For all of us who have lived outside our own culture whether by choice, by necessity or even by accident of birth, this:
Everyone stares. Your skin is too pink, or too brown. Your hair is too bright, or too curly. You are too tall, or too curvy, or too something. Little kids squirm in their mothers’ arms and adults lean off balconies to better see the oddity passing by. You are never invisible.
You regularly break rules you didn’t know existed. You touch the produce. You slam the door. You step right when they step left. You show the bottom of your feet. You address your elderly landlord in the informal.
Your clothes are wrong. Too short or too long, too tight or too bright or too practical. You thought, “Jeans?! Really!? In this climate?!” but yes. Your shoes are expensive, and comfortable, and give you away.
Everything takes longer than you expect. First, you must plan for every potential eventuality, contorting your brain to try to see this minor errand through the eyes of this baffling culture. Your plan rarely works the first time; the store is closed, or the street name is wrong, or you are missing a critical item. Sometimes, when this happens, you stumble upon an amazing bakery/street stall/ice cream vendor and it becomes a fun adventure. Or you see something transcendent, like a pile of citrus arranged by color, or the sun shining through clean laundry, or a carved doorway. Other times, you just try not to cry.
Little things are complete mysteries. Why are there three separate lines in the bank? Why is the store closed on Thursday afternoons? At what hour should you switch from “good-day” to “good-evening”? When you first arrive, you ask these questions. Later, you stop asking why. You realize that it doesn’t matter; it just is.
You are constantly hunting for something that you didn’t expect would be difficult to find. A pencil sharpener. Safety pins. A place to get a pedicure. A black leather belt. Hair curlers. It is both a vocabulary lesson and an opportunity to entertain locals with your charades skills. You grow immune to the giggles.
You lack social niceties. With limited language, you sound like a cranky toddler. You can neither offer meaningful thanks nor kindly refuse an invitation. You worry that everyone thinks you are rude.
Your behavior represents whole countries, cultures or races. If you show frustration, all Americans are grumpy. If you don’t eat the soup, white people don’t like local food. If your kids are loud, parents in your country are too permissive.
You have a situation-adjusted metric for how many times you’ll ask someone to repeat themselves. Obviously, it’s higher for the bank teller or the landlord than the old lady on the bus, but at some point, in all cases, you will give up, nod, smile and walk away, baffled by what just happened.
You are perpetually lost, confused or both. Your facial expressions narrow down to two: bemused and bewildered.
Your meals are repetitive, because there are so few familiar products in the store. When you find something familiar — even if it’s something you would never buy at home, like waxy Peter Pan peanut butter — you buy two, in giddy excitement. McDonalds, a place you haven’t set foot in for years, looks homey.
Nothing is designed for you. The pants are shaped wrong. The t-shirts only come in colors that don’t flatter your skin tone. The keyboard has different characters. You are usually too hot or too cold. Your quest to control your hair in the humidity/wind/constant drizzle fails.
You pay a disproportionate amount of attention to what comes out of your body.
All financial transactions feel like badly-worded SAT math questions, as you convert kilos to pounds and dollars to euros and consider whether the price quoted makes sense compared to the cost of a bus ride/fixed-price lunch/bottle of water. You struggle to tell the 50 from the 20 as you pay. Coins remain a mystery; you give up and trust the cashier to pick the correct ones out of the pile in your hand.
You feel an unexplainable solidarity with other foreigners. “You, too,” you nod in acknowledgement of your brotherhood. Except when their clothes or voice or level of inebriation tarnishes your reputation and you scurry in the other direction, feeling strangely guilty for the behavior of a person unknown and unrelated to you.
You think you understand the time or place or process that they explain. You are usually wrong. Sometimes that is funny, or frustrating, or scary, or the best part of your day.
Sometimes you hide. You spend a whole gorgeous tropical/alpine/springtime-in-Paris day squirreled away in your safest place, binge-watching Netflix or re-reading a novel or setting your saddest playlist on repeat, pretending that you’re somewhere familiar and Not Here.
Then, you start to see things differently. Before, your home-colored lenses distorted your view, making some things invisible. Over time, if you’re lucky and work at it a little, you can see things you never saw before, even though they were always there.
You notice the neuroses of your own culture, your own “normal” life. When faced with two-hour siestas, you wonder why everyone at home eats lunch at their desk. Frozen processed tuna steaks sold just two miles from where it was caught make no sense when you buy your snapper, still flopping, from the guy who caught it 10 minutes before.
In fact, you notice everything. Without a routine to dull your senses, without the usual hooks upon which to hang the rote parts of your day, you notice the colors and the smells. The heat from the sidewalk. The air on your skin. The crinkles around the eyes of the old man sweeping the street. You pay attention. You wonder sometimes what your old life would look like, through these wide-awake eyes.
You realize how much stuff surrounds you back home, things that you don’t need. The hair dryer and the garbage disposal. Fancy face lotions and expensive conditioner. Necklaces. Six choices of lipstick color. Five different black skirts.
You realize which few things you do need to be happy. Decent underwear. One good knife and a solid cutting board. Olive oil. Sunscreen. A Kindle and wifi. Someone to vent to, and to hold your hand when it’s all a bit too much. Patience. A sense of humor.
And you learn that there is almost always someone happy to help, the third time you pass them on your quest for an address that may not exist. Their face may look serious, or forbidding, or derisive, but the moment you try, the moment you string together grammatically incorrect and Yoda-like sentences in their language — and smile — they are with you. They take you to the store. They find you the bus. They put you in the right line. They give you a cup of mint tea and ask about your life.
Later, you stop noticing the big guns or skinny children or stray dogs or blaring horns or chipped edifices that were all you could see when you first arrived. But you also skip the sunset or the new flavor or the scenic path even though you were sure you would do it every day of your trip.
Then, one day, you walk out the door without twenty minutes of preparation. You complete your task on the first try. You don’t have to repeat yourself. What felt threatening is barely noticeable, what was daunting is now routine, what was odd is now commonplace. And you realize that you’re not such a stranger anymore. And you sort of miss the rush.
Fellow extranjeros, what did I miss?