Otherness is My Superpower: My Journey to Belonging

Otherness is My Superpower: My Journey to Belonging

It takes several trips around the world to reveal that diversity is not a burden, but a strength. As one mixed-race woman immerses herself in a kaleidoscope of cultures abroad, she discovers a sense of belonging she’d struggled to find at home.

I’d like to preface this piece with a disclaimer. As a
light-skinned person of colour, I acknowledge that I have numerous
privileges many don’t enjoy. This is my story; it is in no way a
universal representation of those with different racial backgrounds
or life experiences.

“You won’t believe what happened!” I exclaimed, grinning from
ear-to-ear as I stepped out of the tiny wooden store hidden
somewhere along
‘s beachfront. “I said ‘Teşekkürler’ and the woman
started chatting to me in Turkish!”

My then-boyfriend gave me a puzzled look, knowing that this was
the only word I knew, and laughed it off by suggesting I put my
new-found language skills into practise and order us both lunch.
I’m not sure he remembers this moment, but to me it was
transformative. It was 2013, I was 22, and it was the first time I
remember a stranger thinking I could belong with them.

Let me explain a little: I’m British. My Dad was born and raised
in England, and so was my Mum. But one of them is white, and one is

We didn’t travel abroad much when we were growing up, but we’d
have wonderful staycations around the UK: the
Lake District
, Brecon Beacons, New Forest. And while I have
wonderful memories of climbing trees and paddling through streams,
I also have memories of the heightened awareness of not being

At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the looks we’d get, but I
do remember feeling awkward in my seat at a pizza restaurant in
Ambleside, aware enough to understand that the stares we were
getting were there because we looked different.

Technically, I’m not just a 50:50 mix; I’m a wonderful patchwork
of world cultures. My surname – McDonnell – is part Irish, part
Scottish and, for the past few generations, my Dad’s family have
lived in southern England. My maternal Grandparents flew from sunny
to the UK’s drizzly capital at the age of 19, and, numerous
generations previously, they’d been put on boats from India
as indentured labourers.

This combination of genes has made me look racially ambiguous,
and as a result, I’ve spent countless hours answering the question:
“Where are you from?” Too often, the answer “I’m from
” isn’t good enough.

I’ve been asked: “well yeah, but like, are you Spanish?
Sri Lankan
? Portuguese? Indian?” If I say I’m mixed-race, I get
stared at patiently as my conversation partner waits for me to
provide a more comprehensive rundown of my DNA. Discussing my skin made me uncomfortable,
made me feel different, made me feel less.

Yes, perhaps the majority of people who ask me this are simply
curious, interested to know more about me. Yet what they are
actually doing is asking: “why do you look other, why don’t you fit
in with the idea that to be British you must be white?” I’m not
believed when I say who I am, and that hurts.

During a trip to
with friends at the age of 18, in the entrance hall of
a city museum, we were stopped by a friendly-looking woman who
asked to help with a questionnaire about why we’d decided to visit
the museum. One by one we were asked where we’d travelled from and
what we wanted to see in the museum. When it was my turn, I
answered in the same fashion my friends: “I’m from Oxford and want
to see the dinosaurs.” But rather than jotting my words down, she
cocked her head and asked, “but where are you really from?”
“Oxford.” “No, but really?” “Oxford.” “Yes, but where do you come

Little interactions like this are why my moment in Turkey was so
powerful. It was an interaction of inclusion and not of othering,
there was a face-value belief that if I spoke Turkish, I could be

The heady mix of belonging, of sunshine and of exploration
nurtured my travel bug. I tanned on the beaches of
, blending in with the olive-skinned locals. In Rio, I
got asked for directions by a Brasilian girl.

It was in Malaysia that I really fell in love with my beautiful
patchwork skin. Finally, I didn’t stand out; not because everyone
looked like me, but because Malaysia is a wonderful melting pot of
cultures, running the gamut from Malay and Chinese to Indian and
European. Here, it was ok to be English and non-white. Saying I was
from Oxford led to questions about the university and whether or
not I liked the rain.

Kuala Lumpur
‘s Jalan Alor Night Market was something I’d never
experienced before. My senses were overwhelmed: the smell of Indian
spice mingling with spicy Chinese barbecue made my mouth water; the
sounds of numerous languages chorused in the air; around me, people
from all walks of life made up the very fabric of the market. Every
single person was essential. Every single person mattered to the
culture of this country.

Penang had a similar impact on me. The state has long served as
a vital link between Asia’s great kingdoms as well as an important
outlet to the markets of Europe and the Middle East. George Town, the island’s capital, has been
touched by many of these different cultures. I was enthralled as I
ventured from Hindu temple cafés, past Buddist statues to Chinese
manor houses and British-style botanical gardens.

The life energy of the country pulsed through me and I felt at
one with the place. I cried when it was time for me to leave.

On the flight home, I was pensive. I reflected on how, much like
Malaysia, I am a blend of cultures too. If I found a powerful,
moving beauty in a place so characterised by this kaleidoscope of
backgrounds, why couldn’t I find it in myself?

Growing up in a society where models, movie stars and women of
influence are all white, meant that I had struggled to find my
place in the world. In response, I’d made myself small. I had
stopped wearing white clothes because I believed it made my skin –
my otherness – stand out more. Now, travelling at 38,000ft, I
promised I would never ever do this to myself again.

Diversity is a blessing and belonging to a range of cultures is
a strength. While I now realise that this is a superpower, a lot of
people still haven’t had that realisation. Travel is a powerful
tool we can all use to help us realise the power of inclusion over
othering. Exploring the world – in person, through novels, via
documentaries – can help to break down barriers and make us realise
that, at the end of the day, we’re all human. No matter the colour
of your skin, we are all vital in creating a beautiful global

The Lowdown

Emily McDonnell is a travel writer and founder of The
Staycation Collection, a travel club to encourage exploration
within Germany, the place she has lived since 2017. She’s a strong
advocate for empowering others through experience and believes
travel is important to build empathy and understanding.

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