I have learned that fitting in and blending in are not the same at all. To me, blending in is the ability to appear to belong, while fitting in is actually belonging. I can blend in sometimes, but after embarking on this cross-cultural life two years ago, I’ve discovered that fitting in is a little trickier.
When I’m in the United States, I can blend in. I speak the language perfectly, I look like I belong, and I understand the nuanced cultural communication that we often take for granted. That feels good sometimes, especially now that I live in Nicaragua where I definitely don’t blend in. I’m taller and paler than most, speak Spanish with an accent, and make silly errors that reveal that I didn’t quite understand the expectations. Like the time I showed up for what I thought was a hike in yoga pants and a T-shirt only to find that everyone else was dressed way fancier! Obviously what came to mind for me as appropriate clothing when we talked about this outing was different than what everyone else had in mind.
I don’t always fit in completely in the U.S. though. I’m now that strange person who is living her life in another country, a different choice than what’s typical for most of the people I know. There are funny little cultural shock moments when I come back, like when I washed my hands in the bathroom at the O’Hare airport and was ALARMED that the water came out hot. Other times, I see old friends and we can immediately pick up where we left off as if no time has passed and it just fits.
Although I can never blend in Nicaragua, I am starting to fit in. I have friends. I have roles and responsibilities. People have expectations of me based on who I actually am, not only based on my appearance and cultural background. I feel known. The longer I’m living here, the more I realize I’m changing. I can simultaneously both can fit in anywhere and fit in nowhere. I can slide in and out of cultures with increasing ease, but there’s always a lingering feeling of not quite hitting the mark.
That uncomfortable awkwardness of not quite fitting in is familiar for many of us, whether we live inside or outside of our home culture. Everyone faces moments like that. Maybe it’s feeling slightly out of the in-crowd at work, or walking into a party where you thought you’d know someone only to find they’re not there yet.
That awkward moment is an invitation. An invitation to move towards people, to learn something new, to be braver than you thought you were. My advice is to put the device down (it’s a crutch!), take a deep breath, and move into that awkward space. Make it your own. Smile at someone. Ask a question. That little step forward is the first step towards finding a place to fit. It is not the time to blend in! Even if you could, it won’t bring you towards belonging. God created each of us to fill a unique space in this world. Right now that unique space for me is between cultures. It comes with a side of awkwardness, but it’s starting to fit just right. Each of us has our own place to discover. Let the awkwardness be an invitation and resist the temptation to blend!