I have had so many Jellyfish Stings as often I am the only woman of colour in a room I have lost count as to how many times I have been stung, without warning and with no rhyme nor reason. Like a jellyfish sting its sting is painful, it burns and leaves a mark. So for a long time, I avoided these people to protect myself but that is not always feasible and not a solution.
I was born in London in the sixties. My parents were Punjabi immigrants who left India for the UK, hoping for a better life and better days ahead. Having seen the partition in India, they were consumed by the struggle for economic survival and hence they moved to London in the 1950s where economic and financial stability was assured. I recall my parents wanted us to “fit in” and be “English” but really they wanted us to be Indian, specifically Hindu. Thus I lived my childhood always looking from the outside, a spectator on both sides never fully participating for fear of losing my identity and feeling like I never truly belonged. From an early age, I noticed that everyone around me talked about different communities in a very conclusive way. I was often reminded there are two types of people “them” (the whites) and “us”.
“Be very careful they are not like us,” my father would say.
“How are they different?” I would ask.
Then with true sincerity and conviction, my father would say in his thick Indian accent, “Well…they don’t look after their children like we do…. and besides, they only eat canned food.”
Subsequently, my friends at school would also say to me,
“Yuk, what’s that smell?”
“Soap” I would answer innocently.
“You smell of curry, do you eat curry for breakfast?” they would retort.
“No…l’m like you, I eat cornflakes.”
Indeed growing up in the 1970s in Britain was a critical and challenging time for migrants as well as for the indigenous population. Like most mass immigration stories there was a stream of anxiety on both sides. For me, there was a constant desire to be an insider and yet knowing I did not fully fit in. I felt continuously tangled internally knowing that I “ought to” have the same apprehension and worries about the “whites” as my parents had, but I did not. I don’t really know why but I continually looked beyond colour and very early on I saw that everyone was talking about difference and yet we all had so many similarities. My conclusion was most communities were as Maya Angelou so beautifully put it… “We are more alike like unlike.”
We were all worried about being accepted, about our health, education and our family. These are universal truths for all of us, whenever we are from.
For the last twenty-five years, I have lived in Geneva, where I have worked, managed and functioned along with multiple nationalities. Similar discussions about belonging and “fitting in” are representative for an international city like Geneva and once again I find myself in a similar context to the one I had as a child.
Indeed I recall one very interesting meeting with an HR professional in Geneva a few years ago; he insisted that behaviour is subjugated by one culture. I remember asking myself how can one culture define me? When I am a mixture of British, Swiss and Indian? Why are we so hell-bent on defining people by one culture when our lives are sprinkled by so many diverse contexts and experiences? Is it just easier to put people into one box? How does that mindset manifest itself when we are working across cultures?
I am persuaded that my diverse contexts and experiences gave delivery to my purpose, my drive and indeed to this book. My context has left me with a strong sense of being a connector: I truly believe that we all have very similar needs, wants, concerns and hopes and how we connect on this premise is central to all human relationships. I have let this passion be the driver personally and professionally. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
We can all do the right thing: by actively acknowledging that we are still struggling with difference, we still choose not to have difficult conversations at work and at home. We still choose to be silent and not call it out because of fear of the repercussions. Thats not good enough because we are all accountable and we are all responsible! So next time when you meet someone unlike you doesn’t give them a jellyfish sting and go into stereotypes give the gift of generosity and curiosity and listen!