Last week I met someone who described himself as “marching to the beat of a different drummer” or an independent thinker. That got me thinking about my own life and I realised I had often felt I was a “square peg trying to fit into a round hole”. The number of times I felt like I actually fitted in or belonged were the exception not the rule in my life.
The earliest memory of it was moving to Zambia when I was eight, with very little English and having to adapt to the school environment there. It took me three months to learn enough English to fit in academically, but a lot longer to fit in socially. I remember being teased by the other kids in my class because my “sapato” (shoes) were pointy toed vs. the round toed ones they wore. The black kids in my class told me to go away when I tried to join in their play because I was neither black nor white and therefore inferior to them. Once during a self portrait exercise in class, the teacher and I had “words” because I refused to colour my portrait brown like the black kids did. I was not the same as them, so I wanted to use yellow, but the teacher explained yellow was for the Chinese kids and pink for the European kids. In the end we compromised on beige.
Coming back to Sri Lanka when I was eleven to start Secondary School, the situation was now reversed. This time I didn’t know any Sinhala and really struggled in subjects that required essay style answers. The three years I had studied in English medium meant my Sinhala vocabulary was sadly lacking. I did well in English and Maths, but that wasn’t enough to put me back at the top of the class where I was used to being because there were six other subjects that I didn’t do as well in. I started writing poetry, some of it on subjects that were deemed too mature for my age; like love. My English teacher privately commended me, but said the school was not happy I was publishing my work in the Newspapers as it was not suitable subject matter for a school girl.
By the time I got to University, I had read everything from Charles Dickens to Emile Zola to Wilbur Smith, but did not have anyone to discuss these with. I spent more time with students from other faculties than I did with mine. I found it easy to maintain friendships with some of the senior academic staff like the Dean of our Faculty which made my Student Union friends suspicious.
Getting to marriageable age, I defied convention and would not agree to an arranged marriage. At age thirty, I migrated to New Zealand and found myself a husband of European descent. At work, I lived a very different life to that of most of my colleagues, both in terms of the activities I did outside of work and the choice to spend below my means.
The recurring theme of my life seemed to be this lack of fit, because I was different. I have touched on it on several of my previous posts such as eating milk and honey, tuna in ambul thiyal and single in your forties. This has brought me to the realisation that throughout my life I too have marched to the beat of a different drummer to most other people.That was what came naturally to me. But it felt like a struggle because of the feeling I had to fit in, in order to belong. Now I know it is ok to be a square peg; that I need to celebrate my squareness in a world filled with round people. And most importantly, while there are not many of us around, that there are other square people and I belong with them.