When you are in your “own” country where you grew up, you kind of take your nationality and how you do things for granted. It is only when you leave and live in a culture so different from your own that you are constantly being reminded – as in all the time – that you are the “other one”, “the foreigner”, “the white girl/boy” or “the odd one out”.
Whether you like it or not, you are never really going to be a part of that culture for pretty obvious reasons. You are likely to be labelled as in the previous examples. To what degree you do become a part and can fit in, depends on where you are, who you happen to hang out with and what you do.
(To clarify, I am talking about cultures that are not used to seeing many foreigners living among them where you really do stand out, e.g. being white and blonde in almost any Asian country.)
I can vouch for this in all my time here in Asia – either I would get the positive attention as a foreigner, get great jobs offered with a much better pay than locals, TV interviews, newspapers you name it! Or I would be the one where people say: “Well, she’s not from here, she doesn’t understand..” or “She doesn’t really speak the language, so why bother talking to her or making an effort in the first place…”.
People stare - Get over it!
In any case, especially if you live in an area with less foreigners, you will get talked about and stared at ALL the time - especially as a Western woman. Yes, it gets annoying, particularly when you kind of forget that you are living in a foreign country as you start to live like everyone else does. You forget why people are staring at you or are still talking about you in front of and behind your back and why they still cannot get over the fact that you do things differently.
Most the time I am used to it and do not react anymore, unless they are like literally in my face and start touching me or my children. And in all fairness, I do have days where it freaks me out and all I can do is react (not a good idea!). You have to keep in mind though, it is not a malicious thing from their side and they are simply curious as to what you look like and why you are there.
However, it can happen that if locals are not used to seeing Western women, they might stereotype and think it is absolutely fine to touch a woman in her private parts, follow her or think if you buy her a drink she will go straight to bed with you. But maybe that is partially our society’s fault because of the movies that are produced in the West and how they oftentimes depict Western women... (Maybe I will have to write another post on that…)
People point at you
But it can also be quite entertaining when you are out and people say in their native language and assuming you can’t understand what they’re saying: “Look! There’s a foreigner! She must be American!” (in which I am not!).
I do not think you could ever do anything like this in the West without someone complaining you are racist for pointing out the obvious differences in skin or hair colour and physique and maybe judging them because of that! It gives you a different and often entertaining perspective on things – especially when you kind of embarrass them by correcting them that you are not American and you do understand what they are saying… haha!
It also gives you an amusing view on “political correctness” in the West as everyone has become so afraid of pointing out the apparent (and it is not always necessarily a bad thing!) without any sort of consequence that may go with it. In most countries, people frankly do not care. They will point out what they see and oftentimes without giving it a second thought or any sort of judgment.
People judge your nationality
These, let us call them “pointing-you-out” experiences give you a new perspective on things what it means to have the nationality you have and with that sometimes the privilege that goes with it just by owning the “right” nationality and being born in the “right” country in our world today.
As an example, during my time in China, the only reason I would get the better jobs, the TV interviews, the newspaper attention compared to other foreign colleagues was because I was white, have blonde hair and was not fat. And yes, our Chinese employers would openly say “No, we can’t choose so and so because her hair is black, her skin is too dark and I mean, just look at her. She’s ugly!” Yes, they would openly say that.
When I started dating my husband, we would have our pictures and story published in the city’s newspapers. We were not asked for permission, but found out from our students who would be giggling when either of us would enter the classroom. What was the big deal? Well, he is Asian and I am Western. This is an unusual combination as with most mixed couples, you would find that the man is from the West and the woman is Asian. On top of that, they could not cope with me dating someone who is “dark” in skin tone… No kidding!
After several years, we further ran into problems when many Chinese employers started denying Filipinos – especially teachers - the Chinese working visa simply because they were Filipino. I am not saying all Chinese people or employers are like this and I cannot and will not generalize, but due to politics between both countries at the time, our experiences was that many locals would start looking down on the Filipinos, deny them jobs and simply make their life more difficult because of where they are from. Does it mean they are less skilled? No! They just happen to have the wrong nationality in that country at that time!
Now, let us be honest, this is a phenomenon which can be observed throughout the world and also in the West today – but luckily due to our laws and regulations, we do not try to make people feel less than they are because of where they are from or skin colour. But do not be oblivious to the fact that other countries think or handle the same way or even have this way of thinking.
...these experiences – good, bad and funny – which you will only gain, see and feel first-hand when living abroad, make you appreciate other cultures and foreigners in your own country a whole lot more because you can relate to and understand the struggles they are experiencing and what it actually means to leave your family and friends behind in hope of a better life and providing more for your family. It helps you to not stereotype but to get to know a person better. It does not mean we do not fail, but I believe the awareness of those struggles is there as well as the understanding of how challenging life can be living far from home in a country unlike your own.
What is your experience? What can you add or what was different in your experience? Please share in the comment box below!
And if you need practical tips on how to make life easier abroad and how not to obviously be “the odd one out”, wait for my next article on "How to Combat Culture Shock when Living Abroad".
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