Updated: Dec 21, 2021
When you were young, did you ever feel somewhat different? A bit of a misfit, perhaps?
I did. Perhaps because my family came from West Sumatra and most of my elementary schoolmates came from Java, or maybe because I was slightly taller and louder than the other students. Or all of the above.
I also felt that I did not belong there because most of my schoolmates lived in the same government complex. Therefore, their friendships were not limited to their school lives but also extended to everyday life. I found it challenging to join a conversation as I was considered as an outsider.
I was eight or nine, and I longed to be part of something. Because of this, I decided to befriend a group of girls who were considered outcasts. There were three of them; one girl had repeated class, another girl had a scar on her leg, and the third girl was the tallest in school. Despite being considered outcasts, the members of this group provided me with a sense of belonging and identity. Unfortunately, though, I still felt that something was wrong with me, which affected my confidence.
Fast forward to after I moved to Hong Kong (which was about 26 years ago) and joined a Tai Tai gym. For those who do not know this term, Tai Tai means a lady of leisure—in other words, a married woman who does not need to work. In that gym, I met Eva, who is a Tai Tai. Her daily routine includes going to the gym in the morning, getting a body treatment, and taking an afternoon nap. (Yes, that gym has a sleeping area with a water bed.)
Eva is also kindhearted and very supportive. One day, I was talking with her about some ideas that I had. Eva said, "Why don't you run your ideas past this other member?" and she mentioned a name. I said to her, "I could not just walk up to this person and say, ‘Hey. I have an idea.’ This person does not even know me." And do you know what Eva said? She said, "Devi, you are the only person with brown skin in this gym. It is very hard not to notice you. Everyone knows you!" Her words awakened me. I had never thought about it that way. In my head, I said, "Uh, I am famous and I don't even know it."
The next day, I tested Eva's theory. I approached a lady whom Eva suggested I talk to, and I found her to be very warm. She said, “Yes, Devi, of course I know you. We were in a dance class together." We had a good conversation that day.
When I went home, I was a different person because I had learned that being different can be a strength instead of a weakness. It means that I am creating and leaving an impression on another person, just by being me.
This experience made me feel more confident. I started telling my two sons, who are mixed Chinese and Indonesian, to dare to be different and to not feel embarrassed about standing out from the crowd.
I consider myself lucky for having that conversation with Eva, as she contributes to my personal growth. However, sometimes I wonder how many of my friends still carry old pain because other friends rejected them due to, for example, different skin tones, social statuses, or ways of dressing.
How many of us still believe in the notion that we are of lesser value because we are different and that the only place we can thrive is amongst ourselves?
And how many of us still act like children on the playground who say, "You are different from us. You cannot be one of us. Nanne nan nee nan nee nan nee."
Maya Angelou said, "In diversity, there is beauty, and there is strength."
Be proud of your identity regardless of how different you are. Harness the skill of creating the impression as you will make an impression simply because you are different.
Most importantly, be open to everyone who is different from you.
Let's enjoy each other’s beauty and learn from each other's strengths because, in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.
Devi's Toastmaster Speech