The Challenge of Difference

By Catherine Loppy

What’s it like to move to a completely new place? To uproot from everything you know and learn a new way of living? To navigate a new culture and establish yourself, when English is not your first language? Lume caught up with Catherine Loppy, who migrated to Melbourne in 2010 and is now living in Hobart. She’s not only found her feet, but will release a book on her experience, titled Beyond the Shadows, in late September.

I travelled all the way from the Gambia in West Africa to study in Australia, leaving parents, siblings and relatives behind and embracing the journey into the unfamiliar. My grant-aunt and my parents wanted a brighter future with greater opportunities for their twenty-four-year-old daughter.

When I arrived in Australia the most significant challenge I faced, and still face to some degree, is the challenge of difference.

How do I fit in?
Where do I start?
Who can understand me?

I experienced a massive culture shock. Everyone looked so different from the people I left in my hometown; the people I grew up with in my neighbourhood, where we shared the same stories and laughed about the same things. I felt lost, alone, and overwhelmed.

And the Australian accent is … unique! People couldn’t understand me and my Gambian accent. I was talked down to and summarily waved aside publicly as I tried to interact, just because I sounded different. I was corrected and put on the spot anytime I mispronounced certain words. I felt disgraced everywhere, be it in the shops, social gatherings, work or school. I began to secretly wish that no one would talk to me so that I didn’t have to respond, so they don’t notice my accent. It was like I should run away and hide. But there was nowhere to hide.

Of course, when people noticed my difference, they bombarded me with questions. “What is your name? Where are you from? How long have you been here? Where do you work or are you studying? In which university are you studying? What are you studying?” Questions upon questions shot at me. Within, I would be thinking, “Please, can’t I be let alone?” Of course, I tried as much as I could to answer as civilly as possible. In the midst of all these, my heart was yearning so much to belong, but I guess my accent and difference ruled me out all the time.

Being in a new environment with limited information can be a hard experience. In my new environment, I was mocked, criticised and ridiculed at times.

I was the only female student in an academic year of 60 students studying building and construction, so I stood out like a sore thumb. My classmates would make jest of me, wondering what I was doing in a male dominant field, and often laughed at me during lessons. Because of that, I felt intimidated and scared to ask questions during class.

One of the most humiliating scenarios was when a classmate came to me, looked me in the eye and said, “What are you doing here Catherine? This is a male course, and why not go do a secretarial course, a lady’s course?”. That was confronting and painful.

Couple of times had to repeat myself so many times before I got understood. This drove me to think I wasn’t good enough because I can’t pronounce or present myself in an acceptable manner.

I was too ashamed and scared to ask questions.

I was willing to adapt, but I felt the people in my unfamiliar surroundings weren’t helping my adaptation process.

I wanted to be accepted the way I was, no apologies. It was hard to meet the daily expectations. It was overwhelming for me. I cried, I prayed, I asked so many ‘why?’ and ‘when will it end?’ questions. I even lost confidence in myself at a point. The harsh whispers because of my difference were too much to bear. All I wanted was to belong. I tried so hard to be accepted and appreciated, that I got weighed down by the pain of rejection.

Down the line I had some very helpful lecturers that were willing to support me during my first two years at TAFE especially when they realised that I was the only female student for my course during that academic year. Two of them urged me to seek their assistance anytime needed and they were always approachable. The best part of that time was when a male classmate decided to be my friend and help me through with some of the difficult subjects in my course. He would actually sit next to me in class as I used to sit alone. That was a huge relief and the beginning of a long awaited belonging welcome! At least someone was acknowledging my difference and was okay with me being in their midst.

Eventually, I concluded that something had to give way. I couldn’t continue beating myself down because I found myself in a different environment. So I started to value my difference and embrace my uniqueness, knowing I can add value to others and am capable of making a difference in any environment I find myself. I had to force myself to engage with people and move forward irrespective of these challenges. And now, I am glad I pressed on, pushed through, moved forward and finally broke barriers.

I intentionally put in effort to talk, chat and sit next to my male classmates. I pushed myself to be in the same group assignments when the lecturers asked us to choose our groups. I arranged group studies and intentionally ask them about their career paths and what they wanted to do after graduation. This was a huge success for me as I gradually became friends with quite a handful of them. I was building a pathway to allow us to break off our different silos and give us a chance to know each other. And the moment that chance was given, it started a friendship of laughter, fun and group studies that I still cherish up to this day, even though we’ve all graduated and gone our different ways.

Now, I live in Hobart, which has been so welcoming for me. I felt that belonging in the atmosphere the moment I stepped out of the plane. I’ve been privileged to connect with some community groups and I love every moment spent with the community.

The lessons I learned and my advice to anyone facing the unknown and struggling to belong:

  1. Never look down on yourself because you’re different.

  2. Do not allow people’s perspectives of you to rob you of your confidence.

  3. Know who you are and accept your identity. You don’t need affirmation from people to validate you.

  4. Never allow rejection to weigh you down. Value your difference and embrace the uniqueness in you, knowing you can make a difference in your community.

  5. Finally, I have come to understand that difference does not rule you out. You decide whether you are ruled out or not by your attitude.