Have you ever find yourself diving into worlds totally different from your own, again and again? You dive in, wanting to be in something much bigger. You dive in, finding yourself in isolation after the exhilaration fades. You would go again.
I grew up shy, unconfident, social-awkward, and self-conscious. Also, polite, conservative and Asian.
Then I moved to the Bay Area, one of the most international and competitive area in the world. Everyone is smart and independent. Socializing is the beginning to any great work. What’s more, my job demands me to network a lot and be the ambassador of my country.
I started being the alien.
At industry events, I represented Taiwan, a country not famous for spectacular design, creativity or innovation. I represent Taiwan and my company, small country and tiny organization not famous for impact or importance. I represent myself, paralyzed with thoughts like: I don’t fit in; I don’t have impressive experiences; I couldn’t even respond to friendly humor.
I’m shy to speak, fled away from eye contacts, and took every avoidance of eye contact as an affirmation that people are glad to overlook me.
There are many aliens who have fun and enjoy exploring a foreign environment. For a social-awkward alien like me though, it is hard.
Interestingly, I am often the extreme alien when exploring my personal interests, such as sub-cultural and spiritual gatherings that are very local and are less culturally diverse.
Recently I discovered something fun about being an alien: there is a learning curve, and you can be in the moment when you practice it enough.
When it’s obvious you are the alien, expect the stage of uncertainty at first contacts. You look different: perhaps in skin color, perhaps in demeanor. The others don’t know if you can communicate in English well. They don’t know if you’re familiar with the topic at hand. They don’t know if you want to socialize or not.
Hence some possible reactions: I become shy and anxious to hide away, shutting off others before they can express any intention. Sometimes it is the other that shies away, and I accept it too readily as a negative sign. Some people take the initiative to open up and address me, letting me off the anxiety hook. But most often the case is that we need to bounce this uncertainty between us, and establish comfort little by little.
Every interaction won’t go beautifully, so once I acknowledged it simply requires courage to take the risk, they each become opportunities to seek something beautiful.
One challenge to intentionally practice on is actually to sink into the moment of first contact. I have a hard time not breaking away from friendly smile, cutting off a conversation abruptly, or forgetting to return a thank youor how are you. I never intended to be rude or disinterested. Just helplessly scared of not interacting correctly.
I remind myself I do have the intention to know people, know their stories, and talk about our experience. That makes the basis of interaction, and I don’t want the fear of unsuccessful interaction to keep me from getting a good one.
We may think language ability is a barrier impossible to work around. Yes, it makes conversing harder, often bringing up questions and guesswork that address details rather than push the interaction further.
However, attitude and demeanor counts as interaction too. Since you already know it’s a long game, be prepared for setting up the stage. Set up your smile. Set up your eye contact. Set up an open attitude by walking around, being active.
Each interaction might become surprisingly warm and flowing, or it might be awkwardly polite. If I put in the effort to talk slowly, be in the moment, and establish a common ground for the other person to feel comfortable, then all is good. I committed, and the next encounter is a new start.
I was almost the 1% of different side of the crowd at a earth-based religion weeklong camp. I knew we have quite a bit in common in some ways, in spite of how I was so different: almost the only Asian in a hundred, with no spiritual or pagan practice experience, and skeptical at times. The crowd was an especially warm and open one, where my paralyzing thoughts about social interaction are ideas openly discarded. That experience taught me to be an alien more comfortably, by being aware of how every person could feel alienated, and how alienation might be seen as insignificant or fun.
It also occurred to me, someone might have thought “hmm interacting with that person who didn’t look like she belonged is actually fun. I should do this more often!”
And it will benefit us all, those of us who want to explore alien spaces but are nervous to do so.