We all know that being an expat, while exciting, can lead to many problems, ranging from getting used to a new country to struggling with cultural differences, and the feeling of being left alone in a foreign place. There are other issues as well, but in this post, I would like to discuss a problem that I don’t really see discussed much, but that I feel is important, and I’ve experienced this many times, regardless in which country I was.
A few days ago, I went to my local Media Markt to buy a new camera. I planned to buy a good digital SRL, and wanted to get the service man’s opinion on a particular model. While I spoke Dutch, he heard my accent, and automatically assumed that I am stupid and ignorant about cameras. This is not the case: I had an analogue SRL for years, and now wanted to make the switch to digital. I knew all about the photography-related stuff. I just didn’t know all the terms in Dutch. This is just one aspect of the patronizing way that local people sometimes treat expats. It is the opposite of the halo effect: we perceive beautiful people as smart and trustworthy, even though their character traits have nothing to do with their beauty. In the same way, just because we don’t speak the language perfectly, it is assumed that we don’t know anything about anything.
We pay more than necessary because we’re foreigners. And, I am sad to admit, my own country is not innocent in this matter: I remember a day when we went to a flea market in Warsaw, and heard a man calling out, in Polish: “Very cheap, very cheap, 25 Zloty!” He then repeated his call in German: “Very cheap, very cheap, 25 Euro!”. Except 1 Euro is 4 Zloty, so if there were any foreigners, they might have overpaid dramatically. This is just as patronizing as the first situation.
And, there is a third case. When I was in Canada, I was asked “Where are you from?”, but very often the question was prefaced with a comment: “Oh, you have an accent!”, with a tone of voice that said: “You have three legs and blue skin”. So I do have an accent, why is it so bad? But I can say “froth” like any English person! Is that not an achievement? Sometimes, even compliments are patronizing. When I am in Germany, people often know I am Polish before they meet me- usually, these are my husband’s friends. And when they do meet me, they listen to me for a while, and say: “Oh, I would never say you’re not German, maybe you do have a little bit of an accent.” It basically sounds as if they’re expecting me to make mistakes. And, just like that, I start making those mistakes. My R’s become more pronounced, my intonation (that according to my mother-in-law is already weird), becomes even weirder. My knowledge of German is on an extremely high level. I can have abstract discussions, and make funny, creative puns, and even make up new words. Instead of seeing this potential in me, my parents-in-law react with: “This word doesn’t exist”. If I were German, they would be laughing, but because I am Polish, they don’t expect me to have this kind of language proficiency. Somehow, I am so proud of my language knowledge, but it’s never enough. There is always something setting me apart from native speakers of this language, marking me as a stranger, a foreigner. I will never belong.
That’s OK. I am used to not belonging. But what I can’t get used to is being patronized.