The delights of being a foreigner / Les délices d’être une étrangère

Fairly typical row of houses in downtown London (Westminster).

Nearly ten years ago, I went to England (more specifically, to the University of Sussex) to get a master’s degree. I have never considered myself an Anglophile – that word, to me, is laden with a sort of starstruck quality that has never fit my feelings towards Britain or the British – but it’s a great place and I fell violently in love with my life there. I did everything I could to stay after the degree (and I did live there for another nine months or so), and then I tried to move back there permanently a few years ago during a PhD hiatus. My efforts to live in England in a semi-permanent way have never panned out, and now the idea doesn’t really come to my mind, but my recent trip reminded me of one of the primary reasons I loved living there so much.

All the potential problems aside, there is something incredibly comforting in just being a foreigner, something valuable to just being foreign. No hope of ever really fitting in, of ever being considered a “native”; no pressure to pass; no cultural identity at stake; immediately tagged a foreigner because of my accent, and therefore expected to act differently. Of course one has to deal with stereotyping and such. Any American who’s traveled outside of the States knows that being recognized as American comes with its own set of issues (particularly when someone like W is in power). But that’s not the point.

I love being foreign. I love traveling in itself and its inherent dépaysement (French for being removed from country, removed from the familiar), but I love being foreign. See this post about being “entre deux chaises” for a little bit about what it feels like to be bicultural in the way that I am. I love France and, yes, I love America too (saying so is a minor taboo among many people I associate with), but being in them is culturally stressful despite the positive aspects of being home. England was never culturally stressful in the same way. Oh, it certainly created culture-related stress of a different kind – cultural alienation of a sort that was made even more confusing by the shared language (Brit and American dialect differences aside, it’s so very tempting to think that you’re basically the same because you speak the same language). I got into some very nasty cultural misunderstandings with people, and I would still if I lived there now. I got into some bad situations a native might’ve known to avoid (for instance, the bar fight), and I lost some friends partially due to cultural misunderstanding. That’s not fun. There are also basic infrastructure type things one has to adjust to in any new country: different laws, which side to drive on, climate changes, etc; I could never get used to how cold and dark winters were even in southern England.

But if you’re entre deux chaises, if you’re confused by your cultural place and you feel that kind of pressure (but you still have racial/class privilege and/or are otherwise protected from significant bias), being foreign can be wonderful. I remember being in large crowds and sensing some sort of cultural feeling passing through it – say, patriotism (I would guess) – and knowing that I did not understand or appreciate what was happening, didn’t grasp the cultural weight of it at all. I remember what a relief that was, among the confusion – what a blessed relief that was. There was a time in my life when I would have given anything to live in the London or Brighton area and just spend years being foreign. Never having to fit in completely; being able to be flamboyantly not-British while enjoying the things I loved about Britain; being able to take refuge in my two cultures in my head, knowing that most people around couldn’t follow me completely into an understanding of either of them (not that I understand them completely); not having to face huge amounts of culture shock (it’s certainly there, but see below about language and cultural ties); being at a remove from home, and thus being able to take a more considered view of home.

Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Day), Lewes (East Sussex), 2005. Possibly my favorite moment of cultural alienation ever. It was incredibly fun because of the pageantry, and I knew the basic premise of Guy Fawkes day, but so many things made no sense. Why were the krewes dressed up as pirates, Native Americans, Zulu warriors, caballeros, metalheads, etc? What did the occasional letters on fire mean? What was that inflamed poppy about? Why did the crowd occasionally hush & what were the waves of feeling I could tell were coming over it? Etc.

(Bonfire Night in Lewes, the English village most famous for its Guy Fawkes day festivities, is truly amazing. If you ever have a chance to go, do it. Side note: I’ve never seen anything that seemed more pre-Christian European pagan despite being based in a very Christian incident; it was all the fire. So much fire! I came home smelling like a chimney.)

I’ll finish up by noting that I’ve spent significant periods of time in several countries involving wildly different cultures, and that I know that my particular, positive experience of comfortable alienation in Britain is a luxury that can’t be enjoyed in most other countries. Dépaysement / cultural alienation in Britain is relatively easy because of the language and Britain’s cultural ties with both the States and France; cultural alienation in Taiwan is another thing entirely, when you don’t speak any form of Chinese, almost no one around you speaks one of your languages, and the cultures involved are structured very differently. I’ll also underline that I’m aware that the luxury of comfortable alienation in Britain is one that gets afforded to me because I’m white, American/Western European and from a certain social class (a working-class person from, say, Poland, is not going to have the same experience, I think); it may also be easier in a place like London or Brighton, where foreigners are common, and my experience is limited to those cities.

But my basic point remains: sometimes being foreign is really, really nice; sometimes feeling dépaysement in a country not your own (as opposed to one you’re not supposed to feel dépaysement in) is an incredible relief; sometimes I really miss it.