Musings on Foreignness

Cliff’s out of town for work and we don’t like traveling separately. That might have me in a more introspective mood than usual. It won’t be outright maudlin, though. Pinky swear.

A fellow blogger, Ellie & the German, has a new post up titled Expattery. I’ve tried to reply to it about a dozen times today, but nothing I write seems correct. I’m not a big commenter by nature. Unless I’ve really got something to say, I usually talk myself out of it. Not important enough, not insightful enough, not enough there there. But something about her post really stuck with me and made me want to reach out. So here goes:

We’re approaching 10 years of living abroad, so I feel like I finally have a little perspective. We’re also hitting that stretch of adulthood where our friends all have kids or own property or are hitting that first wave of divorces. I want to say that it’s going to be ok, it’s going to get better, all that happy horseshit. But I’d rather not lie.

Expat experiences are utterly unique. Everyone sets out for different reasons – work, school and love are the big ones – and most decide pretty quickly whether this is a one time thing or a possible way of life. Some people are totally miserable outside of their home culture and reject all adaptation, some are completely enchanted and immediately immerse, but most fall somewhere in-between.

The first thing you adapt to is food. That happens quickly by necessity. Next comes language (not first, because pointing gets you surprisingly far). This takes longer, and often happens in unpredictable stages. The last adaptation is cultural. This one will probably take the remainder of your stay, possibly the rest of your life.

Culture is the hardest adjustment. You learn it just by being in the world and it makes sense because everyone around you is doing it, too. Then you move and everyone around you is doing something different and looking at you like you’re the lunatic. You need someone to explain the rules, but when they are explained, some of them are so weird, so counterintuitive, so very foreign… How do you follow them and remain yourself?

I had an easier time than many. Cliff came over here fluent in German, with a job and he had a chance to find an apartment for us before we ever moved. He did an exchange year in high school outside of Bonn. I was able to spend just under 18 months in German classes, getting a handle on the language; I also have a proclivity for language, so it went fairly well. Plus, we’re both white and pretty much pass as Germans, so nobody gives us any crap until I open my mouth. But on top of that, Cliff had an understanding of our shared, American culture and the German one to which we moved – it was like having my own personal ambassador. We got to learn about Bavaria together, though.

Even with all of my advantages, there have been some difficult adjustments. Getting elbowed in the face at Aldi by an Oma wasn’t fun, but I was doing the line wrong. I went home and complained about it and Cliff said, “You have to be more aggressive.” And then I was mad about it for a couple of years and grumbled and rolled my eyes…and nothing around me changed.

Germany didn’t change.

So I had to decide what was worth the effort of being annoyed all the time. What’s the hill worth dying on?

It sure as shit wasn’t the line at the grocery store.

Determining the battles worth fighting, the hill worth dying on, has been completely freeing. It makes it easier to repel perceived attacks and figure out which pieces of my culture are worth conserving and safeguarding.

I have a suit of armor, forged of the cultures I’ve melted together. It’s not impenetrable – it needs to breathe – but only the important stuff gets through. And only I determine what’s important.

8 thoughts on “Musings on Foreignness”

  1. Mandi | No Apathy Allowed

    Hey Sarah, this is a really great — thanks for sharing your musings. I wish I had something more eloquent to say, but I was basically amen’ing through your whole post. :)

    1. Sarah

      Thanks, Mandi! I’m glad you found something familiar and I wasn’t just blathering incoherently.

  2. Ines

    Great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts on being an Expat. I concur with Mandi, while reading your post my mind was going check, check, check….

    1. Sarah

      Thanks, Ines. I always feel a little weird about instructing someone on how to do this, because each experience has so many external (Where are you? Is it safe? Do you stand out?) and internal (Can I learn language? Do I get lonely/homesick easily? How tolerant am I of being lost?) variables. It feels like offering my personal examples are the most useful, truthful thing I can do.

  3. […] “The first thing you adapt to is food. That happens quickly by necessity. Next comes language (not first, because pointing gets you surprisingly far). This takes longer, and often happens in unpredictable stages. The last adaptation is cultural. This one will probably take the remainder of your stay, possibly the rest of your life.”  Read the entire post here. […]

  4. shoreacres

    Two stories came to mind immediately. My years abroad were in Liberia, working in public health for the Lutheran Church.

    I traveled a good bit in Europe during that time. A German/Swedish consortium had an iron ore mine in the Bong Mountains of Liberia, and they regularly shuttled relatives from Germany to Liberia for extended Christmas holidays. (All of this was pre-coup, while Tubman still was President.) Rather than fly the planes empty, expats in Liberia could fly to either London or Frankfurt, and then, a month later, fly back to Liberia from either London or Frankfurt. Sweet, to say the least.

    My first story is from Liberia. A sweet missionary couple arrived in country, were picked up by the bush pilot and ferried to their destination up-country. Everyone in the area was so excited – a large crowd came out to greet them. As the woman got out of the plane, she looked around wild-eyed, grabbed a strut under the wing and wouldn’t let go. They couldn’t peel her off. I can’t remember if they gave her an injection of muscle relaxant or what, but it took a while before she was able to walk and talk.When they asked her what the problem was, she sobbed, “They’re all BLACK!” Uh – yes, yes they were. She was in Liberia, after all. It turns out that she’d been carrying around in her head a Sunday School vision of going out to help Jesus with all the little children, red and yellow, black and white. All precious in his sight, perhaps, but certainly not there in the African bush. They went home.

    Story #2 is mine. I had taken that flight to London, took the ferry across the Channel, and then the train into Paris. I arrived at the Gare du Nord about 6 a.m. and went directly to the restroom. After availing myself of the facilities, I washed my hands and headed for the door. The next thing I knew, a wild-eyed French woman had me pinned to the wall, waving her hands around and shrieking something in a French I’d never heard in college.As it turned out, I’d not tipped her. I didn’t know I was supposed to tip her. She hadn’t done anything for me. All she was doing was standing around with some towels in her hands. I didnt’ tip her, either – I fled. I was out the door and booked on the next train to anywhere in about ten minutes. I ended up in Chartres, where I spoke enough French to say please, thank you and order a meal. It was lovely.

    Now – what does this have to do with your post, or being an expat? I suppose what I’m really thinking about is how easily specific instances of culture shock or culture clash get in the way of becoming comfortable in a place. Something happens to make us fearful, or uncomfortable or angry, and it’s easy to get lost in the feelings.Of course, here’s the great irony. It’s getting to the point that I feel as much a stranger in a strange land here in the U.S. as I ever did overseas. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that!None of this may make any sense, but I sure had fun remembering!

    1. Sarah

      Wow, shoreacres. The ‘They’re all BLACK’ story is pretty amazing. Most missionaries I’ve met are pretty clear-eyed about what they’re going in to (regardless of where it is). Sounds like a pretty stunning case of naïveté or willful ignorance.

      And I get what you’re saying about feeling like your home culture is foreign. I’m always a little rattled and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of noise and talking in public in the U.S. when we visit. Never used to bother me, but now I’ve acclimated.

  5. krishwala

    completely and totally agree sarah, but some days are harder to adjust to than others. I also don’t look like a german so I definitely know they know I am not from here which makes things tad awkward when I start in German and then half way into the conversation, I say, I don’t understand. Learning the language fluently is such a big goal of mine, that would solve half of the problems I encounter.

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