Thursday, March 26, 2015

On being a foreigner

Before I moved to the Philippines in 2010 for work and again to Indonesia in 2012 I went through extensive cross cultural training courses. There were many discussion on how to adapt to a new way of living in a new country, understanding cultural differences and ultimately not getting stuck in the "expat bubble".

I often joked with my colleagues that it would be nice sometimes to have an expat bubble to visit now and then but in many of the locations where I worked it was never really an option. Instead, I made local friends, bought groceries at the local market, walked or used local transportation, and ate the local food. There were times I received special attention because I was a foreigner but I always tried to approach this from a place of curiosity. After all growing up on an island frequented by tourists I grew up with the same curiosity to know "what are you doing here?".

I find human migration fascinating, and recently it's been the stories of people my age that have struck a cord. After living in different parts of the world with a mix of people from different cultures and backgrounds I've realized more and more that there are commonalities between all of us regardless of where we call "home". Yet it is often outdated terms like "expat" or  "immigrant"  that set the tone for how a new community perceives us.

I've been lucky to have found my "community" in  many of my foreign homes often made up of a strange mix of locals and foreigners brought together by common interests.

Recently, a friend of mine was featured in a video that went viral around the world (largely thanks to the many Ilokano's living around the globe). My initial thoughts when watching the video were "What's so special?" after all the video shows Firth asking for simple directions in the local language. I've become so accustomed to hearing Firth (a Canadian by birth but having lived the majority of his life in other countries including Cambodia, Egypt, USA, Scotland and most recently the Philippines) carry on conversations in Ilokano. And while, Firth is a stellar example of adopting to his new home (becoming fluent in a non-dominant language is no easy task) any one who has travelled to another country as undoubtedly met the foreigner living in the expat bubble, that makes you wonder why they ever left home in the first place.

Growing up I had never placed much value on the colour of my skin. Rather I was encouraged to identify as more lofty things like a student, a dreamer, a traveller traits that may not be so evident at first glance. Many countries have a word for foreigners, in Indonesia I was a "bule" and in the Philippines I was an "Americano". But these words identify me as a white person not necessarily a foreigner. (Being identified as "pretty" and "fat" is another topic all of its own). And I guess where I am trying to go with this is that sometimes language lags behind reality. For what do you call the Filipino born and raised in Canada or the Indonesian adopted at birth and raised in Sweden. Often, the language and words we choose to use are defined by our circumstances, many Filipinos commonly use the term "Americano" because of the occupation by the American Army in the Philippines. I often find white skin the most confusing, especially coming from a country like Canada that was founded by foreigners. A country where you can be Indian, Filipino, Italian, French, Croatian etc... and still be Canadian.

I guess all I'm saying is the next time you meet someone or see someone on the street, see past their outward appearance, their age, their race, their colour, and see the individual and the complex layer of life experiences that have gotten them to where they are now. Take a moment to reflect on the words you choose to and how they might be viewed.

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