All my life, I have lived in places where I am a member of the majority–whether that be the majority race, majority religion, majority tax-bracket…you name it. Before I left my hometown, I never had to experience life as an “other.” Growing up in a primarily white, Christian, middle class community, even if I sympathized with the plight of others as they struggled in their life as outsiders, I couldn’t ever properly empathize.
In 2006, I decided to study abroad in Rome, Italy. For three months, I got a little taste of what it’s like to be a foreigner. Things that came so easily at home were a new struggle. For instance, when I simply wanted to order some food, I would first look up the words in a dictionary or translator, practice in my head a few times, and then turn beet red and stammer when I would finally try to say something new in a language I was not yet familiar with. I was taken out of my comfort zone, but still, it was only three months, and it was Europe, where the languages, foods and customs aren’t all that different from what I’m used to anyway. However, it was my introduction into what it’s like to be an “other.”
Fast forward six years, and my new husband and I decided we wanted to live and teach in Korea. I was certain I was ready because of my experiences in Italy, and he was confident as well, because we were both pretty well traveled already. I think what we weren’t truly prepared for though was how much we would feel our “otherness.”
For the first time in our lives, we were the minority in nearly every way. The language was completely unfamiliar–the characters weren’t even recognizable like they are in most European languages. The food was different from what we were used to, the customs and culture were very different than what we were used to, and we couldn’t blend into a crowd if we tried, given that we’re Caucasian, I have light hair, and we are both a good head taller than the majority of the population. I don’t know if I will ever get used to being stared at, pointed at and talked about the way I am in Korea. Sometimes, it’s flattering and amusing and makes me feel like a rock star, other times it’s embarrassing and irritating and makes me feel like a freak show.
Everything was a struggle at first. I’m not saying it was all bad or stressful, because some of it was very funny or exciting, but life as a foreigner means you don’t know how to do anything by yourself–things like buying groceries, taking a taxi and ordering food at restaurants becomes challenging, and things like opening a bank account, getting a cell phone contract and paying your bills become nearly impossible without help. Sometimes people are patient with you, offering a smile and the few English words they know. Others are annoyed with you, because you don’t know the language or the customs of the country you are living in, which can be embarrassing.
Life as an expatriate (expat) has many positive aspects, many of which you will read about in the pages of this blog. Experiencing a new culture on a deeper level is eye-opening and mind-opening, and overall, is worth every uncomfortable or upsetting moment along the way. I think it’s so important to try to understand other people’s cultures, and what better way to do that than to immerse yourself in one for a while?
Feeling like an other when you are so obviously different from the people around you is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. The next time you encounter someone in your home country who cannot speak your language perfectly, or seems confused by your customs–please be kind to them. Living in a new country can be frustrating, intimidating and also, amazing. It hurts me when I hear fellow Americans say that foreigners and/or immigrants “need to learn to speak English.” English is probably one of hundreds of new things they are trying to learn as they adapt to their new life. Not to mention that learning a new language is really hard, and English is one of the more complicated ones out there. Life as a foreigner, expat and other can be infinitely more complicated and uncomfortable than what we have left behind, but ultimately, it can also be more rewarding.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, by the brilliant Joseph Campbell:
“All this hope for something happening in society has to wait for something in the human psyche, a whole new way of experiencing society (…) With what society, what social group, do you identify yourself? Is it going to be with all the people of the planet, or is it going to be with your own particular in-group?”
P.S. After I wrote this, I found this video, which is about a slightly different topic, but is a beautiful explanation of the feeling of “otherness.”