Seven Billion

torkor 012I’m an introvert and a writer, so I spend a lot of time on my own. I value solitude – I even relish it – and yet at some point it starts to bother me. I’m happy to be alone in my room, but not alone in the house. I like to hear the sounds of people moving around me. Even if I’m not directly interacting with others, knowing they’re there is a comfort.

Yesterday I pushed myself into a situation that terrified me. I went to a place I’d never been before to spend a few hours with a large number of total strangers. For me a crowd is more than three people, so a room of thirty-odd bodies was incredibly intimidating. But it wasn’t just any crowd. It was a group of people who had come to meditate together – in other words, a group of people who were looking for a kind, loving space in which to connect with themselves and others. Because of that intention, the energy in the room was relaxed and welcoming. I stopped feeling anxious. I started feeling safe.

And I realised something, something I used to know but forgot. Other people are like me. They feel the same things. As I moved my arms I was aware of the fact that every person in the room was experiencing something similar. That stretch, that tension. The same sensations when they take a deep breath. The same pressure of their feet pressing into the floor. The same emotions, too, though maybe in different ways, at different intensities, and in different situations. At some point all of us have felt anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness. At some point all of us have felt joy.

It seems an obvious thing – of course all people feel – but we don’t act like it’s obvious. We act like we’re the only ones having the human experience. Other people are abstract things, two-dimensional characters in a bad film, cardboard cut-outs. Villains to be defeated, caricatures to be mocked, sinners to be judged. We forget. We spend most of our time walking past ourselves, oblivious of the fact that there are seven billion of us. Seven billion of me, seven billion of you. Seven billion people who are just trying to get through the day, to make it from one moment to the next in the best way they know how.

That blows my mind. It blows my mind just trying to figure out the ball of complexity that is me. When I remember that everyone else is just as complex, it’s almost overwhelming. In those moments I own my humanity completely. I understand that I am a single grain on a beach, but I am also the beach. I am the essence of sand. We all are. Everyone’s baggage is my baggage. Everyone’s drama is my drama. Every action I take has a ripple effect. I live for me, but for you as well.

Seven billion souls. Seven billion seekers, anxious about the future. Seven billion golden opportunities. Trying to even picture all those faces is a head trip. In the face of a number like that it’s easy to feel helpless. But, though it sounds like a public service advert, it all starts with you. Me. The one among the many. The one that is the many.

When you see humanity that way, everything changes. You no longer walk into a room of thirty-odd strangers. You walk into a room of thirty people just like you. It’s a lot more difficult to fear them then, and once your fear subsides, something else takes its place. Something lighter. Something just as powerful. Yep, I’m going to say it – love. Not the hearts and roses, nights of wild passion kind. The kind that is serene, that sees connections rather than divisions, that seeks to heal rather than wound. The kind that takes pleasure in making everyone smile.

Now take that, and multiply it by seven billion.

 

Immigrant Syndrome

I have an incurable condition. It’s not fatal, but it can cause some discomfort. It’s called Immigrant Syndrome (IS). It’s caused by growing up in a foreign country, cultural curiosity, and an overwhelming desire to experience everything. It is exacerbated by snide remarks from intolerant natives and ignorance, and if left untreated can lead to Invisible Foreigner Syndrome (IFS). The best prevention is a thick skin. I’m talking elephant hide. The most effective way to manage IS is through self-awareness.

If you display any of the following symptoms, you might be suffering from IS:
• You find it easy to imitate the way other people speak
• You’re told you have a “neutral” accent
• You’re often mistaken for a local in foreign countries
• You find that the way you speak changes slightly depending on where you are or who you’re with.

Someone suffering from IS is, essentially, a cultural chameleon. Let me use my own case as an example. How I speak depends on who I’m speaking to. It’s like I have an automatic switch that flips back and forth accordingly. When I talk to an American, my Rs start to roll of their own accord. Suddenly I say “yeah” instead of “yah”. When I speak to a Brit, my accent becomes clipped and proper. When I speak to a Mostwana, it’s “Ao”, “Ehee” and “Ijo”. My intonation changes. I’m a little louder. There’s a lot of hand-clapping. When I speak to a South African the “Ja, hey” comes crawling out of the woodwork, and I start to sound the way I used to sound when I was studying in Pretoria a million years ago.

It’s not just accents. When I speak to my parents or other Ghanaian elders, the dutiful West African child emerges. My tone softens. My pitch rises. I do it with jargon, too. When I’m with artists my dreamy and passionate side comes out to play, and around the worldly and sophisticated I, too, sound worldly and sophisticated. There are exceptions, of course – areas in which I’m not knowledgeable enough to participate. Around scientists, for example, I just keep my mouth shut.

Don’t get me wrong – IS sufferers don’t suddenly turn into different people. We maintain our personalities. No matter where we are we still dress the same way, have the same opinions and preferences, and believe the same things we’ve always believed. It’s only our voices and tones that change. IS isn’t a conscious thing – it’s more like a reflex action. It’s not as though you make a calculated decision to change your tone to suit the situation. It sneaks up on you, catching you unawares, and before you know it you’re using expressions that have no place in your normal vocabulary.

It took me years to notice it. At first I was horrified. What the hell was I doing? Why did I sound like that? Ewwww! Most of the time I’m not aware it’s happening. Sometimes I catch myself and try to stop it, but my tongue has a will of its own and years of conditioning make for a formidable foe. So instead of trying to fight the hurricane, I decided to analyse it. Why does it happen? Is it because of all the times I was mocked or criticised for sounding different? Or all the times my black friends called me a stuck-up coconut know-it-all? I think those things certainly made my IS worse. I stopped using big words and started using local slang. It got to a point where I couldn’t bring myself to say “immense”. I had to say “it was, you know, ja, like…big” so no one would feel intimidated.

But I had IS long before any of that. I suppose you could think of it as an evolutionary impulse, a way to ensure survival in a foreign tribe. Adapt or perish. Eventually people noticed my IS and called me on it. They made it seem like a failing. I shouldn’t worry about accommodating other people. I should “be myself”. I tried. I found it difficult to engage with people without my IS acting up, so I stopped talking to people unless I had to. I refused to make any attempt to speak other languages – if people didn’t understand me, tough. I deliberately spoke like I swallowed a dictionary. I went out of my way to be difficult, to put my stamp on every interaction so people went away feeling my otherness like a kick in the gut. I was “strong”, “authentic” and “unapologetic”. I was also a total bitch. Apparently this was the “myself” I had been hiding. I hated her, and she had to go.

IS is not a disease you pick up. It’s a condition some people, usually introverts, are naturally susceptible to. It’s a product of your experiences, like everything else that makes you who you are. It makes it possible for sufferers to adapt, learn, and grow. Maybe you are a cultural chameleon. Maybe you are a sponge, susceptible to influence, a product of globalisation. But really, who isn’t?

When my IS comes out, that’s me being myself. I like people. I don’t want them to be unnerved by my otherness, because I’m not unnerved by theirs. My instinct is to figure people and situations out. I don’t just want to have an experience and walk away with a pretty memory. I want to crawl inside and live in it. I don’t go to places to see what it’s like to be a stranger there. I know what it’s like to be a stranger – it’s the same everywhere. I go to places to see what it’s like to be at home there. To do normal things. To go to the grocery store and take walks down the street. When I talk to someone I’m trying to understand where they’re coming from, and I can’t do that without seeing the world from their perspective. I like listening to people talk. Their words are clues, and I’m an undercover agent solving the mystery of who they are.

IS doesn’t mean you’re sick, or fake, or weak. If you’re an actor it means you’ll spend far less time with a voice coach. If your work requires you to travel a lot, it means you’ll have no problem adapting instantly to new environments. Most importantly, it means you’re never just passing through. You let places and people get under your skin. You put down roots with every step you take. No matter where you go or how long you’re there, you’re never a tourist. You’re always an immigrant. For you, the whole world is home.