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.