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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The dark side of being an expat


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.



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14 comments:

  1. Maybe look at it this way: it's your advantage that people expect too little of you. You only need to open your mouth to surprise them and change their minds, just like you described having done. Besides the bottom line is what people expect of you tells more about themselves than about you.

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    1. I think they expect me to speak German like a German person- so they expect more of me that I could ever give them. I will never speak German like a German person- whatever they mean by that. But they still think I should.

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  2. What a thoughtful and eloquent post. I completely empathise with your frustration. I have three languages, have lived in five countries and have experienced exactly the same problems as you to some level, wherever I have lived. I even had a similar problem in my "home" country when I returned for a period after some years abroad. "You lived abroad!!!?" some people would say, as if I had just told them I lived on Mars, "why?". As foreign as I have felt abroad, I have never felt more foreign than I did right there in the country I was born in. Eventually I learnt to stop telling people I had lived abroad and played dumb when people asked why I didn't remember a certain news event or television series. It's odd the way others choose to define us.

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    1. Emmy, yes! Not only are you made to feel a foreigner in your new country, you become a foreigner in your home country as well. Somehow wherever we go we get defined as strangers. It's like others know better how we should speak and behave than we do. For me, that's the most annoying part of being an expat even though I do enjoy the many benefits that come with it.

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  3. As older I get, as more it starts to get to me. I just talked about that with my wife and i will write about this subject as well... I have to face the fact that I probably speak not German without an accent ;)

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    1. Are people sometimes surprised when you tell them you're German- because you don't "look" German?

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  4. Have a look at this post (http://lovinglanguage.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/language-deficiency/). I think that First Culture (and Language!) Persons really can't understand how we feel as multilinguals. We perceive the languages we speak in a different way, I would say we do it in a more playful way. For example, I love to coin new words and with my kids we often do this as a game. - I totally agree with Tarja: "what people expects from you tells more about themselves than about you". And if they react in an unfriendly way, we have the right to tell them. I usually tell people when I think their comments are inappropriate. I do it with a smile and very calmly. Some apologize, some simply don't understand.

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    1. Thanks, Ute. Very interesting post and I agree with it. It describes precisely what I want to convey with my post. It's just frustrating that whatever we do, it's wrong, because we can't have-or give-everything.Your idea of gently reminding people is a pretty good idea, and maybe I could adapt this as well- maybe some people don't realize how patronizing they are.

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  5. You're right. Nobody can have or give everything. If someone expects this from you, it's his or her problem not yours.

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    1. It's not really my problem. If they want a German person, they should talk to one. If they want an expat with great language skills, they can talk to me.

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  6. Such an interesting post! The thing I always noticed on my travels in France & Germany was that if I didn't quite catch something and asked someone to repeat it, they would always assume I hadn't understood and so switch to English, or begin a lengthy explanation, when most of the time I just didn't hear! I think it's made me more tolerant when I am on the other side, ie meeting people for whom English is not a mother tongue... more people should travel :-)

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    1. Yes, this happens to me in the Netherlands as well. I then tell them, in Dutch, that I just didn't hear what they said. It usually works. Also, I've noticed that Klara does the same thing. She doesn't pronounce the words all that clearly, so I don't understand her sometimes. She then repeats the word in another language- and it's great because it means that she knows that people speak different languages!

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  7. Cześć! I just came across your blog while browsing blogs of multilingual families. Swój blog jest bardzo ciekawy. Unfortunately I have experienced the same here in Spain, where from time to time people treat me as though I am ignorant because my spoken Spanish is not perfect. It is one of those things that can really dent your self-confidence when speaking a foreign language, isn't it?

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    1. Dziękuję bardzo za komentarz! I agree that it is totally frustrating when you think-and know that you speak the language really well, and everybody reacts as if you're stupid. Unfortunately, this seems a general experience, regardless of where you are.

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