“Wow. You are so weird. Did you know that?”
It was one of those questions you’re not really meant to answer, but the girl who asked me had a disgusted look on her face as she said the words, and she leaned away from me as though she’d caught a bad smell. We were standing in the hallway of our school in a small group, chatting about nothing in particular, what we’d done over the weekend, what we planned to do later after school. As I realized her question was directed at me, I felt a warm rush spread through my body and up into my head where it pulsed between my ears like a second heart. All at once I was nervous and confused and I tried to play back what it was I had just said, to somehow step outside my body and look myself over to see if there was something unusual about the way I was standing or the clothes I was wearing or the expression on my face.
Of course, I couldn’t step outside myself, and I had no idea what I had said or done to make this girl label me as weird. But rather than say so, I forced a laugh and told her, “Yeah.”
This was my first year in an American school. Up until recently, I had lived in Hong Kong, attending the same school with the same set of kids for nearly my entire life. Before moving to America, I didn’t think much about how I fit in. My world was familiar and I felt more or less comfortable in it. I knew who I was. Or at least, I didn’t question who I was. And that can feel like the same thing.
When I moved to the US to begin boarding school, however, everything changed. My bed was different, my room was different, the food I ate was different, and the people who sat next to me in class were different. But it never occurred to me that I was anything other than the same.
What I learned that first year is that a great deal about who you are can be impacted by where you are. It didn’t at first occur to me to try to fit in with my new classmates because it didn’t occur to me that I would have any reason to try. I’d never had difficulty fitting in before. But just a few days after the girl in the hallway told me I was weird, I was hanging out with a new group of friends, all of them laughing at something I’d just said, when one turned to the rest and said to them, “Sean is so weird, right?”
Again, I felt that familiar rush of heat spread across my body and up into my head. And as I stood there, laughing as if I was in on their joke, as if I knew I was “weird,” as if I meant to be, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time that my identity was in the hands of others. In Hong Kong, I’d been normal, because the people around me thought I was normal. But here, in America, I was going to be weird.
For awhile after that, I found that I was constantly checking myself in the reflection of others, studying their responses to everything I did or said to get a sense of how I was being perceived. I became highly skilled in reading the facial expressions of my friends and peers, picking up on nuances in their tones of voice, watching closely to see if when I told a joke, they were laughing with me or at me. Never in my life have I been more lonely or had less sense of myself than during that time.
Luckily, that period didn’t last too long. For one thing, it was exhausting. It takes enough energy just to go to school, do homework, and maintain friendships. If you add to that a constant state of investigation into how every word you utter is interpreted by everyone around you, well, you would never have time for anything else. More importantly though, I came to realize there really wasn’t much point in it. Sure, we all want people to like us, to listen when we talk and laugh when we tell a joke, to respect us and admire us and welcome us when we walk into a room. But how much control do any of us really have over how others see us?
Yes, my new school was different from my old school, and my role among my new friends was different than that among my old. But at some point, I found myself wondering, was I really going to spend my entire life trying to model myself after whoever was in the same room with me? Was I going to let the facial expressions of other people dictate to me who I am? I hadn’t really changed since leaving Hong Kong, but if I continued to obsess over what people thought of me, what version of myself would I be left with?
Labels get swapped around all the time. What’s normal today might be weird tomorrow. And what’s weird today might be setting trends next month. Sometimes it can be really uncomfortable to find yourself labeled in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. But new labels can be opportunities for growth and self-discovery, chances to take inventory and ask yourself, “Who am I?” and, “Who do I want to be?” As for me, I want to be a good friend, a good listener, someone to whom others can turn when they have a problem or need support. I want to be curious and I want to be courageous, a person who doesn’t shy away from challenges or sit out new experiences, a person who doesn’t hold back from telling a joke because he’s afraid no one will laugh. I want to be someone who dances without imagining what he looks like from across the room and sings without worrying that someone else might not like his voice. I want to be someone who is sometimes normal and sometimes weird and always fine with it either way.
Not long ago, I was walking with a friend, telling her a story about something that had happened earlier. Suddenly she stopped and turned to face me with a giant smile on her face. “You are so weird,” she said. “I love it.” Once again, I felt a warmth spreading up through my body. But this time, it wasn’t a rush of panic, but a blush of happiness and overall well-being: I love it too.