Ten years as a foreigner

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Sometime at the beginning of last November was the tenth anniversary of my coming to Germany as a fresh young foreign student. I’ve shed the ‘fresh’, ‘student’ and ‘young’ parts in the ensuing ten years, but the foreigner part is still there. The occasion would have merited a decent party, because being a foreigner, and being a foreigner in Germany in particular, was really fun, but we had celebrated my girlfriend’s birthday a few weeks ago, so now a blog post will have to suffice.

Excluding some hard times and unhappy streaks which are normal in any ten years, living as a foreigner in Germany was great fun. This was not solely due to the low beer prices, although it helped mightily. Going abroad to live is a great chance to achieve something that you would have serious difficulties with in your native culture: distance. Growing up, native culture attaches itself to your eyes like pingpong balls, telling you that it is the world itself, and you are what it tells you. Going somewhere where you are not intimately connected to all the daily codes –the children’s songs, pop culture, political divisions– gives you a chance to put yourself at a distance: Distance to normality, distance to language, distance to the instant flow of the urgencies of daily news. The distance I enjoyed the most is the one that is, somehow perversely, to myself. Do you know this feeling where your awareness leaves your head, and looks at you the way it looks at other people when you are ‘normal’? Being foreign puts you in a perpetual half-distance to yourself, making the out-of-body condition the normal one.

Such a perpetual distance also makes breaking the barriers standing before personal change much easier. The cloud of self-evident facts that surround you do not appear cast in iron anymore; the people in your social net, including you yourself, will experience you through your own words and actions, so why not act like the person you want to be? You used to be a sports-challenged dork? Start training in some martial arts. Flirt-challenged? Just start doing it.

In order to re-make yourself, you already have to be made, as the ortography of the word implies. This means that you get this chance only if you are above a certain age. There is also the fact that you need a perspective from which you see yourself as a possible different person, and this perspective is not there before a certain age. Age is not the only thing that decides whether you are going to have an easy time among the new natives. For me, this becomes really obvious when I compare my own experiences in Germany with those made by many others of similar cultural background with me. I got to know many people with respectable jobs and decent living standards who came to Germany with the hope of achieving even more, but sank into the tarpit that is called “background of migration”. The best means not to fall into this tarpit is language, but not necessarily the native one. The language you want to speak well as a starter in german culture is English. English has become not only a lingua franca, but together with the internet, it, and the set of idioms, jokes, and memes popular at a time that live in that gray area of language-culture, have become the global equalizier. Having a decent grasp of English, and a readiness to accept the values of this culture lets you not only redefine yourself without falling into another web of prejudices, but also gives you access to the young and internationalist culture which is generally much more accomodating and open.

The effect wears off, naturally; you can’t stay a foreigner all your life, unless you are running away from yourself. There was an installation on a museum in my german home city. This installation was just a saying by Erasmus written in bright neon lights on the wall of the museum: “Ich bin ein Weltbuerger - ueberall zuhause, fremd ueberall”. In English: I am a citizen of the world, everywhere at home, and everywhere a foreigner. I really liked it at the time, noticing it as a profound statement of being European. The alternation here revealed for me the difficult mental process necessary for establishing a common understanding in such a small space with so many different cultures as Europe. No matter where you are native, you must keep a foreigner’s distance to what is local to think rationally about your own culture, and an understanding for others’ habits in order not to demonize them.

These are the positive side of the coin. Living for ten years in Germany, I went from being foreign to being sort of at home, and now I can sense another, more individual and darker aspect to Erasmus’ alternation. Wherever you are foreign, you can be at home with time; the distance can’t be kept forever. While enjoying the benefits of being a foreigner, you become the native foreigner of a country, taking on that role, and forgetting that this is also a way of arriving at home.

So, welcome home, foreigner.