I’ve been asked many times what it’s like to be ‘foreign’. It’s hard to know how to answer because most days I’m not foreign. I’m like everyone around me, complaining about the weather, politics, cost of car repairs, or trials of parenthood. I share my plans for the weekend, the home remodel, the upcoming family celebration. The common ground overrides the accent or the physical attributes.
But then there are days I can’t work out for the life of me how I landed on this alien turf—the days I feel like a complete stranger. It’s the look I get when someone says, ‘You remember the show “Welcome Home, Kotter”?’ Er, no. No, I don’t. It’s when I use a simple phrase like ‘What’s that when it’s at home?’ I may as well have spoken Klingon. It’s wondering if the Schwan’s Guy they’re talking about is some new sit-com actor, only to find out he delivers food to your doorstep. Everyone knows the Schwan’s Guy; he’s part of everyone’s childhood. No. No, he’s not.
But if you’ve never had those moments, of getting in the passenger’s side door and trying to drive the car, of having no idea what that road sign means, of offending without meaning to offend, of just not getting the joke, how does one describe being foreign?
Here’s my explanation. If you look up ‘foreign’ in a dictionary, some synonyms are ‘distant’, ‘far-off’, ‘external’. You can feel all those things without leaving your backyard. It’s not your geography that makes you foreign. It’s the context that makes you foreign.
It’s that first day of college as a ‘mature’ student. You may as well have stepped outside the Apollo capsule. That cocktail party your spouse couldn’t attend, where you stood with the pasted-on smile and laughed too loud, struggled to find a common interest, tried an ice breaker that remained an iceberg.
It’s the changing room at Victoria’s Secret. Who was that person in the mirror? Was she even the same species as the long-legged, huge-breasted, pert-nosed aliens pictured in the catalogue?
Maybe Macy’s (the outerwear section) will feel more like home. But you tried to emulate the latest fashion trend and ended up slinking down the street in something that made you look like a ripe squash of some variety. High fashion is a foreign land. Four-inch heels are a foreign land.
Sitting in the doctor’s office-slash-spaceship being told you have cancer or your loved one has dementia. The sense of ‘this isn’t me, this isn’t my life or where I belong’ is universal—whether you’re four thousand miles from home or in the surgery a mile from where you went to high school.
So, what is foreign? Not an accent, or a passport. It’s a feeling. A context. We’ve all been foreign. In the land of our birth. In our homes. In our heads. In our lives.
Now, when I’m asked what it’s like to be foreign, I provide a few of the examples above. And everyone understands. All heads nod.
What does it feel like to be foreign? It feels like being you, when you’re in a Victoria’s Secret changing room.