I wanted to be one of them. Even though I knew I would never become Emirati and would never lose all the parts of me that define me as the “outsider”, I just wanted to be included. Yeah, I wanted to be treated like everyone else, not singled out and treated differently, neither positively nor negatively, because I was a foreigner. That’s a tall order, I know; it’s an impossible dream kind of desire. Still, I believed that if I dealt with my Emirati colleagues human to human, regardless of our cultural backgrounds and differences, they would see my humanity before my nationality, and from within that perspective, we would be a “we” and not a “you-us / me-them”.
That’s part of why I wear an Abaya to school, and part of why I am learning Arabic.
Well, it happened.
Let me first expound on the idea of initiation.
Initiation often involves a ritualistic process that culminates with a new member joining an existing group. That “ritual” may or may not be formal or an established set of circumstances or behaviors.
In my school days, I joined a sorority. Yes, I am admitting that here, but only because I want to make a point. The initiation into the sorority included things like not being allowed to shave our legs or wear makeup for a week, and catering to every whim and command of the upper classmen. I carried books, cleaned up deliberate messes, and served my sorority “sisters” as if I were a servant. I stood as they circled around me like a herd of hungry predators and I endured their slanderous hilarity as they mocked and insulted me. And on the night before we were to become one of them, to be finally folded into the secret society, we were blindfolded and driven out into some forest in the black of late night. We were forced to sit on the damp ground and then we were accosted with raw eggs, hot sauce, sour milk, black pepper flakes, pudding, bowls of overcooked spaghetti, and … I don’t even know what all was dumped on my head that cold, autumn night. I only know that the humiliation was devastating.
Flash forward to 2017:
My students rebelled against an assignment I’d given them and the consequences of not doing it. They stormed into the principal’s office and slandered me with insults every bit as hot and bitter and slimy as the dumping I’d experienced decades ago in that dark, rural Indiana forest. The principal joined in the frenzy with exclamations and then, she told others. Those slanderous accusations, now attached to my personhood, spread throughout the building before I even knew what had happened. The stares and whispers and jeers that followed me were equally as devastating as the humiliation I felt as a teenager during a different initiation.
A few days later, my colleagues explained to me that what I’d experienced was “just the Arab way”, and that my survival deemed me now worthy of being enveloped into the group. “You are one of us now,” one of the women told me in a sing-song sort of voice.
That comment punctured my heart and knocked me back a step. I’m bleeding sorrow now, not just for myself, but for all of humanity.
What role does humiliation have in the steps to becoming part of a group? How is an attack of any kind relevant to learning life’s lessons? What is it about causing pain on others that makes us feel satisfied? What allows us to justify that feeling of satisfaction? How powerful is the sense of belonging? And is that power real or imagined?
I never did grow to trust my upper classmen in that sorority; and to be honest, I’m not sure I will trust others in my current environment either. Certainly, I will not trust them with the same innocence I had before.
But as I lament the death of my innocence, a new insight has arisen: innocence and authenticity are not synonymous. No one can steal the genuine intentions of my choices. I have checked in with myself and I am sure of the intentions of my assignment, and that my aim to be the best possible teacher that I can be for these specific students is still my authentic intention.
Yes, my authenticity is in tack. So kudos to me, I suppose, as they tell me that I am now one of them. But it isn’t as sweet as I had imagined. Nonetheless, I am confident that I am still ME, including all the parts that define me as the “outsider”, and I am also confident that somehow, I am indeed, one of them. But these definitions are neither in, nor out, so I feel, not misplaced, but simply not placed. Somehow, I am me and them, and yet, I am neither.
In the aftershocks of my initiation, I now stand juxtaposed between in and out; me and them, and as I aim to remain authentic, I know I need some solitude.