There are few experiences in life more humbling than living in a country as a foreigner. One is immediately set back in all aspects of life to earlier times. Even if you know the language already, you still are lacking in common knowledge socially and feel like a young adult having to once again learn how to function in society. How does one do banking; buy tickets and understand public transportation; post a letter; get groceries, etc.? Due to globalization, these aspects aren’t as disparate as they were some 26 years ago, but even their ‘sameness’ has minor differences attached. When we moved from Germany to England in 1994, the German bank assured us that the money for the deposit on our house would be credited to our English account as soon as the check was received. Nope. The English don’t credit it until it the money from the check is received (like in America). Our deposit cheque bounced. Not a great way to start life in a new country.
The first trip to the grocery store – whether in England or Germany – is bound to take a lot longer than usual. The brand names are different; the prices are different. You have no basis of experience on which to decide if a product is ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive’. I remember having panic attacks while shopping with small children in England for the first few times, trying to keep to a tight budget and still coming home with everything we needed. (We also didn’t have a car, so there were no ‘quick trips’ to the store to fetch something forgotten.) And I quickly learned that asking other people wasn’t all that helpful, what one person said was cheap, another would say was expensive. It depended entirely on the individual incomes in question.
Your power to complain is also greatly reduced. More than once I heard things like: “This isn’t America!”, and “You can always go home!” Being on the receiving end of those comments made me repent wholeheartedly of ever liking the bumper sticker that said, “America, love it or leave it”. Because – um, no – one can’t always go home, THIS is my home now. It is especially upsetting when it comes from a schoolteacher who has mistreated your child or a doctor who clearly holds a grudge against all things American, but you feel so ill you might just lose your lunch on their lap if they don’t help you.
If you are just learning the language, it is even worse. You feel literally sent back to the age of 3. When your knowledge of the language makes you sound like a three year-old, you tend to be treated like one – or worse, like you have no intelligence at all. In those circumstances, you can be called all sorts of horrible names. I was called a ‘shitty foreigner’ more than once while first learning German because I held up a line getting on a bus or caused some other delay while trying to communicate. It thickens the skin to ignore such abuse, but it is still painful.
So the next time to have to deal with a foreigner in your own country, treat them mercifully – please. They are dealing with loads of stress, and are more intelligent than you think.