Being a foreigner in a foreign land has the potential to be isolating and disorienting, as you run the risk of stripping yourself of the emotional and/or physical resources needed to maintain your identity.
Or, it can give you that ego boost you need, making you feel just that much more interesting, more special, and more confident to take social risks that you may not have taken at home.
Recently, I found myself at a birthday party where I knew only a few of the attendees, not even the birthday girl. As I began chatting with another guest (who, for what it’s worth, only knew one attendee: more logically, the cumpleañera), not surprisingly, the topic of being in an unfamiliar place and meeting new people cropped up. My conversation partner, an admittedly-shy Spaniard who has lived all over the peninsula, mentioned that it must be even more difficult for me, since I have to be outgoing, a task that can already be challenging, and on top of it all, I must do it in a foreign language! The look on her face said it all: oh, the horror!
Surprisingly, I told her, it’s actually the contrary — it actually works to my advantage: I have an automatic conversation starter. Yes, I’m from the States. Yeah, it’s pretty cool! You’ve visited? What part are you from? Boston. How long have you been here? A year and a half. What are you doing here? Working as an English teacher. How did you learn your Spanish? And on, and on, and on…
During this conversation, I was immediately reminded of an article I read a few months ago in the New York Times by an American expat living in Paris, Pamela Druckerman. The piece was chock full of reflections that I could relate to, but this recent experience reminded me of these lines in particular:
“The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special. Just cooking pancakes on Sunday morning is an intercultural event. I imagine being back in the United States and falling in with a drone army of people who think and talk just like me — the same politics, the same references to summer camp and ’70s television…”
And then, as if to seal the deal, a few days later I gained fame within a group of friends after bringing chocolate hazelnut brownies (a riff on my mom’s friend Jane’s famous congo bars) to a gathering. The brownies were pretty darn delicious if I do say so myself, but the fact that my making of such a simple recipe was just that, “an intercultural event,” was telling. Perhaps, had the attendees been American, I wouldn’t have made so many friends that night.
Regardless, soon(ish), I will return stateside, and like Druckerman says: “…the fact is, those drones are my people.” And nothing can replace my people.