU: Yeah. She was not happy. I mean, to this day, she's - I remember even recently hearing about her talking on the phone about those dresses.

WARNER: Oh, recently - like, a good decade later?

IWUCHUKWU: Yeah. I never actually talked to her about it, but I think she was afraid I was, like, literally throwing my culture in the trash. And it just almost feels like a metaphor for the whole thing. Like, even when I try, it feels like I fail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In the best of worlds, your identity is your connection to your past, to your history. But for so many of you, identity can feel something more like a contractual obligation, placed on you by your family or by your community, that there is a lot of pressure to maintain. Chisara's parents, for example, who did not stay in Nigeria, still ask their children to feel as Nigerian as they did. And so a lot of you told us that eventually, you've had to learn to release yourself from that contract or at least renegotiate the terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CATHERINE: For a long time, I found myself justifying my background, telling people, oh, yeah, I grew up in Mexico, but I was born in Texas. And I'm kind of over that. My kids are Mexican. I love Mexicans. And whoever doesn't like it can, you know, deal with it themselves.

TEOH: When I was a child, my parents enrolled me in a British international school. I really felt a sense of being much more at home in this place and being surrounded by people from all over the world.

BARGAV: As I've been living in the U.S. for some time now, I've come to realize that where I fit and where I belong is in a very heterogeneous society. So I try and surround myself as much as possible with people from other countries.

TYRONE: A really strong source of information for myself is talking and learning more about the trans and nonbinary community as a gay man because I feel like those individuals possess a really strong ability to reforge and recreate their own identity as they see fit.

SIONA: I think being confident in myself to reject those attempts to put me into a box or silo my identity is something that wasn't easy to do at first. And now it's second nature to do it.

WARNER: Listening to all your stories and reading all your emails, I began to wonder if the experience of not quite belonging to one group is actually more normal than we give it credit for.

IWUCHUKWU: I guess no matter what, I just always feel like a bit of an outsider, no matter what group I'm in.

WARNER: I asked Chisara, the one who lost all her Nigerian dresses, if maybe one way that she has dealt with the problem of not fitting in is by choosing a job that takes her away from people.

IWUCHUKWU: (Laughter) I mean, it could be. Like, I like interacting with wildlife because, like, I can see them from afar. I can catch them and then just let them go. The way you interact with them, it's just, like, very fleeting. The odds that you're going to happen upon the same creature twice is not that high. You're just touching each creature's life for this, like, brief moment, and then you just each go on your way.

WARNER: Is that your approach - your preferred approach with human beings, too - like, you like to meet people once and then not again?

IWUCHUKWU: A little bit, but I'm trying to change that.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: OK.

So before I said goodbye to Chisara, I told her she is not alone in feeling that there is no group for her. I told her about all of your stories and about this idea that maybe it is more common than we realize to feel like you don't belong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IWUCHUKWU: I hope you're right 'cause that would be a big relief. Maybe the next time I meet someone and they assume some sort of shared thing, I can feel more comfortable pointing out differences and not start, like, shying away or anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Thank you for sharing all your stories to make this episode possible. Before you go, I'd love to ask your help with another show we're working on that starts with a statistic that really struck me - only 1% of Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these major wars the last 20 years. And so if you are a civilian in the United States, you may not even have a friend or family member who served. We're doing a couple of shows about how this creates a divide in American culture and society.

So we would like to ask you - tell us about a time that you have found yourself talking across that divide, maybe in conversation with a veteran or someone who's still serving. Perhaps you were at a town meeting or a supermarket aisle or at a sports game. Did your conversation go the way you expected or not? And if you have never had a conversation with a veteran, tell us how that feels. Of course, if you're military or from a military family, we would love to hear from you as well. What have you learned speaking across the divide? Write us an email or, better yet, record a voice memo. You can send it to roughtranslation@npr.org. We're always on Twitter - @Roughly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This episode was produced and reported by Derek Arthur, Tina Antolini and Justine Yan, edited by Lu Olkowski and Luis Trelles. Also on staff is Jess Jiang. And thanks to Robert Krulwich, Sana Krasikov, Christina Cala and Diane Arthur for editorial guidance.

I want to say one more thing, which is that this is the last episode where we get to work with the incredible producer Tina Antolini. I don't know if you guys remember "Hotel Corona." That was an episode we worked on. It was the first one we got to work on with Tina. And since then, she has done amazing, amazing work for this show. We are so sorry to lose her, but we wish her the best. Thank you, Tina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The ROUGH TRANSLATION Advisory Council is Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. Our supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer, our theme music by John Ellis. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions with mastering by Isaac Rodrigues (ph). I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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