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Home Outside the Comfort Zone

By Joanne Lee on November 8th, 2017

When I moved from Hawai’i to North Carolina, I thought of it as an adventure. I was in my 30s and eager to experience new things professionally and personally. Back then, I didn’t view my move as being permanent, and reasoned that I could return home if things got difficult. Having spent most of my life up to that point in a geographically separated state that is very culturally unique, I was eager to experience life on “the mainland,” and people and places I had read or heard about from a distance.

The act of leaving one’s comfort zone is scientifically described as entering a space of “optimal anxiety,” in which you change the routines and patterns that minimize risk and challenge your state of mental security. According to the theory, getting out of your comfort zone is effective for growth, provided that the level of risk does not produce so much stress that it impairs functioning.

So, I jumped out of my comfort zone with both feet. Rather than choosing a place that might have shared at least some similarities with the community I knew so well, I landed in rural Eastern North Carolina. Over the past 17 years, the balance of growth and risk has vacillated.

Being part of a dominant group is a privilege. I left a community in which I was in the majority racial group to one where Asians make up less than one percent of the population. I moved to a community with two dominant racial groups—black and white—versus the multi-ethnic community in which I was raised. In many ways, it was the first time I had experienced what it felt like to be a minority in this country. Being the target of stereotypes and racism beyond infrequent incidents not only opened my eyes about the perceptions of others, but also prompted me to examine and change my own biases and perceptions. I also became more curious about how we all experience our own race and ethnicity in relation to others.

Now thinking about my race, ethnicity, and culture on a daily basis for the first time, I was compelled to learn more about my ancestors and cultural history. I also learned more about parts of American history like the delineations between southerners and northerners. I came to appreciate Southern culture and its similarities to my own around family, respect, and food as a social connection and source of comfort. I was reminded that these are common values for people despite differences in physical appearance and belief systems.

Stark environmental differences also challenged me when I moved. Normal childhood days in Hawai’i involved eating fresh mangoes, bananas, and papayas picked from backyard trees, walking to school, and playing at the beach with friends. Once I began living in a new community with fewer readily accessible options, I had to seek different ways to incorporate healthy eating and active living into my routine.

By deepening engagement in my new community, over time I discovered the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people who have created healthy supports, and their steadfast commitment to see changes occur incrementally over time. I watched a strip of sidewalk eventually connect to community destinations. A farmer’s road stand has grown into a neighborhood farmers’ market. Unused county-owned property has been transformed into a community gathering place and resource, and was recognized this year as one of five Great Public Spaces in the country by the American Planning Association. And while the pace of change that happens in communities is the result of unique and complex social, historical, and cultural contexts, people working collectively can and do make a difference.

This mix of experiences has grounded me in a few valuable truths: Choosing to leave one’s comfort zone is a privilege. I am fortunate to have a choice about where I live, and am acutely aware that others do not. And by moving beyond my comfort zone, my capacity for connection with others has grown. In our efforts to support healthy communities, it’s important to look for the assets that each has and remain grateful when community members receive us.

While my initial leap and related culture shock were eye-opening, I’ve gained the most impactful insights from direct and routine exposure to lived experiences over time. I suppose experts would say that what has enabled me to stay in my new home for almost two decades is an ability to achieve “optimal anxiety” outside of my comfort zone. I like to say that it’s because I have been fortunate to become part of a community that welcomed me into their home.

Photo courtesy Tracy B. Cash, Pitt County Planning Department

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.