LIVING FOREIGN, BEING FOREIGN

The lack of sympathy for foreign-born immigrants in this country might have something to do with how few people in the U.S. ever lived in a different country. If you have never had to learn new customs, different cultural values, and another language, you probably don’t realize how complicated it can be.

With the best will in the world, not everyone learns a new language easily. Moreover, many customs are so ‘built in” to the way we interact with others, it can be hard to “unlearn” them.ย 

Smiling at strangers, for example, is very American. We do it automatically unless we are alarmed or frightened. In some other countries — Israel was one — a woman smiling casually at an unfamiliar man is considered a “come on.” Learning to not smile automatically is difficult. It’s a physical habit learned when we are very young.

I was also surprisingly bad at learning Hebrew. In almost a decade, I never became fluent. My son, on the other hand, was fluent in a few months. He had always been able to out-talk me in English, but a few months in Israel and he could out-talk me in two languages at the same time.

Israel was, overall, welcoming to newcomers. America, not so much. That makes everything harder for someone new to the country. Considering most non-Native people in the U.S. are immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants — being nice shouldn’t be all that difficult. Remember your past. Remember your grandparents. Be civil and perhaps even a bit generous.

If you were never an immigrant, someone in your ancestry probably was. Being kind to those who come here from elsewhere should not be all a trial. Give it a try.

Hating foreigners is like hating yourself.ย 

38 thoughts on “LIVING FOREIGN, BEING FOREIGN”

    1. I always think of my grandparents who never really learned English even though they lived here for decades … and how terrible I was at learning a new language. If people hadn’t been kind to me and talked my language, I’d have been lost.

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      1. Mi parents were Spanish immigrants in the UK in the 50s and they had a hard time with the language, never fully grasping it, so I can fully sympathise. My daughter has been living and working in Germany and Slovakia and even though she has a good job and an English speaking workplace, it’s not easy to live in a country in which you’re not fluent in the language. I’ve been living in Spain for 30 years and I still don’t get some of the jokes and subtle meanings…

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        1. It’s not easy living in a country with a different language and customs. I think the many people who have never lived anywhere else don’t really get it. Almost a decade in Israel and my Hebrew was primitive … and many customs that were obvious to natives were meaningless to me. It’s not easy and I’m sure a lot harder where the people are also hostile.

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      2. Good points. The smiling at strangers– interesting. I do it to be pleasant. Also, it’s part of my former professional “MO”.

        I think there are many Americans – “Proud to be an Amurrican” — (Psalm singing, Flag wavers) who believe they are the original descendants of the PLANET. Everyone else — immigrants.

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  1. One think I noticed in my 50 years of living Swiss. When I got into the Swiss way of life and language I was accepted and felt comfortable. Before that happened I realised that just speaking english and being english was not the key to opening foreign doors and being accepted.

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    1. It takes a long time to feel like a part of the culture. I knew people who lived there for 25 years and still felt like outsiders EVEN though they spoke the language. You have to want to be part of the culture and that can be harder than you expect. So many things are part of a culture that you never realized mattered, from the way you drink your tea to the way you set your table. For that matter, clothing, hair, and even the way you look at people. I had a lot of changing to do.

      I’d have eventually gone back to the U.S. anyway because the economy in Israel was terrible then. Earning a living was ridiculously hard. It has vastly improved, or so I hear, but when I was there, the places I worked were all going bankrupt.

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      1. I enjoyed my brief visit to Israel in 1983.. I wish it could’ve been longer. The closeup encounters with different cultures whetted my appetite for more time in the Holy Land.

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    2. Pat, I quickly learned on my first European visit in the 60’s that English was not the universal language. I always tried to learn basics of the languages of the countries I would visit over the years. I also carefully LISTENED to people talking to me so I could fathom their mood and meaning behind the words. It’s what I did professionaly and I applied it to my personal life when travelling abroad. It’s helped a lot. Yes, even in France.

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      1. I always found that just a few words of the langage being spoken around you are useful. I remember my two week holiday in Portugal. I learnt for two weeks before going there. At least I knew what to order in the restaurant. and that formica was ant, a very important word in Portugal. They have many ants. everywhere, especially in the bedrooms.

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    1. Ben, I recall my first trip to Europe in the 60’s with Dick Maitland – an old Hofstra radio pal. We were conscious of not behaving like stereotypical Americans abroad. Dick and I laughed at people complaining about “How come they don’t speak like us…..what’s this with the funny money…”. They always wanted directions to American fast food places. No, we not cosmopolitan but we tried to adapt and not behave arrogantly.

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    2. BRO BEN, I Think MacCheesehead 45 should go back to Africa on a low profile, B&B visit. I can just see him blending in with the locals. B’wana Donnie.

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  2. I can only agree with you, Marilyn. I also agree on the smile part. The American open smile and friendly greetings kind of freaked me out in my early days in California after thirty years in France. You’re right about everything you write. Thank you!

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    1. Evelyne, The American smile isn’t on display everywhere. New Yorkers are known, perhaps unfairly, for NOT smiling at strangers. Sometimes if you smile at a stranger in New York, they assume you’re a sex pervert. So, you need to be careful about smiling in public. As I’ve said before, I do it because I think it’s just being pleasant. It’s just an exterior. I’m not always a nice guy. Just ask Marilyn.

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      1. Agree with you that smiling is not as common in big cities as it is elsewhere. New Yorkers are known for so many things ๐Ÿ™‚
        I mostly find them busy but courteous and have always been nicely helped when asking for directions, for example. Paris is about the same.
        Like you, I smile. And like you, Iโ€™m not always a nice person ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. Interestingly, in my tiny town in the back-of-beyond which is definitely segregated (Hispanic/White) two of my best friends came from other countries — one is as Argentinian Jew the other an Aussie. And that smiling thing? Definitely American and more common here where I am now than it was in California. Here people smile back and then we talk about the weather because it’s really really (seriously) important. That’s one thing people from other countries don’t get about us. There are significant regional differences. I wish there were a scholarship program so every kid born in the US HAD to go to another country for at least one year of school. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. I absolutely agree. Americans, wherever they come from, think everywhere is like here. It is surprising how very different it is — even regionally in this country. California is not just across the nation, it’s another world from here. So is the southwest and the midwest and the south. But you have to travel to begin to understand. I live in a place where many people have never even been to Boston, much less another country. They were born and have lived entirely in the valley. It doesn’t make them bad people, but it certainly limits their understanding of the wider world.

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    2. Martha, our small town is similar. Everyone seemingly knows everyone. It’s very insulated. People are born, live and die in our Valley. Boston is a faraway, big city — like London or Paris to some diehard locals. Marilyn and I drew long, hard stares when we moved here. We recognized the scenario and have played our roles fittingly. I think you would approve. I’m sure Lee Strasberg would approve.

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      1. I don’t appear alien to people here — in fact, I fit. My basic personality was formed out here, so it’s a familiar languge and I’m blissfully happy not to be forced to constantly bear the abrasion of overpopulation, limited resources and cultural friction which is California. It was exhausting — and people out there are at least as provincial as people here but a LOT meaner. At the same time people who’ve lived here all their lives, families for 10 or more generations, are very proud of that. I guess we all have to be proud of something and there’s no question that living here demands stamina and the willingness to endure hardship. I’m sure it’s the same in New England.

        One strange thing for me is that back in California I felt more at home in the Latino world than the white one and it was OK. I could have Mexican and South American friends. Here it’s not so easy. There’s engrained racism that is, I think, based partly on experience certainly from the Hispanic side and maybe from the Anglo. This is the first time in my adult life I’ve been “white” if that makes any sense.

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        1. We lived in Roxbury for a decade and I was one of probably half a dozen white people — mostly women married to black men. It was mostly very friendly, but I always hoped no one was going to riot leaving me the only white face in the post office that day. So yes, I’ve been white. Being Jewish never mattered until we moved here where it’s hard to decide whether they are more put off by my lack of Christianity or Garry’s lack of whiteness. The combination makes us unique. But Garry was on TV, so I think he is sort of white because if you are on TV, you become white — if THAT makes any sense. The people with whom we were friends were a couple that worked for the CIA for a long, long time and moved around the world a lot, then retired back to Whitinsville (the next town over). And Stan, who had been a minister in darkest Trenton, NJ as well as some of the murkier areas of New York … We all understood that it’s a big world and we loved swapping stories of the places we’d lived. But they died. And it has been difficult to find other people who have some experience of a bigger world than the Blackstone Valley. And maybe we are a bit tired of trying to make friends. I think we are. Our lives are complicated by many religions, sexual identities, and our other lives … and it’s hard to have conversations with people who says “WOW” a lot. You just know you aren’t going to be close friends when all of your personal experience is a WOW. I’m looking for a related memory, not a WOW.

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          1. I’m lucky because here there are many related memories here. I can talk to people about things I couldn’t talk about in California. I got very tired of people looking at me as if I came from the Wild West but I did come from the wild west. They just didn’t know what it really is. My best friends of the 30 years I lived there were the family who lived next door to me for the last 3 years — a Mexican cowboy and his family. Really, perfect neighbors for me. Now they live on the eastern side of the Sierras on a ranch. When I wasn’t sure about retiring or moving bak here, Andy said, “Follow your heart.” I knew he “got” me so I did what he said. BUT it’s possible to be from the “wild west” and the whole world as well. There are people here have traveled a lot, but there’s still the “wish I could do that” if I mention going to Europe or living in China. I don’t say, “What’s stopping you?” because I know it’s their mind and their priorities and that’s where there is an unbridgable gap.

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            1. Most people here think the idea of traveling (much less LIVING) abroad is terrifying. I don’t know what is so scary about it. It’s different and it’s interesting and sometimes, more than a little baffling … but terrifying? Hardly. So many people could do a lot more, but they never learned they could. Someone — mom? dad? — told them they couldn’t do that or they grew up believing there’s ONLY one way to live. So they live that way.

              Our friends, Marilyn and John, grew up here. They were distant cousins, I think. Same last name. He was a doctor. But he said he would be bored to death if he had to spend his life tending to the same people for his whole life. So he joined the foreign service and they were off. They spent almost 40 years living in Russia, Indonesia (Marilyn’s favorite place were the islands off the mainland), Vietnam, China, India. Apparently you don’t get to choose Paris or London. But they “got” us. And Marilyn got ME in a way I don’t think anyone else ever did. I miss her very much.

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          2. I love Marilyn’s line about my TV news persona making me White. Never thougt about it that way. Actually, I had a bizarre TV personality. The “Suits” ordered me to, over the years, infiltrate Korean, Japanese and Irish gangs. They were sure no one would “make” me in an undercover role. It was RIDICULOUS but I followed orders. The various gang lords and members, fortunately, appreciated the absurdity of my assignments and allowed me to work “deep cover”. The “suits” always thought I was an everyman who could blend in anywhere. No, this isn’t urban legend.

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  4. Being adopted and only told later in life my ethnic origins, I have felt very often as if I were a foreigner. Growing up in the south made this worse…yes, the south still has it prejudices although they hide it better now. My mother had friends that could barely speak English and so I grew up with a wider range if friends than many of my peers…lucky me! Like you, I have no gift for languages and so wish I did! My 2 greatest wishes has always been to visit Israel and to learn Hebrew…big sigh. A trip to Israel seems much more likely. lol

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    1. I went there as an immigrant and I had never been there as a tourist. But I was really eager to be part of another culture. I really wanted life to be completely different. Eventually, I also realized I needed to work somewhere where I could earn a living and that drove me back here. Israel’s economy was in the pits those years. It has revived a lot since then.

      In theory, I could go back anytime and bring Garry with me. I am a citizen there as well as here, but while it’s my “other” country, it isn’t Garry’s other country. I’m just hoping this is not the last president I live to see. I want America to be American again before I leave this world.

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      1. Ah, my friend, I don’t think we are going to see that any time in the foreseeable future. I really believe that things are so far gone that our country will not survive much longer no matter who is in office. If I let it, this could overwhelm me I think, so I try not to think too much about it. What amazes me is the fact that so many seem to be totally unaware of this – completely blind to the state we are in.

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  5. I would feel so scared to move somewhere that I could not speak the language. That would be stressful. And lonely. Thank goodness there are kind people out there in the world who do make an effort to be nice. There is always a way to communicate when we take the time to slow down and pay attention, really pay attention. I have done this often through meeting people I work around. It works.

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  6. I remember “going home” to St. Thomas, Antigua and Barbados — The Virgin Islands in my 30’s. Word of my professional success preceded me. Relatives and friends treated me like a “state-sider”, an outsider. They were friendly but I felt estranged. I suspect I was considered as a marital prospect for eligible young women. It was very awkward. I had to be very careful of how I conducted myself because of the “pipeline” between the Islands and my family back in New York. I have to laugh at myself. Towards the end of my two or three week Islands visit, I know I was talking like Harry Belafonte. DAY-O!

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