When I first landed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I knew what the other side of the US looks like. Having been used to skyscrapers whizzing past me while riding in the cab, it seemed odd to find not even one single-story building in the vicinity for miles together. The endless white on both sides of the expressway painted a rather gloomy picture of Cedar Rapids, and made me wonder if I should have even chosen that project that got me there in the first place.
I decided to explore ways to engage myself in that ice-cold place, lest I get into depression brought about by the nothingness of one such place. My exploration led me to the doorstep of Kirkwood Community College. Despite the cold, I still found myself hesitant to step inside. I had to muster some courage to get myself exposed to the idea of talking again after a long hiatus of 4 years from public speaking.
I walked in, only to want to run away immediately, for I found no other Asian (read Indian) in that room of Hawkeye Toastmasters. Up until that point, I was scared of Caucasians and was always tongue-tied in their presence. Even at work, I had found it difficult to open up when there were mostly Caucasians in the room. That was because of the baseless assumption I had – I believed I was being judged all the time, so I used to limit my interaction with them as much as I could. I know, I was quite misinformed and was making ill-founded allegations in my head, but I couldn’t help it when I was overwhelmed about being one of the minorities in the Land of Dreams.
Under such circumstances, landing myself in another situation that reminded me (yet again) that maybe I did not belong there, was overwhelming enough to want to make me run away. I couldn’t have been more wrong for it was the Hawkeye toastmasters, the Caucasians amongst them especially, who helped me in far more ways than I could have ever imagined.
For starters, a couple of speeches in Hawkeye toastmasters club was all it took to get over my fear of opening up in front of foreigners in any professional setting. All the genuine smiles and the encouraging nods while I was giving my speeches did wonders to my self esteem. There was constant encouragement to be authentic in my speech, which established the pride in me for so many traits about myself. Sharing my life stories with the world and expressing my thoughts and opinions as they are slowly became commonplace. This helped me become a better speaker and an even better writer.
Needless to say, every one of the Hawkeye toastmasters lived up to their words by being their most authentic selves and expressed themselves without any inhibitions whenever they had a chance to, further encouraging me to be myself on stage and even otherwise. There was Tony, who tugged at our heartstrings with a song he played on his guitar, reminiscing about his wife he lost a few years back. There was Teri who moved us to tears with her rendition about her Mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. There was Cliff, whose smile could light up a room, who spoke about his (and his little one’s) battle with cancer and he glowed with optimism from all angles as he spoke. There was Sarah, all of 20 years, who inspired us with her story about helping abuse victims have a better life. There was Madhuri (yes, a fellow Indian who joined us later) who had just delivered a beautiful baby after the not so smooth pregnancy marked by gestational diabetes.
I do not remember other speeches, but I do recollect every one of the toastmasters inspiring me in one way or the other. Regis, the gentleman who always inspired me to do better and better and said so many times that I will soon win many distinguished titles in Toastmasters. The sweet Susie who never said a bye without a hug at the end of every meeting. Sister Ladonna, the lovely person who has always been very kind to me and still writes me long emails sharing the details of her life and appreciating my blogs whenever possible. Laura, the kind soul who watched out for me from Day 1 and ensured I make the most out of my short period in her club. Anne, the first person at Hawkeye to help me, by making my club transition a super smooth process. And, there are even more beautiful souls at Hawkeye, all of whom made me feel at home in a place so far away from home. I have saved every note that was written to me on my speeches, all of them such kind words which I go back to and read now and then.
Of all the people I have mentioned, I was closest to Teri Skoog not only because she was my mentor (an amazing one at that) but also because her work with people suffering from Dementia is very inspiring. I should thank her for getting me involved with some of her awe-inspiring work with the Assisted Living Community and for encouraging me to make the most of my stay in Iowa. She even treated me like a family member by showering me with so much love and affection all the time. Driving with her, Sarah and Susie for the Speaker to Trainer session was a lot of fun! That training was about using public speaking skills to become a better trainer and as expected the learning I gathered in that session is helping me in my job a lot, day in and day out.
As a small token of gratitude, I hosted Teri’s family for an Indian dinner in my modest hotel room and I was again overwhelmed by their love for me, for my food and for my gesture. They were such wonderful guests who praised my food, ensured there were no left overs and thoroughly cleaned up the place before they left.
I understand, breaking the preconceived notions of race, gender and nationality stereotypes is quite challenging especially when they are all in one’s mind induced by self doubts and unfounded assumptions. But after getting to properly know the Hawkeye Toastmasters, not once did I entertain such thoughts and not once did I believe I am being treated any differently from others.
Thus, they made me look forward to Mondays (it’s an altogether different matter that now I am back to not looking forward to Mondays anymore) and inspired me to share my life stories as speeches and as blogs. Thank you dear Hawkeye Toastmasters for all your love and generosity in accepting me with open arms and loving me for who I am. By the little things each one of you did for me, you made me more self – accepting and helped me keep my imposter syndrome at check. And that has made all the difference to my life.
Here is to more speeches and more writings about being unashamedly myself.