How to Be the New Guy

posted in: Musings | 2

Your Turn Challenge Day #4: Teach us something that you do well

My sense of traveling has evolved. When I started, I was a tourist wanting to take a photo of virtually every single step, so that I could update my status on Facebook to show my friends and family all the cool places I’d been. I’ve transformed into a seasoned traveler, immersing myself in communities and helping bolster ecologically-minded projects.

Many of the local friends I make are artists, musicians, organic farmers and yoga instructors. I’ve developed a knack for connecting with people quickly. I’ve learned I am a deeply empathetic person who makes it easy for people to open up and feel heard, some describe this as emotional intelligence. I do this best one on one. I’ll make a strong connection with a community member and they’ll usually invite me to join their friends for outings and events. I always learn a lot being the new guy.

Within any circle of friends, there is history. Friends have shared stories and experiences; that’s how they connect the circle. I’m the new guy though, I’m not part of the connection, yet. I don’t have as much to relate with people. It’s different from being in a group of travelers; they’re more in the mode of meeting new people and repeatedly sharing life stories. With locals, its more like being with a group of friends from home.

I have trouble connecting and being social in group settings, even when it’s a circle of friends I’ve got history with. I feel like it’s not intimate enough for me to get to know anyone. Another way to look at it, though, is that group settings provide a platform for a higher volume of intimate connections.

An example-

I met Danae in Nicaragua at Project Bona Fide nearly two years ago. We spent a month together amongst a community of volunteers supporting a permaculture farm and community education program. She taught me about yoga, reiki and massage each morning in the treehouse. We did the master cleanse together where we didn’t eat any solid food for ten days. Our time together was full of belly-aching laughter just for the sake of laughing. No one else seemed to understand what was so funny.

I got to reconnect with her in Mexico (where she’s from) last month. She invited me to a Christmas Eve picnic on the beach with a bunch of her friends in Tulum. I was the new guy.

It felt strange being tardy, searching for a group of musicians on the beach, who I didn’t know, to celebrate the holidays with. I got lost. I walked in circles for an hour searching. When I finally found them, everyone was circled around a flattened beach chair brimming with food and drinks that everyone had brought to share. It was a potluck picnic on the beach!

Danae pointed at me, “Familia, le presento a Muffy,” then she waves her hands at everyone, “Muffy- Familia.”

I awkwardly took a seat next to Danae. I was thinking, damn, I’m the new guy and now I’m also the late guy who arrived just in time for the potluck empty-handed. Conventional wisdom says this is a bad first impression.

I sat nibbling on some tortilla and salsa garbanzo beans. I observed everyone engrossed in their respective conversations. I felt nervous, everyone was talking in Spanish, I was having trouble concentrating and picking out what people were talking about. I can speak Spanish pretty fluently, but I don’t speak the local slang. They talk fast.

I couldn’t help but think that no one wanted to talk to me. I didn’t know how to join the conversation. I wanted to leave. I felt like I was bumming on the festivities, unable to hold my own space. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. I sat for a while amidst the group, observing. I felt alone, like an alien from another planet.

After some observation, I felt I just needed to move. Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose, but everything to gain. It won’t hurt. Who cares if I stutter and get weird looks? Surely, I’ll learn something.

I spotted two guys sitting in the sand and there was an open space next to them. I went over, sat down and offered a big smile, “Feliz Navidad!” They responded and continued their conversation. Now that there was only one conversation to focus on, I understood much more and picked up that they were talking about falling off bicycles and getting hurt. They took turns showing off battle scars and laughing. I couldn’t help but laugh, too, from the sidelines. I waited for a lull in the laughter and swooped in with a short story about how I got in a motorcycle accident in the Philippines. I dusted the sand off the scars covering most of my left leg and arm. They gave me the all important nod of acceptance and we kept laughing. It was like a rite of passage, they saw me now. I stuttered through my Spanish and know I could have done much better on the delivery of my story. It was imperfect enough; I passed through to the next level.

My confidence was renewed. Of course I can relate to this circle of friends! I come from many circles of friends who share the same heart. I felt like I was becoming part of the circle now.

I stood up and took a little gander around our area on the beach. I started chatting with a guy from Oaxaca. He looked very mystical. He spoke to me in English! He told me about where he comes from, about traditions of indigenous people and about his life. I’ve always been fascinated with music and have connected with it much more deeply in recent years. I asked about how he learned and why he started playing the guitar. We spoke of beliefs and strong positive intentions. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and shared a hearty hug. I was getting tighter knit into the circle.

New friends were arriving and leaving. The sun continued to descend in the sky over the jungle, leaving a shadow. A couple of new friends arrived and the girl asked me where I’m from in Spanish. I responded, “Soy de Chicago, Y tu?” With a familiar accent, she responded, “Oh cool, we can talk in English then. I’m from California.”

We talked about all kinds of things. We shared our abbreviated life stories, enjoyed how beautiful the beach is. We were grateful together for being out of the cold and in the Caribbean. I was feeling a lot more at ease now. I can’t believe I was going to leave… This is the best.

I’m at home now. I helped myself to some vegetable lasagna. All of the food was so delicious. Before, I wasn’t eating much, trying to be polite because I was new and all. My belly rumbled; the food was offered to all with love and I was part of that, so I helped myself. I wasn’t ashamed.

The sun was setting, and there was a storm brewing. We cleaned up our makeshift table and brought the party ‘inside.’ There were 25 people crammed under an open air thatch roof dancing on a circle of cement in the sand. I jumped in and just went for it. I was done with being shy; I love dancing. We waved our arms wildly, laughed so hard we cried and jumped around in circles for hours. Our energy reflected the storm rumbling outside.

New friends were arriving and leaving. A group of musicians left to go play a gig next door at the beach club restobar. The group grew smaller, I stuck around. We laughed, we smiled at each other. We waved our arms and sang prayers. I even sang a few verses from an old Indian song, Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein… sharing the words with all my heart. Even though they didn’t understand what I was saying, the circle was bursting with love.

One of the girls had been playing guitar for a while and her fingers were getting tired. I want to learn to play the guitar. The more times I try it, the more I practice, the more I’ll learn and understand the guitar. I was already part of the group, I wasn’t ashamed to be myself. I let my vulnerability guide me. I asked her to teach me a single chord so she could take a break. She showed me an easy one, second rung on the third, fourth and fifth strings. I took the guitar in my lap, lined up my fingers carefully, squeezed the strings as tight as I could and slowly strummed my fingers to play my first note. And the crowd goes wild!!! “Whooo Yeee Haaaaa!! Aaaaandaleeee Muuffy!”

It was almost as if they had all planned it or something, everyone cheered hysterically in unison like their favorite team had just won the championship. The hut fell quiet, anxiously awaiting for me to play the same chord, again. I put a little bit of flair into this one and did something wavey with my hands. My friends cheered me on even more loudly, supporting my learning adventure on the beach. I made it. I  was part of this circle of friends. I was one of them.

In case you missed it, here’s the how to: I went from feeling alienated and like I wanted to leave to becoming one of the crew. I kept moving, pushing through my imperfect attempts to connect with people. I saw it as a learning opportunity, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I kept moving, talking to different people in the group, incrementally sharing more vulnerability each time. I gained confidence in my place there. Then, I let everything go and danced without shame.

Next step, returning. I want to explore going deeper into friends’ circles and showing up more regularly. I don’t want it to be just another crazy night with that Pakistani guy. I want to become part of communities and play regularly.

It’s your turn to be new.

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