Foreigner: a Permanent Label

There are some experiences which are unique to foreigners.  Last year, while waiting one day at the foreign police for hours on end, I began to really meditate on my experience and envision what it must be like for foreigners living in the USA.  I ask you to imagine the same as I relate some recent experiences that have a special bearing for one consistently labelled and bound to remain "other."

As I write this, I am on hold on a currently 21:51 minute call regarding my summer flight to the USA.  There was an itinerary change, which required me to call immediately.  Fortunately, I have a Skype account in which I pay a flat fee and then can call stateside an unlimited amount (granted, for airlines and such companies there is usually a toll-free number).  Flight arrangements can be a mess for anyone, including a national, so perhaps more of the process should be made known to you.  First of all, there was the consideration of whether or not to fly at all.  In order to even consider the possibility of flying home, there's a permanent "fly home" section of my monthly budget, where around 10% of my income goes.  And while I consider the time with my family in the summer to be a joy, other thoughts linger in the back of my mind: what about my Czech friends?  What will I miss here?  Will I ever be in the Czech Republic long enough for the Colours of Ostrava music festival in mid-July?  Will I ever be in the Czech Republic to help with a summer English camp?  Will I ever be here for the summer fun camp for the school where I teach?

Before spending so much time on the phone tonight, I was at parent-teacher conferences, in which Czech parents came to discuss their students' marks and progress with me.  I spoke Czech with each family, excepting the German student of mine.  Now, teachers out there, imagine your evening of parent-teacher conferences.  Sometimes emotions run high and parents are slow to side with the teacher.  Now, imagine speaking in a foreign language while trying to navigate such matters delicately.  (Granted, I should give some recognition to Czech parents, who still seem to trust that teachers do know what they're doing and often ask, "What does my child need to do better?")  Now, teachers stateside, think of your foreign students and their Hmong, Somali, Karen, or _________ parents.  Imagine being that parent and having to have your child translate for you; imagine the parent's distrust of the accuracy of the child's report.  There were some cases tonight where a student specifically asked me to speak in English so he/she could translate.    Imagine being your student and having to tell your parents, "She says that I distract the other students and I'm disorganized."

The language barrier is always something to consider.  As I've travelled in Europe, I've wanted to avoid the stereotype as the "loud, ignorant American," leading me to do as much as possible to blend in.  Having mostly German blood in me, it's not too difficult to physically blend in, especially when decked out in some knee-high boots, decorated tights, and so on.  I've learned that blending in has its snags, particularly when I suddenly don't understand, and the Czech looks at me, a person who looks Czech and speaks fluently, and wonders what screw is loose.

The state of potential misunderstanding is constantly present.  I suppose this is universal, but most people aren't so keenly aware of it.  As a foreigner, I'm trained in anticipating the possible confusion of my students as well as predicting words that they're looking for.  Sign language, creative phrasing, and peace with incomplete understanding are tools that keep me level-headed in everyday communication.

Example: In a frenzied escape from my flat Easter morning, I managed to break our shoe horn.  Shoe horns are an essential part of every Czech home, connected to their unique shoe/slipper culture.  I'm quite fond of shoe horns now and was disappointed to have broken ours.  I promised Zuzka a new one, yet multiple trips to Tesco had proven unfruitful in my search.  In a rare stroke of luck, I actually saw a Tesco worker stocking shelves.  After waffling, pacing, and finally gearing myself up psychologically, I went to ask her about the shoe horn.  Naturally, I didn't and don't know the word/phrase for shoe horn. So, I told her (in Czech), "I'm looking for that thing that I need when I put on my shoes [I wasn't entirely sure what verb to use, so I literally said "when I give on my shoes"].  It's long [insert miming motions]."  A look of recognition passed over her as she then gestured and told me in Czech that it was down the aisle and at the back.  An unremarkable story.  But note the hesitation and the imbedded insecurity.  This was all over a shoe horn.  Moreover, it was the second or third time I'd deliberately gone to buy one, yet it was only after some emotional preparation and a self-kick that I finally sought out help.

The stories of inhibitions about communication and the acts of overcoming or succumbing are endless.  I've often wanted to converse with homeless people, but was concerned with my level of Czech.  I finally did on Good Friday and found his speech almost indecipherable through a voice seasoned with a  lifetime of smoking and living in harsh conditions.  Another time, I was going through a foyer when I saw a man with crutches fall.  I went to assist him, and asked him if he was okay.  He answered in the affirmative and tried to wave me away.  Unwilling to completely abandon him, I moved his crutches within his reach so he could get up independently without damaging his pride.  This highlighted the complications of not being fluent.  My ability to help others in an emergency or dangerous situation is limited.  Another incident that could illustrate this I won't describe in detail.  Suffice it to say that I was taunted and jeered at very directly while on my way to a bus.  The aforementioned persons then rode on the same bus as I and I heard them make comments about me to a friend/family member that they met.  I felt powerless, for whereas I fully understood their intent (though not their motivation), I couldn't fully understand the comments they made to me and about me.

The list could go on and on--papers signed that I hadn't translated myself or even been given a translation of, knowing I've been misunderstood by friends and yet letting it stand to avoid hassle, regular visits to the foreign police, the elation of communicating properly and the dejection of not taking an opportunity due to the paralysis of not wanting to face cultural and spoken barriers.  Perhaps I'll dwell further on any of these subjects in the future (you can also comment with questions or topics you'd like to hear further on), but suffice it to say that there are many layers to the "other" and as you experience or witness such experiences, may it build the empathy within you.


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