I am a foreigner.
I have blue eyes in a culture that has brown.
I have light brown – turning gray – hair in a culture that has black.
I have a size 8.5 shoe in a culture that mostly wears smaller than a 7. Just today I was looking for a replacement walking shoe. I found the brand I preferred at an outlet store. Examining the styles, I found one to try, but turned out not my size. Taking off my own shoe, I showed the clerk the size I desired. She shook her head, pointing to the label on the rack and indicated that style did not carry my size. She kept looking down at my feet.
We are a curiosity.
This culture is learning English aggressively in the current education system. But, it still doesn’t help us communicate those important things – like: Where’s the toilet? How much? Just looking (not particularly in that order). I most want to know what makes their heart tick. What matters most to people here?
At home, there’s a tendency to block out the foreign languages spoken because it’s so common hearing the various sounds different from mine. But, here, it’s important to listen. To pay attention.
Therefore, I must learn ways to communicate. Pointing. Hand gestures. Asking if someone understands English to help me. Smiling – a lot!
Shopping for food – most of the time – is a challenge to find ingredients for cooking our meals at home. Finding salt or sugar in their culturally labeled packages is a trick. There’s an abundance of soy sauce and oil. Cereal oil?? Apple vinegar juice??? Sweat potato noodles???
We eat out often.
Eating out means reading a menu – which one needs a sense of humor. We are thrilled when we find menus with pictures, we can point to what we would like. This isn’t always efficient because at times we received something different from what we thought we ordered. The waitress that reviews our order before sending it to the kitchen is an angel!!
Walking – everywhere. This isn’t such a big deal normally, but “everywhere” takes much time. So planning our time is a challenge when setting up a schedule for the day. One thing is fine – two is a little tricky – three, forget it. Even when taking the bus or taxi – each has its own issues. Again – language, language, language.
The mind gets tired trying to figure out how to do what would seem simple things. It’s easy to see how depression and fatigue can take over.
Having been here just a few weeks gives some idea of a culture, but not nearly the depth of what it takes to establish solid relationships and get a rhythm of daily life. It’s those who have been here year in and year out, investing their lives that ‘get it’ best.
With this small glimpse into what it’s like to actually be on the other side of the word “foreigner”, it has given me greater insight toward my own town back home. Foreigners abound. We use names such as Immigrant. Or, Refugee. Or Foreign Student, etc.
Because we have so many ethnic communities, we don’t always “see” the foreigner. We see people of different colors, habits and languages. But, I have to ask myself, do I “see” the foreigner? Are they struggling with buying food? Are they struggling with how to manage the dollar system? Are they lonely? Isolated? Do they withdraw because they don’t know the language?
It’s one thing to host a foreigner in my home.
It’s quite another to be that foreigner.