In this blog post, I’ll be talking about what it means to have a feeling of “Otherness,” where it can come from, and the good and the bad things that come out of it. Cokie, the main character of my third book (currently in progress) experiences Otherness, and it’s a major cause of tension in her life. She hasn’t learned how to embrace it yet, and I want to give my readers some insight into how she feels.
Otherness is having the sense that you don’t fit in or belong to the major culture around you. Many of the choices you make and the things you do can be colored by that feeling, for better or worse.
In my book, Cokie’s pervasive sense of Otherness comes from being caught between worlds: she’s a tom-boyish Japanese-American girl whose mom wants her to be more traditionally Japanese and feminine. She wants to do things that are more traditionally thought of as “guy” stuff, like playing video games and wanting to be a cop. She sees the bullying that happens online to gamer girls, and she wants to shield herself from it, so she plays as a boy. She feels radically different from the rest of the kids at school, who are more pre-occupied with looks and fashions typical of their genders. She doesn’t even speak much, because she still occasionally stutters and not speaking seems like the best way to avoid being made of fun of. She doesn’t even feel like her best friend Clarissa understands her, because her best friend often talks over her because Cokie is so quiet.
Due to all the above, Cokie often feels alone. Her dad might be her best buddy, but not even he knows everything that’s going on in her head. And that’s what Otherness can do, it keeps you inside your head and from living your life out loud the way you want to.
Otherness is something I’ve experienced too, and have carried with me since I was very young.
I was singled out as a kid for having an immigrant family, thus looking and talking differently than most people. I had a funny ethnic name, I dressed weird because my mom didn’t understand American fashion (and we were poor), and I had to follow strict house rules about doing homework and all the typical immigrant-kid stuff about working harder than everyone else because #AmericanDream. Ultimately, all of it benefited me, but it was hard at the time, the cruel taunting and occasional pushing around at school I suffered for being different.
The sense of Otherness came not only from my American peers, but from fellow immigrants. When my mom stopped speaking Italian to us when we were little so my brother would speak better English at school, our first language suffered, and some members of our Italian immigrant community looked down on us for that. We weren’t “perfect” Italians (how dare we lose any of our culture!), and we were far from “perfect” Americans. We were In-Betweeners, caught between worlds. And it forever colored my way of seeing.
Even in my extended family, I was the ultimate black sheep: yeah, I liked boys, but I bewildered aunts and uncles because, when they asked why I didn’t have a high-school boyfriend (to conform to the society that simply wants girls to push out babies), I answered that I was too busy getting ready to go to art school. To which one family member responded something like, OMG, you’re gonna starve as an artist and shame your family, don’t do it! I did it anyway (and rocked it, bitches!), but the emotional toll of having to constantly defend yourself in your own family is exhausting. Family is supposed to support you, right?
[My mom and dad and brother though, they have always supported me 100%. I love those people.]
The negative side effects of Otherness were real: at times it kept me from taking risks or getting involved in certain communities because I assumed I was unwelcome. I have walked into roomfuls of new people and my Otherness has made me wonder, “Are they going to like me? Am I too weird?” I’ve missed out on certain things because I felt like I was “not allowed” to do something, or “not allowed” to take up space. Self-segregating, if you will.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a sad tale! The best way to counteract the dark side of Otherness is to embrace and celebrate your individuality. I did embrace my weirdness and find my friends, a lovable rag-tag group of fellow weirdos. I’m now more likely to make cool, interesting friends precisely because I prefer people who are different. I essentially followed weirdness as a life path, opening myself up to unique experiences. Going to art school, let’s admit, that is WEIRD. Making a career as a working artist is also HELLA WEIRD. Being a writer is…SO WEIRD! Studying improv to eventually become an improv comic and theater artist…OMG YOU GUYS I AM THE QUEEN OF WEIRD.
And I am having the best damn time.
Embracing my weirdness and claiming my space has freed me up to do things other people only dream of. It takes serious guts to stand apart from the crowd and say, Well, I’m going to write some horror novels, or, Hey, I’m going to try my hand at comedy! Those things have been so rewarding, and have brought me some of the most amazing people as friends. I can’t imagine living my life any other way.
Long live The Weird!
In my book, Cokie will struggle with her Otherness for quite some time, but she’ll also progress to a point where she refuses to be held back from one of her dreams any longer and she’ll be inspired to make a bold choice. I hope you stick with me long enough to read about her journey. It’s a good one, I promise.