Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: Finding my tribe
There’s a sea of different people in this world. While everyone is unique and different, there are enough commonalities between us all to lump us into various groups based on personality, interests, and experiences. I don’t view the Zodiac signs as the ultimate source of truth. But every time I see a Capricorn description, I inch closer to acceptance that groups of like-minded people exist and we can be somewhat predictable. We seem to form tribes whether we want to or not. But for some of us, the journey to find our tribe can take forever.
When we are young, our tribe is our family. They are the first group we spend hours with by choice and by force. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of cousins my age. Most of them were older, between six to 15 years ahead. I can count more times I felt awkward in family gatherings than I felt comfortable. They were always playing kickball or monkey in the middle, things I failed at on a daily basis. To this day, if a ball is headed my way, my first instinct is to duck and run. Right from the beginning, I felt like a square peg and my family was the round hole. They were my family, but I can’t say they were my tribe. To their credit, they have always loved me as Heather, their little cousin. For this, I am forever grateful. But love without belonging is hollow.
The next forced community is school. For kids who go to a large school, the odds increase for finding a group you can call your own. But for kids in small schools, like mine with a graduating class of 120 students, it’s a lot harder to find your tribe. You search for a group of people who have baggage that matches yours, but when the odds are against you, you could be the only one. Feeling alone in school can create alienation and depression, devastating feelings when you are young. From this alienation emerges stereotypes that damage young kids before they have a chance. You become the gay kid. The nerd. The weirdo. The stoner. School becomes a horrible sorting system that pigeonholes kids into social and intellectual categories and stunts any possible growth as a human being. So for some, finding one’s tribe in school is impossible. For others, they aren’t allowed to explore and really discover who they are. For me, I made friends well enough, and have lifetime friends who are genuinely good people. I explored various identities throughout high school. But did I really find my tribe? No.
So then comes college. This is where some young people really flourish. They can reinvent who they want to be. They can join the theater group, play intramural sports, and find friends interested in the same career path. College can be a place where people find their tribe. For me, it was in theater class. We didn’t have a theater program in my high school so I never really experienced “theater kids.” In college, I found my people…dramatic, ridiculous people. For the first time in my life, I was with a group of people where I excelled; and I felt like I belonged. I threw out references that people actually caught. I never sang a show tune alone. I made dramatic exits that were appreciated. They got it. All of it. And it was glorious.
As I moved into full-blown adulthood, my tribe changed. I got married, had a child, and moved to the profession of teaching. My tribe changed to those who understood marriage and all its nuances, to other mothers who agreed that motherhood was not the end-all-be-all identity, and other teachers who struggled every day to help students in an unforgiving world. Each time the tribe changed, it became more difficult to find that square hole I fit in. The sea of people became smaller. Interests became more narrow until you got to a point where you didn’t have a tribe but rather a mini gathering. The struggle was real.
As an adoptee, I never truly found my tribe until I joined some Korean Adoptee (KAD) Facebook groups and attended a KAD conference. In every previous example, even when I fit in there was always an underlying imposter syndrome that made me feel like I wasn’t fully a part of the group. My identity held me back from giving myself permission to feel at ease. But in this group, this group of Korean Adoptees, I finally felt like I found my tribe. Their family pictures on Facebook looked like mine, a gaggle of white people with a solitary Korean face in the middle. I met people with whom I had an unspoken understanding. I didn’t have to fully explain myself because they already knew the situation I was talking about. When I said I felt like an outsider growing up, this group didn’t need me to explain at length. You could see in their faces they’d already felt that isolation, the idea that we are “…one of those things that’s not like the other.” We are a tribe built on Han, abandonment, and loss. We’ve all been asked, “No, where are you really from?” and rolled our eyes in annoyance. We’ve all felt completely alone in a crowded gymnasium. We all were in awe that first time we were in a room where everyone was of our ethnicity—every single face looked like ours.
It’s an amazing, surreal moment to finally just blend in. Finding this tribe is a gift. It completes a part of me unlike any other experience. While it may take some time, it is worth finding your tribe.