On Being a Foreigner

It was a cool spring evening. There was a nip to the air, but there was also a promise of the summer that was to come. I was walking through my village, admiring the cherry blossoms and the daffodils, looking at the budding gardens in front of the houses. The village’s only real street was empty; people didn’t stroll much in this tiny village, but I regularly walk from one end to the other to get some exercise at the end of the day. I had my headphones on, and was listening to music on my iPhone, when a song from Pink Floyd’s Animals came up on shuffle. The music brought me back in time, making one of those connections that music has the power to do, dredging up memories from the depths of your brain.

It was the same time of year, and I was on my first trip abroad. I was exploring London, alone, wandering around the city, armed with my A-Z, looking for familiar landmarks. I didn’t know too many of them, but I had ended up in the area of Big Ben, probably the most iconic of London buildings. From there, I walked south and then west along the Thames for a long while, and I remember turning a corner, and then suddenly seeing the majestic spires of the Battersea Power Station looming above the horizon. I continued walking along the river until I reached this landmark, which appears on the cover of the Pink Floyd album, because, next to Big Ben, it was the most recognizable structure in London, at least for me.

Battersea power station

On that spring evening, walking down a street lined with old houses, that music and the memory of my first trip abroad made me think how incongruous it was that, after the many peregrinations of my life, I had ended up in a small village in the West Midlands of England.

For the third time in my life, I was a foreigner.

I don’t really have the travel gene. When I left my native New York City, back in the 1980s, I was curious about what life would be like in another country. I had saved up enough money so that, during that period when the dollar was at a peak against European currencies, I could live for a year without working. Why not take advantage of an opportunity like that? So I rented a house in France for a year, and went to see what would happen.

I had no intention of staying, but I met a woman, and started settling into life as a foreigner. I had studied French in high school, and I took classes as the French Institute in New York before leaving, knowing that I’d need better language skills. When I got to the country, I was able to communicate, and I picked up the language pretty quickly as I negotiated the many everyday activities where one needs to communicate. After that first year, I moved to Paris, and took more classes, at the Alliance Fran├žaise, that haven for foreigners wanting to learn the language and the culture.

Before long, I was fluent in French; I have a knack for languages, it seems. The French stopped smiling politely when I asked directions or bought something at the market, and started having conversations with me. But I was still a foreigner. During my first year in the country, I spent a lot of time hitchhiking around “the four corners of the hexagon.”[1] Some of the people were very friendly, others not so much. I recall one driver who, hearing my accent, asked if I was German. “No,” I said, “I’m American.” “Oh,” he replied, “I don’t like Americans.” The rest of the long trip was shrouded in heavy silence.

Most French people accepted me, grudgingly, into their midst. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I had the unique position of my foreignness being by main selling point. My students – mostly executives of large French companies – were used to working with foreigners, so they thought nothing of the fact that I was not one of them. I was an other, but the right kind.

After a few years, my French wife and I headed off to Norway for a year. Her company was working on an energy project there, and she was sent to work as part of the design team. The Norwegians are charming people, and most of them speak excellent English. So, while one could get by without learning Norsk, we both wanted to learn the language. This endeared us a bit to the locals, but when we started speaking Norwegian in a store, we would generally be greeted with a smile, and then responses in fluent English, making practicing the language difficult.

Back in France, in another part of the country, I worked as a bookseller for three years. I had this vague idea that I might want to open a bookstore someplace, and live the “romantic” live of peddling literature to fellow book-lovers. Alas, I quickly learned that the bookselling was not a growth market, but during the period I was in that bookstore, I met and talked with many French people. My accent was such that many people didn’t notice that I was a foreigner; some might have thought I was Canadian, and others just didn’t care.

Being a foreigner can be quite instructive. It makes you hyper-attentive to the world around you, as so many things are different. You quickly get used to the biggest differences – road signs, the way houses look, how people dress – but the small differences remain hidden just below the surface of everyday life. Things like the way the French greet each other (do you shake hands, or kiss on the cheeks?; if it’s the latter, do you kiss two, three or four times?[2]), or even the semiotics of food, take a long time to master.

Some people are happy to help you as a foreigner; others see you as an interloper. Depending on the color of your skin, you are treated differently. I was told several times, when discussing immigration in France – a hot-button political issue for the entire time I lived in the country, as it is now – that I was a “good immigrant.” This was most likely because I don’t have dark skin, but no one dared say that out loud. Yet the French won’t forget their animosity towards Americans, for having had to intervene in World War II, and help Europe defeat the Nazis. Instead of being thankful for this, the French tend to project their own failures onto Americans, and blame us for coca-colonization.

Yet there is an unease that festers just below the surface. As a foreigner, you are always an “other,” an outsider. You’ve come to the country to potentially take a job, marry into the culture, perhaps even take advantage of people in some way they can’t imagine. You can speak another language (the French have historically been poor at languages), and communicate a secret code that they can’t understand. As an American – a representative of a hyper-capitalist, materialist culture – it is assumed that you are naturally like the stereotypical rapacious American, people who exploit others in search of profit. You are the victim of every preconception and prejudice applied to your compatriots. Even if, over time, you manage to prove that you don’t meet those simplistic images, many people will remain suspicious of you.

Not all countries are the same, of course. And what is a “good immigrant” depends on the country. In France, the “bad immigrants” have dark skin: they come from Africa, mostly, either Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa, from former French colonies. They are either “Arabes,” as the French call North Africans, or blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. In the United Kingdom, where I now live, there is less immigration from these countries, but the current worry is about migrants from other member states of the European Union, or about Syrian refugees. The British are worried about the Poles and Romanians coming to take their jobs, impregnating their women, stealing their hidden treasure, as the Vikings did more than a millennium ago. And they’re worried about Middle Eastern refugees being ISIS operatives masquerading as displaced people.

For the British, I’m a different kind of foreigner. My partner tells me that my American accent gives me a sort of “get out of jail free card.” That I would be allowed to make gaffes that would lead a British person to hide in his or her garden shed for weeks. She often explains to people that I am “very direct,” such as when we were visiting houses recently, and asked some, well, direct questions about a house. Unlike the English, who skirt around issues when they have questions, I just ask them outright. People don’t seem to be bothered by this, perhaps because my accent and their familiarity with Americans on TV makes them less sensitive to this difference than it might have in the past.

No matter what, I’ll always be a foreigner. When I left New York in 1984, planning to be away for a year, I had no idea that I would be pulling up my roots for good, and condemning myself to being an other for the rest of my life. Even if I moved back to the United States now, I would be a foreigner. I’ve gotten so used to the way people live in this part of the world, that learning new habits and customs[3] would be arduous.

For a while, it’s interesting to be the exotic one at a party, where people are curious about you, your life, and the mores of your country. That curiosity faded over the years, because while I was getting used to the French, they were learning more about Americans through television and movies[4]. Naturally, much of what they think they know about my native country is based on stereotypes, but as the internet has spread information, and people travel more, it’s easier to know the basics of what American life is like. People here in the UK don’t even bat an eye when they hear my accent, the way the French and Norwegians did, so it’s easier to blend in.

I never intended to be different; things just turned out that way.

  1. France is roughly shaped like a hexagon, if you look at it on a map and turn your head a bit. The French sometimes call their country “l’hexagone.” And they do use the expression “les quatre coins de l’hexagone,” in a slightly facetious way.  ?
  2. Even the French get confused by this, and sometimes ask the other person how many times they are to kiss. Seriously.  ?
  3. WalMart, no single-payer health care, and the omnipresence of guns, to name just a few. I’m naturally aware of all these things from television and the internet, but I’ve not lived with them.  ?
  4. Of course, for many years, the French learned about American culture by watching Dallas.  ?