go to my blog Have you ever moved to a new town, started a new school, or begun a new job where you didn’t really know more than a small group of people? Even beginning high school takes you from a situation you understood and puts you in a new one. One that requires you to learn the ropes of a new community.
Being an outsider is one of the greatest opportunities for growth that we get. It allows us to redefine ourselves, but it also teaches us to appreciate others. It almost forces you to receive the generosity of others, something that is not always easy for people.
While being an outsider is often tough, being an outlander is almost always life-changing. An outlander is somebody from a different culture or region. Like an American in Paris; a New Yorker in California; or even a young Catholic kid from Arizona in primarily Protestant, Glasgow, Scotland.
That’s where I first felt like an outlander. But that’s not the word I heard. I was a Sassenach, which is the Gaelic term for an outlander. However, outlander is the substantially more polite term, as Sassenach (which literally means “Saxon”) was usually spat in some way. Mostly in the direction of the 9-12 year old version of me.
At nine years old, I was tan from the Arizona sun, tall, and didn’t play football – at least not with a round ball the way everyone else did (you might call it soccer). For a bike, I had a Stingray with a sissy bar and coaster brakes, quite unlike the three-speed Raleighs that my neighbors rode. But the thing that made me stand out the most was the language. I didn’t speak like everybody else and had a very hard time understanding anybody at first, even my teachers.
This made me an easy target for bullies. “Sassenach” became a curse word in my vocabulary because it was usually preceded or followed by a fist. It signaled the beginning of a fight – a verbal one if I was lucky, but those often escalated. This continued until I learned to speak like a true Scot. So I spent all of my free time reading Scottish comics and books and practicing my brogue.
By primary seven (sixth grade for Americans) I was pretty well accepted. And even though I was hardly an egghead or even a marginally good student, I was named Dux Boy. The Dux Boy is considered the smartest lad in school, an honor by parental standards but for me it meant getting a swirly in the boys’ room as an unofficial part of the tradition. If you’ve never had your head shoved inside a less-than pristine boy’s room toilet while it’s flushed by four eager lads, you might want to add it to your bucket list. Or not.
Of course, as soon as I was no longer considered a Sassenach, we moved from Scotland to Munich, Germany. Twelve-year-old me hated it. Not only were we in a country that didn’t speak the language I had worked so hard to learn, but not even the other foreigners spoke like I did. My Glaswegian accent was so thick everybody had a hard time understanding me.
This led to a good deal of frustration and humiliation. And a fair amount of being an outlander again. I wasn’t called a Sassenach (although I might have called one of the loudmouthed English boys that). I just wasn’t understood, so I tried to fit in. Slowly my brogue faded and a new amalgamation of English and American emerged. Faking an English accent wasn’t too hard because that’s what everybody on the radio and telly spoke with in Scotland. But it grated against my inner Scot.
Those two moves in three years changed me. Deeply. More than anything, I just wanted to be invisible. At twelve I ran away from home, which is not a good idea under any circumstances, but especially when you don’t speak the language. I know I put my parents through hell.
And to this day those experiences define who I am. For the most part, I’ve hidden my brilliance and my skills, deflected attention, and tried to avoid being an outlander or Sassenach ever again. That approach almost killed me in Prague. I never really accepted my outlander status there. Had I embraced it, I would have had a lot more fun. But instead, I let it grate on me.
However, that definition has rarely served me. That is, until I started writing about it. Then I heard from the other outlanders and Sassenachs.
We’ve all been a Sassenach at some point in time. I’ve decided to use my outlander experiences to help others through that growth opportunity. Surviving it might have required my inner hero to step up, but turning it into something useful and helpful, now that’s powerful.
What’s your outlander experience?