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Being an Other

Being an Other..........................(4177.jpg)

I've never fitted in, which is why Barack Obama is so appealing. That probably doesn't make much sense, so let me explain. 

I grew up in a small village near Edinburgh to a Scottish father and an Iranian mother. My siblings and I were always oddities at school – the darkest children there, exotic and unfamiliar. My seemingly fearless older sister bore the brunt of the insults that were thrown at us. I was shy and clearly wasn't a good enough target, but it was hard to hear some of the names she was called because of the color of her skin. And when she came home with the words ‘I wish I was white' written in one of her school workbooks, I knew Mum and Dad were upset.Being an Other..........................(4185.jpg)

We later moved to Canada where we were exotic not for our skin color, but for our accents. The school we went to was a mixed bag of races, but the way we talked made us stand out. I was often asked to ‘say something in British' or teased (albeit playfully) for how I pronounced words like ‘moon', ‘food' and ‘boot'.

We moved again a few years later, this time to England, and once again we stood out for our accents, which were by this point almost Canadian. I was labeled an ‘f***ing Yank' by cocky 14-year-old boys until my accent morphed back into something less alien.

Over the years, filling out forms has been an interesting challenge, the kind that ask for personal information like ‘ethnicity'. There has never been a category for ‘Scottish-Iranian'. And that's fair enough – I've only ever met one person who fits this description, other than my sister and brother. So, I've fiddled about with European/Middle Eastern, but generally I just check ‘Other'. I used to be irritated that I was left in this strange hinterland of a place, but these days it gives me enormous pleasure to be different.Being an Other..........................(4183.jpg)

That feeling started creeping up on me as an anthropology student at university in London. When I described my background, people were excited and curious. They asked me a lot of questions, and some expressed envy at my perceived exoticness. They seemed to want a little of what I had.

Today, being an ‘Other' is like a badge of honor for me. I've put up with the jokes and the sense of not fitting in. Now I enjoy my misfit status. I like being an outsider. It has certain advantages.

I'm not limited by geographical boundaries. I can be a misfit absolutely anywhere. There is, after all, nowhere in the world that Iranian Scots can return to and call ‘home', not in the real sense at least. Except the world. I'm proud of my brother who speaks Thai and my sister who speaks Japanese. I'm proud of my father, who, after Mum died, married a Chinese woman and moved to Hong Kong.Being an Other..........................(4184.jpg)

As an ‘Other', I believe it's easier to see both sides of debates. It's easier to be flexible. I've always had to be. After all, I've been Iranian in Scotland, Scottish in Canada, and Canadian in England. Sometimes I end up tied in knots over my open-mindedness, but in general I think it's better to be confused than bogged down in preconceptions. I also have endless sympathy for underdogs, having felt like one for years.

These days I live in Los Angeles and have a daughter who is one quarter Iranian, one quarter Scottish, and half Eastern European-American. It's hard to describe her in any useful ethnic terms. She has friends who are Korean-American-Iranian, English-Taiwanese, German-Polish-Guatemalan, and even Iranian-Indian-Native American-Irish-Swiss-Scottish.

Sometimes it seems like there are more ‘Others' in her generation than there are non-Others. As she grows up, I know she won't go through what my siblings and I did. There are just too many Others to be made fun of.Being an Other..........................(4182.jpg)

Which brings me back to Obama. Someone wise recently suggested to me that politics shouldn't just be about left and right, yes and no. He said there should always be a category for ‘other', and that this would remove the rigidity of a political system that flies back and forward between extremes, a system that doesn't bend to accommodate what a society really believes in.

As an ‘Other', I believe strongly that we need to be less rigid. The world cannot be divided up simply, and it may take an ‘Other' to see this clearly. Someone who hasn't ever really fitted in. Someone who isn't afraid to step outside the lines of convention, because he never really fitted into them. Someone with a more world-centric vision.

It's easy to label Barack Obama as an ‘African-American' candidate, but that's missing the appeal of the man. He's an Other – and that, as my father would always tell me, is the way of the future.

– Roshan McArthur


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  • Roshan

    January 20, 2009

    John, thanks so much for the book recommendation. I’m reading it right now, and it has made me even more emotional about the inauguration. It’s painful to watch ethnic groups wage war over barriers – and wonderful to think that we now have a leader with the vision to break them down.

  • John Bowers

    November 13, 2008

    Have you read (or listened to) ‘Dreams from my Father?’ It is precisely such stories––human stories of conflicted identity and the search for our particular place in the world––that will break down the barriers we have so meticulously constructed around ourselves.

  • megan

    November 4, 2008

    we’re working on it!

  • Marcela

    November 4, 2008

    Yes, my comment just disappeared! Sniff….

  • AER

    November 4, 2008

    Fix the comments field!

  • Marcela

    November 4, 2008

    At certain point, the Americans forgot that they are just as

  • megan

    November 4, 2008

    totally love this. heartfelt & amazing. hopefully others will take heed. go obama!

Any comments?