I haven’t lived in a white majority country beyond a couple of months at a time before. Which means that I’m having a completely different experience to my previous expat journeys, and I don’t really know how to deal with it. In Tanzania, BKK and Köln, where English isn’t a first language, being an immigrant has meant a totally different thing. Because the colour of my skin and my facial features are so generic as to make me come across as a local, I’ve always been mistaken for being native to that country – even countries so totally different from each other re: an African country, an Asian country, and a European country. I have been mistaken for being mixed race, and so have been afforded the benefit of the doubt. I get treated really well. And the racism, it’s just passing, casual, and laughable.
But now I’ve moved here, my first white-majority country, I’ve had to contend with coming across as foreign, while also trying to find the balance between appearing alien and being “modern”. I am an immigrant but I don’t need them to slow down their English – which they do, loudly. I’m brown-skinned, not hearing impaired is what I want to say. But I have to also acknowledge that even in their making that assumption about me, they’re making an effort to communicate with me. Which is nice in a world where there are so many examples of people not being nice.
So, I speak English, and have a piece of paper to prove that my grammar is at native level despite not having lived in this land. But I don’t know who framed roger rabbit. I know all about the Jetsons but I don’t understand any of the English pop culture references. I know three Spice Girls songs, but what in the hell is an Ant and Dec? And now because I don’t have the same upbringing or pop culture experience as my British peers growing up, I am, once again, alien.
And so, patiently they explain pop culture to me but not without first showing shock and dismay that I don’t know it at all. When foreign words are introduced into the conversation, like what their raison d’être or what a marvelous piece of art Les Miserables is (It’s LAY MIS-ERR-AB-UL!, not less-miserable-z), they pause to slowly explain what it means to me so I’m not left out. Erm, I learnt French for 5 years in University, was a literature student, and lived in France for 3 months. And before I get a chance to explain all of this in a way that isn’t insulting or condescending, the moment has passed, and I just smile and nod.
I learn so much about the cultural nuances of so many different countries, in a bid to not appear alien. And then get annoyed when I do get treated like an alien because I don’t know nearly enough. Then get even more annoyed when they are surprised that I don’t know enough. It’s a crazy back and forth that I haven’t found a balance for, yet.
I am like you. But I am also such a weird mish-mash of how I grew up, how I was raised, where I’ve lived, how I’ve travelled – how could I ever fit in? How could I not stand out?
I am a queer child from the third-world who speaks English, and three other local languages. I grew up in a family of activists and social workers who provided us with a roof over our head and paid our fees, and so we didn’t have much beyond that. English music and TV were a luxury we couldn’t afford except for certain hours on a Sunday when the radio played old tunes. That, along with the mixed-tapes my dad made by recording Canadian radio in the 1980s is what we had going for us. Instead, I read. That’s how I travelled the world.
In university, I studied journalism and psychology, and French. I worked in film studios and non-profits. I went to volunteer in a small village in France shortly after. When I came back, I abandoned writing for money for writing for those who didn’t have a voice. I designed and ran programmes for children living on the streets. And I got so tired of the stupid vicious cycle that kept children on the street that I thought, maybe the system is different in a different continent. So I moved to Tanzania. I told my parents I’m just going for two weeks, and I stayed for a year. I went with $300 in my pocket and I made it last. I learnt Ki-Swahili, which I’ve all but forgotten now, I picked up odd jobs that helped pay for my accommodation and food. And when I came back, I switched to digital. Money is a real thing. I educated myself on the latest trends, I watched all the right movies, I listened to all the right songs – because even in a country where I appeared a local with foreign hair, I was the foreign one among my white expat friends. I didn’t want to be treated as some third-world charity case who had risen from her third-world life. I just wanted to be the same as them, just a different skin colour.
And then I stayed in Malaysia for a while, my eyes and mind were opened to being just myself.
And then I moved to Thailand, my eyes and mind were opened to being just myself – foreign, fluid, free!
I can tell you what Saskatchewan is, even if I pronounce it impossibly. I was alive during the hey-day of the Hulk Hogan. I grew up listening to the hair-rock of a small town band called Def Leppard. But there’s also many gaps in my knowledge that make me stand out as other. And I haven’t figured out who I am yet. Do we ever get to an age where we do?
However long it takes me to figure it out, I hope that I’ll always remember what it is like to be an outsider looking in. I hope I always choose to be empathetic, and to be kind – because if anyone knows how to be alien and to be “one of us”, it’s me.
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I’m 55, and who I am is in a constant state of flux. And I’ve always, always felt like an outsider. The older you get, the worse that becomes, because I can no longer keep up with the pop culture of the younger generations. Each generation has its own, it seems. And being a fat old white chick, I have the opposite problem that you do: instead of standing out, I’m completely invisible. I think, maybe (hopefully) if you asked all those people who seem so focused on your glaring differences if they feel like they themselves fit in, you might be surprised at their responses. I don’t know if any of this will be a comfort to you, but know this: You’re awesome.
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It’s reassuring to know that you don’t ever know the full extent of who you are. It means that you’re constantly evolving, constantly learning something new. And there’s something to say about that. I think, with me, the struggle is that I don’t want people to think I’m stupid. I don’t really know why I care. As immigrants, I’m used to being talked to like I’m a child. A lot of people think that if you’re foreign, you somehow don’t know anything? And so they baby you. Even if it’s well-intentioned. And I’m struggling to be myself and yet not feel like an idiot. If that makes any sense? Thank you so much for your comment. I really do feel comforted by it! ❤ YOU are awesome! So glad our IPs have crossed!
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I get treated like I’m stupid simply by dint of being female. It must be greatly magnified for you, and I’m sure it’s even more frustrating. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than not being taken seriously. I try not to concern myself with those who are just passing through my life. And the ones that are here to stay are hopefully convinced of my value rather quickly, and then they remain convinced. If you have people who continue to be condescending and clueless, it may be time to cut them out of your life. Easier said than done, of course. For what it’s worth, a knowledge of pop culture is definitely not a yardstick I use to measure someone’s worth. But that may be because I’m older. It was much more important to me when I was in my teens and twenties. I guess the main think I want you to know is that I think you’re amazing, and anyone who doesn’t figure that out about you relatively quickly is not worth your time. Hang in there, and stay safe! The world is a much better place with you in it.
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I know all about being treated less than cause we don’t have penises. I’m sorry any woman has to go through that at all in the 21st century. It makes me angry. And I’m glad for that because if there isn’t rage, it means we’re jaded, and that’s the worst feeling of all. At least the rage can be channelled productively. Thank you so much for being my constant cheerleader, and for rooting for me no matter what. You’ve really opened my mind to priorities. And honestly, why waste my time worrying anymore about how I appear while I could be using all of that to just being truly and authentically me! ❤ Big hugs from the UK. If I could submit a petition, I'd declare you essential!
Awwwww… hugs! You’re such a gift to the world, my friend. So glad to have gotten to know you.
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If we think we have it bad, check out this post I wrote years ago: https://theviewfromadrawbridge.com/2014/09/21/on-looking-homeless/
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