The Balancing Act | In defence of being different

I recently read about the Dansk Folkeparti advertisement that controversially asserted that one among the nearly 700 people due to be granted citizenship was a danger to Denmark’s security. Talk about one rotten egg spoiling the party for the remaining 699.

That’s 699 people who, in all likelihood, toiled long and hard to do whatever it took to become a Danish citizen. They are normal people, like you and me, who put in the time and effort to learn Danish and to know everything they can about their adopted country and, to use the much abused term, become integrated. I couldn’t help but wonder how they felt … hurt, humiliated and confused perhaps? Here they were, trying to blend in and belong, when they were singled out and plonked under a harsh, unflattering spotlight for, ironically, making the cut.

Immediately after, I read Vivienne McKee’s column, ‘The joy of fitting in, or at least trying to’. These two articles got me thinking about how we always try to fit in. As a child and young adult, you want to dress like your peers and do all the seemingly cool things they do. The pressure to conform shadows you like a faithful puppy. When you move to another country, this need to fit in and belong gets magnified a thousand-fold. You adopt the customs and culture, you learn the language … so that you don’t stick out like a sore thumb – so you’re just like everyone else in that country. But that rarely happens. You’ll always be different from most others, either by virtue of your uniquely quirky characteristics, your skin colour, your accent, your mannerisms or your beliefs and values. And perhaps, when you go back to your home country after spending years abroad, you’ll find it difficult to blend back in. Your travels and experiences have changed you, and you find that the perfect country you had built up in your imagination never existed.

I’ve been guilty of this too: of trying to conform and of doing things because everyone around me was doing it. But over the years, I’ve realised that it’s okay to stand out and that being different can be a virtue. Sure, it’s not going to be a fun ride all along, but it can be rewarding. Because being different is not just about standing out. It’s about being comfortable with who you are and celebrating your individuality. It’s about acknowledging and accepting everything that went into making you who you are. It’s a bit like making waves as an introvert in a world that hails extroverts. As long as your actions don’t hurt anybody, and as long as you respect the right of others to conform if they want to, it’s okay to beat your drums to a different tune. There will always be people who understand, love and respect you – who get who you are. And there will always be people who will come to your defence, as in the case of Denmark where the DF advert was widely condemned, with some newspapers even refusing to publish it.

I’ve had the opportunity to grow up in Mumbai, a city I liken to a big wholesome pot of stew, where flavours mingle and each spoonful offers you a taste of a different ingredient. I’ve been exposed to different languages, customs and cultures through friends, teachers, neighbours and colleagues from different parts of the country. Being different from each other was expected, it was normal. Sure, even in Mumbai, there are political parties that play spoilsport with their ‘sons of the soil’ ideology, which targets people from different states at different points in time. But Mumbai’s accepting nature remains more or less intact. So, when I came to Denmark, I came armed with the curiosity to learn more, meet different kinds of people and experience a different culture. When I leave, I hope to take back with me all that’s good and wonderful about this place. It’s probably going to make me different from who I was when I came here. But that’s okay.

There’s a term that was used by early Bollywood filmmakers in India to describe how their new film was not the run-of-the-mill boy-meets-girl love story. They would say, in Hindi, Zara hatke hai (it’s different). I’m all for hatke.