I won’t pretend to be an expert on being a foreigner. That is a very personal experience. I also wouldn’t want to give the impression that I know how anybody else feels. However, I have been a foreigner for much of my life and in a number of countries. So I know a little about myself being a foreigner. Unlike others who find themselves refugees from climate change or political unrest, I am a voluntary foreigner. We are called expatriates.
First and foremost, to me being a foreigner means freedom. Staying in one culture all your life means restricting yourself to one way of doing things. Life is predictable and restricted. I never liked that idea. It implies a narrowness and lack of imagination. To me one of the glories of humanity is our diversity. How could I cut myself off from all of that?
I was a California kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. So I couldn’t have chosen to grow up in a nicer place. However, from an early age, I read avidly about adventures in foreign lands. In my mind, I went on caravans in Afghanistan, rode the Steppes of Russia or hacked my way through the Amazonian jungle. This made me realize that there were many different ways of life and I wanted to know more about them.
It was not just about adventure. It was about learning and not being restricted. Even at university, I found most faculty and students operated from a narrow perspective. That was what they wanted, their comfort zone. In this crowd I felt alone and, yes, alien.
Let me be clear. I never wanted to “go native.” That is impossible. We are pretty much stuck with our primary language and culture. But we can bring new things in.
What I’ve found is that a compromise is possible. Foreigners can live in a bubble that is of their own creation. It is a mix of our former cultures and the new. In fact, you can select and create a new combination. To me that is very exciting. It is a chance to grow and stay the same. Rather than be in the straitjacket of one culture, I can be of many cultures . Sort of a mix and match process. I can have my American friends and my Peruvian family. I can eat and enjoy a hamburger and a wonderful ceviche.
I can earn a living teaching English and have a coffee with a friend in Spanish. I can shed some of the things I don’t like about living in the United States and incorporate the benefits of Peruvian culture.
Since I am a foreigner, no one expects me to strictly follow Peruvian cultural norms. Since I am an expatriate, I don’t have to follow the expectations imposed by American culture.
I am free thanks to being a foreigner. I have my own space standing between two worlds and for me it is a comfortable space.