Before I left for England, I had never had the experience of being isolated because of my nationality. As an American, I have always lived among other Americans. I have never lived as a minority. I am a white American who has grown up with other white Americans. In fact, I am basically a perfect fit in the white, middle class suburban girl puzzle. But, as it turns out, my American puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit into the British equivalent.
I am different here. I don’t understand the metric system. I can’t figure out which way to look when crossing the street. My clothes aren’t quite right. And as soon as I open my mouth, there is a big blinking arrow that announces to the world, “SHE DOESN’T BELONG!”
I am a foreigner here and up until now, I never realized how much pressure that can be. People look at me and interact with me, and when they walk away they have formed decisions and opinions about my country and my nationality based on the interaction they had with me.
To be a foreigner is to have different responsibility, to know that your actions, words, facial expressions, and body language are in so many ways representing the country that you come from. Like I said, it’s a lot of pressure.
In my accommodation, I am one of four Americans. The other three are boys, making me the only American girl, but it is interesting to compare my interactions with them versus those with the British and the other international students. Talking with someone from your own country even for a few seconds is like having a burden lifted from your shoulders.
For those few seconds, I can use American slang or talk about American things. For those few moments, I can just be me. For those few moments, I am not an outsider anymore. I can talk at a normal speed, say things like “scared the crap out me”, and contemplate why in the world it’s impossible to find a zipper sandwich bag in England.
I can finally understand why nationalities clump together in a foreign place. There is no bigger comfort in a foreign country than to find other people from your nation, to spend time with them, to talk to them, and to shed your foreigner status for a few minutes.
The other Americans and I don’t spend all of our time together. We see each other maybe twice a week, and when we do hang out in a big group of international students we don’t clump together and ignore everyone else.
But even so, maybe the greatest comfort is knowing that no matter what, I am not alone – that I am not the only puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. And even if it’s only until December, I found a place to fit in a new puzzle – an international one. We are all mismatched pieces, different from one another, different colors, different words and pictures, but somehow we all manage to fit together.
Eventually we will all go our separate ways, back to our original puzzles, but for now, it’s nice to fit in somewhere.
Have you ever been a foreigner?
77 days until I return to the US.