Being a Foreigner

18 Sep
Angel de Independencia

Angel de Independencia

Because I tend to have a general attitude of “I don’t give a fuck”, for the most part, I don’t mind being a foreigner. That’s not to say I go around playing music loudly at night, or littering in public places. I’m conscientious. But I don’t take myself too seriously, and I don’t like when others do. You only have one life, so why sweat it? If I have to smile and ask a waiter, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is. Can you explain?”, I don’t mind. I don’t blush and swell with excessive pride. I have done this being a foreigner thing before, and I know that sometimes you just have to accept that you look different, sound different, and generally don’t know your way around (at least at first).

I don’t want to be someone who feels especially special and unique by virtue of the fact that I am foreign. When you’re 20 years old and studying abroad during junior year of college, you content yourself with knowing that if anyone wants to know how that is said in English, or what it’s like in America, they can go to you. There were times when I studied abroad in Spain when I would be the only American in the room, and I felt special. One should absolutely accept that being a foreigner offers a unique perspective on things. But it is not all that is unique and special about you. That’s to say that when I go home to spend the holidays with my family, I know that there are aspects of my identity that are more important to who I am than my exoticness, my otherness. I think it is people who have difficulty separating the two who have a tough time readjusting when they go back home.

I also can’t forget that being a foreigner from any old country and being an American abroad are not the same thing. I’ve generally found that being an American in Europe and Latin America means being received warmly, perhaps with a sarcastic remark, and rarely as the first emissary of your kind to visit these shores. I have met maybe three people for whom I was the first American they had ever met. Being an American means you are never too far from familiar things; you turn on the TV and see the same actors with unfamiliar voices; you see the same junk food in the stores, the same golden arches and half-bitten apple at the mall. Here in Mexico, you see hamburgers offered at a lot of restaurants. Breakfast menus often include “hot cakes” (although it seems that someone came here in the 1950’s with that name and it stuck; nowadays we call them pancakes). I try to balance out consuming familiar things, such as the jar of peanut butter that I have at home, with consuming things that I know I’ll find only in Mexico, like eating a $5 lunch that includes soup, appetizer, entree (enchiladas, taquitos, fish), and a modest dessert. As I write this, I sit in a café where the soundtrack and the ambience could be lifted straight out of Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s almost too familiar. I want something disorienting, different, exotic.

But then again, I think about how much I stuck out like a sore thumb today at lunch when I ate at a fonda near work (one of these homespun restaurants offering a menu of the day that is typically only open for office workers during lunch hour). Sometimes it’s thrilling to not look like anyone around (although let’s face it, with my Lebanese Mexican looks I rarely blend into my surroundings), and sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes you just want to go unnoticed. Again, you don’t want your identity to rely too heavily on being a foreigner, but sometimes you have to embrace the fact that you’re not from here. At the very least, I feel safe. I know that it’s entirely possible that I could wind up in the wrong neighborhood or the wrong taxi and all of a sudden being a foreigner is not cool, it’s an invitation to victimhood.

All in all, I mostly feel happy. Still a bit disoriented- I’m still learning streets in my neighborhood, and then I’ll work outward from there- and still a bit lonely, as I don’t know many people yet, but still very grateful for this feeling. Being a foreigner here makes me feel deliriously alive.

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