I went to college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. If you aren’t from the US, you probably haven’t heard of it. Our most well-known alumnus is probably Michael Jordan, although these days, mentioning him is starting to date me.
North Carolina is in the south east of the United States, so you have to imagine a place where the weather is pretty much the opposite of what I live in now in the Netherlands. The sun shines a lot and it almost never rains. When it does, it’s in sudden, drenching cloudbursts that soak everything in sight for 15 minutes and then go away.
North Carolina is the kind of place where people don’t say “hello,” they say “heeeeeey.” It’s also a place where the word “y’all” is never a joke because English lacks a you plural, and y’all keeps us covered. It’s hot and sticky in August and we solve that problem with large, ice-filled glasses of very sweet iced tea.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was founded in 1789 and was the first public university in the United States. We’re quite proud of that. We call ourselves the Tar Heels and we call Chapel Hill the Southern Part of Heaven. We play James Taylor’s Carolina on My Mind at any gathering because he’s from Chapel Hill and wrote that song about missing Carolina, which we all do once we’ve left.
The year I went to Carolina, there were 2,500 incoming freshmen in my class. My high school had 250 students. I would attend an anthropology class that fall with more students in the course than my entire high school. The incoming class was 80% in-state students from North Carolina. They filled spots split evenly amongst the state’s 100 counties. 20% of the students were out-of-state or international.
I was one of the 20%, an American with out-of-state residency who lived internationally. My status was in reality somewhere between out-of-state and international because despite my American nationality, I hadn’t set foot on American soil for three years while I was in high school. Back in those days we couldn’t livestream media and we didn’t have a satellite. Three years of American pop culture; television, films, and music, had pretty much passed me by.
In those first weeks of school, I had that conversation you have with people you’ve never met before over and over again. It’s the conversation where you ask people where they’re from plus every follow-up you can think of. Sounds simple, but I had all the wrong answers for their questions.
If they asked me where I was from, I said, “South Dakota,” the place where I’d lived the longest, from age 4 to 12. No one’s ever met anyone from South Dakota until they meet me. It’s a state that had 600,000 people in it when I left and most of them pretty much stay there.
If they asked me where I had gone to high school, I told them truthfully that I’d gone to a Swiss boarding school for three years. That gave them all kinds of ideas about me and my lifestyle that were completely false.
So, I tried the alternative answer to “Where are you from” by telling them where I’d lived last. Well, that was Saudi Arabia, where my parents had lived for five years. They didn’t know what to do with that answer either.
Whatever truthful answer I gave to these common questions, a silence fell. There followed disbelief and a lot of follow-up questions. The conversation would basically turn to all the ways I was different or a challenge to their experience of what “normal people” did. I felt incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing.
Within weeks, I stopped answering these basic questions. I tried to find ways around them, to evade them. In September of that year, my parents bought a house in Carrboro, the neighboring town. That was my out. From that moment on, whenever people asked me where I was from or where I’d gone to school, I answered, “my parents live in Carrboro.”
I stopped telling my stories.
The extent to which I concealed my past didn’t become clear to me until three years later when I was getting a ride home from a guy I worked with. I casually mentioned something about when I was in boarding school and I swear the car moved over half a lane in an instant. We’d worked together nearly every week for three years and I had never said anything about it.
The silence I lived in was terrible and lonely. We can’t get to know people well unless we tell them who we are. It took me 20 years to realize that not telling my stories had cut me off from myself and my ability to form meaningful relationships with the people around me. I had to start telling my story to escape the loneliness that had taken up residence in my heart.
It had nothing to do with likeability or being a nice person or having a sense of humor. It had everything to do with the fact that I held back the very core of who I was by not talking about it. I was afraid of the discomfort that came with having to explain myself. I was tired of being different, of having my difference be my defining quality.
It’s hard to build an open and trusting relationship with someone who doesn’t talk about the things that formed them. It’s hard to build a relationship with someone who is scared to be vulnerable.
I’ve lived in the Netherlands now for 16 years and nearly nine of those in Nijmegen. When people know about my history of moving around a lot, they inevitably ask me if I feel like I’m putting down roots now. We often think of our roots as a place, an ancestral home or the city we return to for vacations and holidays.
I will never have that. My stories are my roots.
All of our roots are stories and when we stop telling those stories it’s like severing a plant’s roots. Without roots, a plant cannot nourish itself anymore, it cannot heal anymore, and it cannot grow anymore.
We have to tell our stories so that we can nourish ourselves and heal ourselves and grow.
Women’s stories will always disrupt the dominant narrative because men have established the dominant narrative. Men’s stories have established what it means to work, what it means to be a professional, what it means to be a woman, and even what it means to be a mother.
Our stories will always be disruptive. Our stories will be more disruptive if we are immigrants or ethnic minorities or mixed race or disabled or LGBTQ. Our stories create ripples and even surf-worthy waves in the calm surface of a dominant narrative that expects everyone to conform.
We have to share our stories because stories are how we teach each other and how we learn from each other. They are how we teach our children that the stories they can live and the stories they will tell can be different. We can only release them from the dominant narrative by giving them alternatives so they can imagine a different future.
We used to tell our stories around campfires. That’s harder to do these days. In addition to clean air laws, we don’t seem to have much time for campfires. So, where and how can we share our stories?
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that women need a room of their own to create. She imagined Shakespeare’s sister cooking and cleaning while he learned and wrote and performed. Her words still hold true in the sense that women need to protect their time to create.
But we don’t necessarily need a room of our own anymore. We don’t need to convince people that our stories deserve an audience in order to get published. Today, we have smartphones of our own and social media as a forum for sharing stories. So, share your stories with your family and your friends and even at the social media campfire if you want to.
We also need to help each other tell stories. We have to serve each other in our communities of women. We need to ask each other for stories. We need to listen to each other’s stories. We need to encourage women to tell their stories and, with their permission, tell their stories far and wide.
I hope we can start breaking down some of the imagined boundaries between professional and personal stories. It is somehow acceptable to tell professional stories in personal time and yet we balk at telling personal stories in a professional setting. Why is that?
I’m the same person at work as I am at home. My professional concerns influence my personal life and my personal concerns influence my professional life. More importantly, the skills I develop in my professional life are helpful in my personal life and vice versa. We can no longer discount the skills women develop in their personal lives when they enter a professional space.
Let’s face it, a mother who can get kids clean, clothed, and fed, and off to school or day care on time and then turn up at work ready for the next challenge has some serious skills that her employer should consider making use of.
Finally, it’s incredibly empowering to take control of one’s story. We go through life with people telling us what our stories mean. People tell me it must be hard that I’ve moved a lot or that I must be looking forward to finding a place to settle or that I’m lucky. That’s their story, not mine. When I tell my story, I get to decide what it means to me.
Start telling your story, the world is waiting for it. You have so much to teach us. And while you’re at it, remember to ask others for their stories. Listen to them. Encourage them to tell their stories, too.
There are beautiful and inspiring stories in the world just waiting to be told. Yours is one of them.
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