Foreigner is a word we Americans don’t particularly like to use, it seems to to be excluding and derogatory. However, now that I am living abroad in a host culture, I use the word regularly and freely in reference to myself. I find it very helpful. For instance, when I go to the market to buy yogurt and don’t bring my own container to fill out of a large barrel, I can blame the fact that I am a foreigner. Or, if I see a woman smack her child across the face because they tripped and fell in a puddle, I can recoil in horror because I am a foreigner. Likewise, when my neighbors visibly flinch that my children go outside without hats on a balmy October day I can say I am a foreigner. It means that I am not from here: I don’t know how things work. I need grace, guidance, space, and time to understand.
Another aspect of being a foreigner is that I cannot control how I am seen. In my home culture I know how to dress or act to be acceptable in many groups or unacceptable, if that is what I desire. As a foreigner I cannot blend in: I stick out, I am seen by everyone. I am the subject of curiosity, young children want to pet my skin or touch my hair. Every small habit is watched with great interest such as, people here apparently do not hum in public. I can also attract unwanted attention. Natural clothing choices can be misinterpreted as lewd. For instance, the American neckline is at least 2 inches lower than every woman’s neckline here.
I also symbolize something that I cannot control. In my host nation I have met many wonderful people who have shown great hospitality. However, I still walk down the street and attract stares of fear or mistrust and sometimes hate. I have not met or offended these people personally. I try to smile and meet their gaze with openness, but what I symbolize is too powerful for them to just see me. I cannot hope to know how that prejudice was born in their heart from a personal encounter, some rhetoric, or just rumors. I am not sure if they think I am a spy or will take their job or blow them up. It’s something I have to live with because I am a foreigner.
The beautiful thing about being a foreigner is that it opens your eyes to the world as being vast. It makes your home very dear. It causes you to see yourself as you truly are: naked, blind, poor. It also has given me great empathy for foreigner people in my homeland. If I may, I want to share as a foreigner what has made me feel at home. It was not buying the local hats that each family member wears to denote status (although we did that and it was fun). It was not adopting local customs in how we eat, sleep, and do life (although we are doing that as well). It was when my language tutor let me cry because I missed my family. It was the shopkeeper that I frequent who described me as “My friend” to another customer. It was the lady who left her stall and led my husband all around the market to find a shirt for my son’s school performance the next day. It was the neighbor who came over and patiently let me try my language. Or the other neighbor who wanted to get to know me, so we chatted with google translate punctuated with lots of hand gestures, animated faces, and laughing. These things make me feel less foreign and let me enjoy being a foreigner. I do not belong to this land, but it is opening its arms to welcome me in all of my foreignness.
Our guest blogger suggested these two organizations as ways you can take action to welcome foreigners.
The Pamoja House
"Pamoja" is the Swahili word for "together." Located in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Pamoja House was established to see immigrants in SW Portland becoming successful and contributing members of the community.
The Salem Alliance Church - Salem for Refugees
Based in Salem, Oregon, the Holcomb family work to see refugees, churches, and the community engage in mutually transformative relationships that draw people to Jesus.
What ways have you felt foreign? What ways have you welcomed foreigners? Let us know in the comments.