On being a foreigner

by Kim on April 10, 2013 · 72 comments

“One of the most important reasons to travel is to know what it feels like to be a foreigner.” – A.A. Gill

Since traveling to India I frequently think about a group of Indian men I worked with before I left my 9-5 job. I think about how strange it must be for them to work in America with all of our rules and procedures, the heart plucked out of so many of our interpersonal interactions.

I can see them as I used to see them at work, sitting in the sterile break room in straight-backed chairs, eating quietly- it was always so quiet- their warmed-up curry spicing the air. I feel ashamed that I never once thought to ask them where in India they are from. I never asked them what it is like for them in the U.S. or what they miss most about home. I never even thought to ask.

I have vowed to be a different kind of person when I go back home. I have vowed that, when I see tourists on the sidewalk with maps spread out in front of them, I will stop and ask if I can help with directions. I used to rush by these people with a smug sense of satisfaction, thinking to myself: Here in the U.S. we let you be how you are, we won’t bother you even though you are a visitor. Everyone is welcome here and treated the same! Which is to mean, ignored. It never occurred to me that, had I stopped to help, I might be a friendly face, a warm welcome to a country that can otherwise be cold and uninterested.

Those people that used to be on the periphery of my life: the foreign tourists, the Indian men at work, I ignored them all because I didn’t know how to act towards them. I was embarrassed about how little I knew about where they were from and I didn’t want to give myself away by asking stupid questions. I didn’t want to risk making them feel uncomfortable so instead I made them feel invisible. It never occurred to me that they might feel isolated or lonely, that they might welcome the chance to tell me about themselves and their homes.

India family Taj Mahal

Traveling has taught me what it feels like to be an outsider, to miss being in a place that I just intrinsically understand, a place that I can effortlessly move through without having to double check that I am adhering to the cultural norms.

It is so incredibly important to know what this feels like, to be a bit displaced, to stand out, to be foreign. Because now that I know what it feels like, I know that those people I ignored because I was too shy and unsure to ask about their lives would have likely welcomed the chance to tell me. Next time I know that I’ll ask.