September 10, 2018

Being a Temporary Foreigner

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As C. Wright Mills noted in The Sociological Imagination, one of our tasks as sociologists is to “make the familiar strange.” Traveling to a foreign country—especially one where you barely speak the language—is a great way to undertake Mills’s advice.

Travel highlights how many little things we take for granted while interacting with others. The most obvious barrier is speaking the same language. While we English speakers of the world are uniquely privileged because so many people speak our language, or at least some of our language, not everyone does.

Before a recent trip to Italy, I spent several weeks trying my best to learn Italian. While people regularly told me there was no need, that everyone speaks English everywhere, I wanted to be prepared in case I needed to communicate with someone. Besides, I felt it was a sign of respect to at least try to learn the native language, and in so doing I would learn more about the culture.

I found out on the first day there that not everyone speaks English, and despite my best efforts, I did not really speak Italian. I felt the sting of sounding foolish on a number of occasions, when the string of words I put together was likely grammatically incorrect and at times apparently incoherent. When someone tried to give us directions that I couldn’t understand, the only thing I could say was “non capisco” (I don’t understand), and despite the different attempts to explain directions to me I still did not know what they were saying.

Most of the time I did fine reading road signs, but on occasion there were special notices that I didn’t understand. On a hike, one sign said that a trail was closed, but I didn’t understand the explanation why. I asked some passing hikers in Italian; they spoke a bit of English and explained there was a landslide. Good to know.

You might be thinking, why not just use Google Translate, or another similar app? Sometimes that worked, but on one specific occasion it yielded a very confused look. I looked up “where is the bathroom”—a very basic question—and Google Translate told me how to say it in Italian. The problem is that it provided a literal translation, and I wasn’t looking to take a bath at the moment. I quickly found that in Italy they called it a toilette or WC (for water closet).

That we in the U.S. use a euphemism for toilet helps make the familiar strange, as does how and where toilets are located. We have been embroiled in national debates about who can use which bathroom (back to the euphemism), presuming that there should be separate bathrooms for males or females. In Italy I encountered many public toilets that were for both men and women, where there might be a stall marked for men (with a urinal and a toilet) next to a stall marked for women. That took some getting used to, but it is a reminder that our customs are just that, familiar to us but not to all.

I read about other customs, such as those related to food and dining, before my trip. Meals are slower experiences there, and we found out that arriving at a restaurant expecting to eat immediately would lead to disappointment. Pizza was mostly eaten with a knife and fork in the restaurants we visited, particularly because it was of the thin crust Napolitano variety. I had to remind myself with each bite not to pick it up with my hands.

Grocery stores were smaller—sometimes very small—and I found buying produce to be a challenge at first. Customers were not supposed to touch produce with their bare hands, and disposable plastic gloves were provided to put produce in a bag. And everything had to be in a bag—a very irritated woman told me it was the law to use a bag after I had some bananas in my bare hands. Customers were expected to weigh their produce and put a sticker on the bag with the weight and price before reaching the checkout counter.

Of course weights and measures are different in most of the world than in the U.S., where we are among the few holdouts that don’t use the metric system. Whether measuring distance in kilometers, gas in liters, the temperature in Celsius, and time in 24 rather than 12 hours, nearly every basic task took some mental energy to convert the strange back to the familiar.

Before my trip, some friends and family expressed concern that by speaking Italian I would cause locals to mistake me for a native speaker, and I wouldn’t be able to understand them when they spoke beyond basics. That never happened. In fact, people in shops or restaurants often took one look at my husband and me and started speaking to us in English. We wondered what tipped them off: our clothes? Our body language and demeanor? Sure, they might have heard us speaking in English to one another, but I suspect something about us indicated that we were foreign.

Being a temporary foreigner was informative, and of course fun (we were on vacation, after all). But when we returned home I noticed the ease at which I communicated with others, the mental energy no longer spent translating words or measures or currency. It gave me a new appreciation for those who do this everyday, who struggle to learn to acclimate to a new culture and language, and being identified as “foreign” by others.

Comments

Los viajes siempre son experiencias nuevas donde mas allá de conocer nuevas culturas, lugares, formas de hablar o comer, es un re-descubrimiento del ser propio, ya que nos ponemos en situaciones que jamas pensábamos. Las recompensas de salir de nuestra zona de confort siempre son buenas. Felicidades.

Awesome post ! it is really helpful post . thanks for sharing.

I've tried this experience before I'm quite uneasy at first til I found the right rhythm and make the most of it.

Temporary foreigner is a different thing to hear.

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