The other day I was given a jellyfish compliment.
“Tu parles vachement bien français…mais tu parles comme un mec.”
…and I thought
F*** you. I’ve done pretty damn good to get this far and, yes, so I learnt most of my phrases from a loquacious Frenchman, but this isn’t my language so how could I know better?!
And then I felt a red shame creep over me. I’ll never be able to hold a conversation with a stranger here without it coming back to where I’m from. Because I’m not from here. And they don’t mean it nastily, it’s me who looks for hostility where usually there is none.
“Life is full of choices, and to choose one thing is to forgo another. The dilemma of foreignness comes down to one of liberty versus fraternity—the pleasures of freedom versus the pleasures of belonging. The homebody chooses the pleasures of belonging. The foreigner chooses the pleasures of freedom, and the pains that go with them.“
In this article, the writer astutely explores the thrill of exile, as well as the bafflement that accompanies those who find themselves expatriated. The foreigner lives a daily adventure of integration and isolation, not only faced with cultural novelties but often the barrier created when living outside one’s mother tongue.
Where’s that accent from?
My own self-exile is easier than that of others I know. I speak the language. But even when (if) I lose my British accent, I think I will always consider myself an outsider in this country. It is, more often than not, the labels you give yourself that prove the hardest to rewrite.
The pleasure that comes from learning new ways of thinking is matched by the frustration when these then clash with those of your native culture.
I’m often stuck between the desire to blend in and a sense of pride in my difference. There’s no reason I should be ashamed of my culture, but the desire to be adopted by a country I have invested so much of myself in is overwhelming, and it’s easier said than done to find where the two can cohabit.
The feeling of foreignness is known for the creativity it can evoke. The liberation than comes from being immersed in a different culture gives the non-native the unique opportunity to learn de nouveau about society and language for the first time since childhood, and with the benefit of an inquisitive mind. We’re able to ask ourselves questions about the learning process. As the Economist puts it so succinctly, foreignness is intrinsically stimulating.
So living abroad gets your head going. Perhaps too much sometimes. But what about the heart?
There is so much romance in the isolation of cultural immersion. And, like any good love story, there is also jealousy, a sense of loss and the ache to be desired for who you are.
I’m jealous of baby bilinguals, I’m jealous of French people who can just enjoy Paris without the HEADACHE that comes with having a different-coloured passport. And I’m jealous of the people I left behind, enjoying themselves and carrying on.
I feel the loss of my homeland, because I no longer really feel I belong there. I don’t know who’s winning on The Voice (I don’t really even know what it is..) and I miss YES I MISS putting on a short sparkly dress, monster wedges and fake eyelashes to go out. These are all lost moments now, and it’s incredibly sad.
I want to chat to someone I don’t know on the metro about the delays on the line without my birthplace coming into question. I don’t want to hear the “mais tu parles bien français” as if congratulating me on trying to integrate. I want to do all the jobs I could do at home but not here, because the advert specifies “qualités redactionnelles”.
My “foreignness” is a cumulation of romantic thought. There is a beautiful fragility in being foreign. It means being lonely but independent. It means leaving things behind but starting again.
It means learning to feel very sad and very happy at the same time.