Friday, September 08, 2006

Inside as an Outsider
I was listening to the This American Life episode ("Americans in Paris") about what exactly it is that Americans see in Paris. For the last part, Glass interviewed an African-American lawyer who now lives in Paris. She talked about what a relief it had been for her to move to France, because there, she wasn't the girl in the projects who spoke too white, or the girl in the white world who spoke too project, she was just an American, or rather, just a foreigner. (She said that the first time someone in France told her she was American, she said, "No, I'm not. I'm black.") But after they explore some interesting theories about whether people in France's attitudes toward actually French black people count as racism or classism, Glass went back to what it seems like this woman's life has been in France. He noted that she seems more happy, more like she fits in, in a place where she is a constant outsider. She agreed, and said she felt like that's what her whole life had been, being on the outside, but now she feels more comfortable than ever before, because by being in France, rather than the US, she has been able to drop all the baggage she carried in the social politics of being African-American.

I thought this could be made into a broader point. When I was living abroad, especially in Japan, I was an obvious outsider, so I never really worried about fitting in. And that, in itself, is a freeing experience. Just the simple idea that you don't have to fit in. But it also gave me a certain feeling of living in a bubble outside of the real world. I was still American, but the problems of America were farther removed. I was living in Japan or Chile, but the problems of that country were of more of a passing interest, because as a foreigner, I had no power to affect their outcome.

A lot of people I knew in Japan, fellow foreigners, became frustrated with the fact that they would never fit in or be accepted as a person who belonged there. And this is true; we were constantly treated as guests, politely greeted and included as friends, but not as natives. The people who were frustrated by this wanted a greater feeling of belonging. But I was never bothered by it, because I, like the woman in France, have always found myself on the edge of many groups, so I was used to it enough to just feel the freedom that my priveledged status as foreign gave me. I didn't worry about getting politeness levels scrupulously correct in my speech. I didn't worry about refusing alcohol. I didn't feel the myriad pressures to conform that come from truly belonging to a society, because I clearly didn't.

This is not to say that I didn't try my best to fit in as much as possible, a few times coworkers commented that I seemed "very Japanese," and I did get mistaken as Chilean once in a while, but I was never expected to conform, wherein lies the difference. In some ways, I liked living abroad because it allowed me to be myself. Someday, maybe I'll get to do it again.

Update: Since I first wrote this post and saved it as a draft, some related thoughts have come up.

1) My brother brought up a good example of how emphasizing one's accent as more native can also be quite useful. (This is not unusual, I know, but it was a funny story.) He and one of his friends have been looking for a new apartment/house to rent in the Cullowhee area. His friend is originally from there. One place they looked at was owned by an elderly woman. In order to make a favorable impression, the friend unconsciously, as my brother put, "really twanged out his speech and slowed way down. When he said good-bye, he ended with, 'God bless ya, ma'am!'," which was, needless to say, quite out of character. It is, of course, even funnier to hear the story.

2) While talking on the phone the other night, I found myself engaged in what amounted to a very quick exchange of obscure cultural references that were completely understandable and clearly related to the conversation taking place between the two of us. I noted that, as much as I enjoy living in other places and interacting with people of diverse cultural backgrounds, the kind of exchange entirely based in shared cultural history is distinctly lacking, and as I recall from Japan, at times makes communication a lot harder.

Comments: Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?