Coping With Being a Minority: What’s “the minority experience” and how to manage it well

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By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC

I would think that most people have experienced the struggle to fit in at some point in their lives. Whether it was in one’s peer group at school, or in sports, or when you moved to a new town or situation, we have all likely gone through those awkward situations and all the emotions and thoughts that are stirred up as a result. It’s not fun. But for most folks, there was an adjustment, and you settled in and everything was fine. But what about being a minority? What if it’s not so easy to simply make some adjustments? What if you struggle to figure out how to make those adjustments and find your place?

When I lived in China I was definitely in the minority, and it showed. You can’t really blend into a largely homogenous culture. We in America can’t really grasp what that even means. Our country is made up of many cultures – the “melting pot” right? Oh, there may be sections or pockets in which everyone is from the same culture, but unless you never leave your own neighborhood, you’ve probably experienced being around a rather diverse group, standing in line next to someone with a different skin color, or who is speaking a different language, or is dressed very differently than yourself. If you live in a city or a more diverse area, you may have become accustomed to it even and hardly notice that there are Asians, Latinos, and Middle Easterners around you. However, in China, there are Chinese people and then more Chinese people and still more Chinese people. Oh, there will be some Koreans and Japanese and a smattering of others, but 9 out of 10 are going to be Chinese folks. This means that my white face stuck out – and I mean really stuck out.

When I first arrived in China this was somewhat exciting, but then, everything was exciting then. Everything was interesting and different, and the fact that people starred at me was curious and interesting as well. I wasn’t thinking about fitting in at that time. But, the newness wore off and I began to want to fit in more. (My time in China) shifted from being a vacation or travel experience, and I wanted (Asia) to become my home. You see, it’s not till you shift from visiting to moving in that you’ll struggle with “the minority experience”. And that’s when (things) got challenging for me.

I didn’t go to China just for an exciting experience; I wanted to learn about China, and I wanted in many ways to “become” Chinese. I wanted to become an insider and be accepted by them. It turned out to be much harder than I had expected. For one, my face got in the way. Don’t get me wrong, the language was a huge barrier, but even when I was able to speak adequately, I would receive dumfounded looks that said, “I know the words coming out of your mouth, but I can’t believe they are coming from that white face”. And there are certainly Chinese expectations when they see someone like me – the Waiguo Ren, “the Foreigner”. It was as if they said “ah, a rich person who can benefit me if I befriend them” or immediately thought of me as someone who could be charged more for products in their shop. I don’t mean that to sound as base and selfish as it appears. I think that if you or I were on the other side of the cultural equation, we might approach this similarly.

Becoming a cultural insider and navigating the “minority experience” is challenging, and I can’t say that I flew through it and was a clear success. But I want to share some things that did help me.

  1. Become a learner – not just of the culture but of yourself.

You will need to be an observer of the culture and be careful not to become its judge. When we are wounded or offended by the culture’s norms, we may respond by criticizing back, finding fault and blaming. Taking this position, although the aim is about protecting yourself, will really block you from being able to understand the culture and fit in?. It will instead form a chasm between you and those in the culture. The alternative is to learn to develop your awareness of what is going on in your heart and talk your way through it. The times I didn’t do this went badly for me and were probably odd or quite amusing to the strangers that I would get frustrated with. There will be plenty of things that seem stupid to you about the way the culture does something. You’ll need to tell yourself that it seems stupid to you because you don’t yet understand the perspective from which they shaped their view.

  1. Make some friends

If you want to get through the “minority experience” and fit in better, you will need some folks who are insiders to walk with you through it. You need some folks of whom you can ask direct questions and folks who will be patient with you. I would not have survived at all without the friends I made and leaned on.

I realize that this is a big challenging piece – to make some friends while you are still an outsider. But is it going to be foundational!

  1. Go it with a friend before going it alone.

This presents a pattern for learning how to get around and figuring things out. Whether it’s how to get around town, fill out a form, buy things, or get a haircut, take a friend with you first and enlist their guidance. But when you are ready, you’ll want to then try things on your own as well. I remember taking my friend along the first time I went to get my hair cut. He was shocked at how much they wanted to charge me, and with him there, I got the “insider” price. That day my friend also had a cultural experience and learned what it was like to be me, which helped build our relationship as well.

  1. Be aware of yourself

This is about realizing that how we come across affects how the culture is going to respond to us. You’ve heard of the concept of the “ugly American” right? It’s the perception that some cultures have; that Americans can be loud, obnoxious, and self absorbed. The point is to become conscious of how you conduct yourself in the new culture. Do you expect people to give you their attention? Do you expect an amount of respect or courtesy? Do you like to do things the way you always have and believe that the new culture should welcome you or be considerate of your differences? I suppose, in one form this point is about the question of whether you are willing to humble yourself. (By the way, you’ll never make it if you aren’t!)

  1. Emotional Management

I was not at all prepared for the ways and the degree to which living in another culture would “upset my apple cart” and draw all kinds of negative emotions to the surface. It will help if you are not surprised by this. Being taken out of your comfort zone and thrust into a myriad of new situations will rock your emotional boat. It will produce stress. You will need to be mindful of this and take stock regularly and then take steps to lower your stress level. Prepare ahead to know what kind of activities are helpful for lowering your stress level.

  1. Develop a balance between the new culture and your old culture

You may be tempted to dive in and immerse yourself in the new culture as much as you can, thinking that is the best way to acclimate quickly. However, I would say that that is a set up for the high levels of stress just mentioned. You will need to maintain a connection with the familiar as well, for your sanity and emotional health. For me that might have meant getting a milk shake at McDonald’s or spending some time with other Americans. But, be aware that, as “the minority experience” grows and you get frustrated, there will be a temptation to pull back and separate from the new culture, clinging to anything from home to soothe you. This would be a big mistake. Keep it in balance and you’ll grow in your capacity to understand and adjust to the new culture.

“The minority experience” will stretch you in ways you never expected and bring emotional stuff buried in you to the surface. But that can be extremely valuable if you are open to learning about yourself. Process your thoughts and reactions with a safe person and you will grow a great deal, and if you are patient, you’ll be able to make the adjustments and find yourself fitting in.


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