Foreigner. What a loaded term; what an inherently political concept. It should just mean that you’re a stranger in a strange land – a land not of your birth. But the word can be, and oftentimes is used as a pejorative, a dirty word, directed at strangers in strange lands to remind them that they are not from here, and they do not belong here.
Immigrant and expatriate are closely related to foreigner. Indeed when coming up with a title for this piece, I thought of substituting “immigrant” for “foreigner.” But it wouldn’t do it justice. The legalities surrounding both immigrant and expatriate do not compare to the all-encompassing experience of foreigner.
Words are different for strangers in strange lands everywhere you go. What do I mean by this? I mean that legally and colloquially, people refer to you differently when you do not belong. In the United States, where I’ve lived for eight years and counting, people often refer to me as an immigrant. They would be wrong. Technically, I am currently a legal alien. Think about that for a moment – an alien. Words matter.
In Botswana, my family and I were expatriates (as opposed to immigrants). When I visit Nigeria – the land of my birth, the land of the culture I identify with, but all the same a country I only spent four and a half years living in. I am told I am foreign there too.
To many who find themselves strangers in strange lands, and are called one thing or the other, the last thing they want to be known as, or identified with, is foreigner. Many reject it – preferring substitutes that are technically more accurate or colloquially less disparaging. And why wouldn’t they? There is no good way to be a foreigner. But to me, it is my word – a reflection of my experiences, constituting perhaps even my politics and perspective of the world entirely. I am a foreigner.
If you’re foreign and you’re poor, many people despise you. The poor citizens often despise you because in their eyes, you are exacerbating the problem of limited resources for everyone. The middle-class and rich are either indifferent towards you, or like the poor, they think you are a burden to the system.
But if you’re foreign and middle-class or rich, many people despise you too. The poor might hold contempt towards you for being a non-citizen who has more than they do. The middle-class and rich might see you as more competition both in terms of the labor market, and the accumulation of economic resources and wealth. Your “right” to these things, in their eyes, is less than theirs. Neither your economic or social contributions, nor the taxes you pay, matter.
If you speak the language and the cultural practices are easily grasped by you, you are accused of trying to be one of them. And subsequently you are constantly reminded that you aren’t. If you don’t speak the language or struggle with understanding or integrating into the culture, your fate might be significantly worse. You are accused of wanting to maintain being an outsider, and are subsequently reminded that if you don’t like it here, you should leave. If you are significantly educated, you are seen as a threat to their understanding of not only their culture but the world at large. If your education is limited or lacking, you are mocked.
By the way you look, and where you come from, and how you talk – the summation of all these things and more, you are put on a spectrum of whether you are closer to or further away from the citizen. Of course this might be true for people who are natural-born citizens too – depending on their race, ethnicity, religion, etc. You don’t actually have to be a foreigner to be treated like one.
But when you are one, and depending on all the factors of your identities, and where you are on this imaginary spectrum, it is often a complicated existence; a performance in which the culture at large, or the subcultures that perceive you and that you may have a relationship with, still all determine that you are an other.
It is not all bad. Being a foreigner has its privileges – especially when you’re not economically disadvantaged, and/or socially and culturally, you “get it.” It’s often left me in the position of being a societal observer – watching the interactions of different social experiences within a culture.
It makes for great conversation – people are always interested in knowing about you. Perhaps that is a double-edged sword. And of course people are impressed by you – depending on your story. The latter has always confused me. People have been leaving their homes and making new ones in strange lands since the beginning of humanity. I take the compliments though.
Perhaps the greatest enjoyment of being foreign however, in my particular case, has been a certain kind of freedom from patriotism and political attachments to ideologies and imagined spaces. Or what we call “countries.” I love culture – the ones I identify with, and the ones I don’t. But home, to me, is everywhere and nowhere. Home is where I feel comfortable in the moment, knowing that the moment can change, and it often does. There is no good way to be a foreigner so you have to make the best of it by taking pleasures in such things.
Will this feeling, this identity of being foreign ever leave me? Maybe. But I’m not sure that I even want it to. In some ways, the idealist in me wants to believe that although it’s nice to call a specific place and specific people home, I like to think of all of us as strangers in strange lands. Some of us just more than others.
Indeed, the freedom of belonging to nowhere, can make you feel too that you can be anywhere; everywhere. That sort of freedom is a priceless privilege. And I wouldn’t trade the feeling of belonging to a specific place or specific people for it. I guess you could call it a foreigner’s freedom. At least, it’s this foreigner’s freedom.