Lights and Shadows of Foreignness

Have you ever heard somebody complaining about the experience of a trip or a stay overseas, how awful it made them feel? No, right? Till recently, I hadn’t either. Now that I have, I must talk about it.

Vitória Foreignness 1 illustration by Santiago

Day 2, 9am – Whatsapp group of Brazilians

– Does anybody in this group want to move too or have a free room in the flat?

– Ah, not me, bro, sorry. But why, what is going on?

– Nothing. It is just I am living with a guy from Iran. He’s nice, but he cooks weird stuff and he has funny manners. I have to say I am tired of so much multiculturalism. We are already in Germany for God’s sake and before coming here I was in a hostel with Russians and Ukrainians, and right now just would like to be with another Brazilian to be more at ease.

Vitória Foreignness 3 Illustration by Santiago

Day 13, 5pm – school corridor, end of a long day in the course

– Hi, D! How is it going? Tired, crazy to go home?

– You mean, home, Brazil or home, flat after this?

– Ah… I meant the second but…

– Both, actually. Can’t wait for this to end, really. Can’t understand how you all enjoy this.

– Why, what is bothering you?

– Everything. I don’t know these people. My house is not my home. I don’t have a stable routine. It takes so long to find and understand stuff at the supermarket. Everything is so… different. Can’t stand this.

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I love traveling. Living abroad has been a source of curiosity, a dream and a goal to me ever since I started existing. Now that I have done a bit of both, I must say I love it and feel even a bit addicted to it. So, it could not be but with utter astonishment that I read and heard the aforementioned, without being able to understand or relate to these feelings in the very least. Very much intrigued by this colleague that seemed an E.T. to me at first – but turned out to be fully and nicely human – it is as an exercise of empathy that I write to you today about the ups and downs of living and traveling abroad.

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When you are in foreign land, it feels like you’re a child again. Everything is new and intriguing, you do not walk the streets completely indifferent to what’s around you. It seems you’re opening your eyes again for the first time. You need help with the most basic things (precisely those nobody bothers to explain to you!), ranging from how to put out the bin, do the laundry, take public transport, address people in several situations.

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You pay attention to people’s behaviour, the subjects they talk about, their gestures and expressions in a way you rarely do in your home place, simply because they are not familiar to you and you do not immediately understand them. Few things are obvious to you and because you don’t share experiences and cultural references with those around you, there’s a lot to ask and talk about. Besides, your understanding about the culture you grew up in gets to a whole different level. We define ourselves, often, by contrast, by being exposed to our opposites. And everything that was entirely natural to us is put into question, deconstructed, relativized.

Vitória foreignness

This is beautiful, very mind-opening, enriching and stimulating. On the other hand, however, it can be as well tremendously draining. Stressful. It takes a lot of energy to be a foreigner, traveling or living, specially if you have just arrived. Having to make an effort just to get your message across, be it a usually straightforward and practical question or a subjective, complex one. Buying exactly what you want to buy without misunderstanding the labels or menu. Getting familiarized and used to strange things. Understanding the dynamics of the place, its rhythm and geography and how you get around it. Figuring out how and where and with whom you best fit in and investing into forming bonds, building your community and sense of belonging. Dealing with the distance from the people and place you left and missing them every so often… If you think about it this way, about the little frustrations and consistent challenges that arise out of simple things, this state of “outsiderness” that takes so long to overcome… Suddenly it is no wonder my colleague D. felt so overwhelmed by the experience and longed for the comforts and stability of his good old home.

The lights and shadows, the delights and pains of foreignness are, as most things in life, closely related to one’s personality, experience and point of view. There is no absolute intrinsic joy in it. Nor misery. And we should not – as I have almost done with D. – rule out people’s personal feelings about it, just because we don’t get it. Every experience and sensation is legitimate and has a reason to be. The core thing is, as far as possible, to actually get out there and try out everything we can to better know ourselves, recognize what suits us or not, and be respectful to others.

Text: Vitória dos Santos Acerbi

Drawings: Santiago S. Belmonte Calderon

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