On Being a Foreigner

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I’ve done my fair share of traveling the past couple years. However, never have I quite experienced the “foreigner”-stamped-across-my-forehead feeling quite like I am now. In Wales, everything was at least in English (although sometimes it may have well been another language!). I’ve dealt with language barriers too though–but always with the help of a guiding professor or friend. But now I’m a bit more on my own, making mistakes and trying to learn as I go.

Example 1: The Queue Ticketing Machine.
Swedes don’t just “get in line” as often as Americans do. They take a ticket and “queue” by waiting off to the side for their number to flash on a sign. It doesn’t matter if you’re waiting at the phone store, the migration agency, or–even sometimes–if you just want to buy a bottle of Coke, there is probably an inconspicuous ticketing machine hiding–or painfully obvious, if you’re a Swede. Wherever we go, it seems we somehow frequently wreak havoc on all semblance of order by missing this simple step. Sometimes our mistakes are received with more grace than others. Every time I walk away, I think, how could something as basic as queuing be so complicated? And I’m sure the Swedes are thinking the same thing about me.

Example 2: The Grocery Store.
It seems almost every time I walk out of the grocery store, I find myself trying to recover from a little phenomenon I like to call “Grocery Store Trauma.” Again, it’s something so basic, right? Food. Yet I find myself standing in the milk section for 10 minutes, unable to tell one carton from the next. Another time I’m in the sugar aisle for another 10. And don’t even get me started on The Great Candy Fiasco of last week. It’s not rocket science–buying food. Yet every time I end up finding myself stuck, in the way, and confused.

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When in doubt, just keep buying the same brand…haha!

Can these experiences be frustrating? Yes.
Would I trade them? Not necessarily.

First, stretching experiences inevitably lead to growth. Yes, I have definitely embarrassed myself or ticked others off through my mistakes. But I’m learning along the way. I’m learning to adapt to a new place and way of doing things. I’m learning that there is not a “better” or “wrong” way, just different ways. I’m learning to let go, to forgive myself for my mistakes, and to not dwell on complete strangers’ judgments of me. And I am learning about having grace for both others as well as myself.

And second, I’m acquiring empathy for the foreigners and sojourners when I’m in my own home–those who are displaced, whether by choice or not. How many times have I heard, or even thought myself, judgments of those new to America? How could they mess up something so basic, something so simple? Why are they doing it all wrong? But now I find myself unable to do the basics, the simple, the “painfully obvious,” either.

There are people far more courageous than me who have left their homes, their comfort, their language, their ways of doing things. Live with grace.

And, of course, I’m never as alone as I sometimes let myself think. I have a group of new teachers making mistakes and learning right beside me. It’s never so bad a quick trip to Espresso House can’t fix it. And I am also surrounded by the most supportive school staff coming alongside me along the way.

Comfort zones were never meant to be brick walls keeping us inside. As I’ve been going on evening walks while we still have this beautiful weather, I’ve been making a habit of going off on a side path if I see one (and, believe me, there are many!). The best adventures happen off the beaten trail. It might at first seem harder. I might get lost for a bit. But it is always worth it.

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Always worth it.