Being Foreign

So, I just came home from a 12-hour day at the office, logged into my new and awesome spare time hobby, saw that I had five visits on my page today. And since math is one of my strong suits, you know that that is infinitely more than I had yesterday. For a brief moment, I was filled with sheer excitement and had delusions of grandeur.

Then I realised that it… was I. At least I think it was me – I haven’t figured all this out yet – because I was checking out my blog as a random, public reader. I guess I must’ve updated the page a couple of times and thus boosted my page’s visitor stats. Now I must continue to talk to myself for at least a little while longer, until some poor soul find his or her way here.

 

Speaking of finding a way, I am continuously surprised, depressed and frustrated that I can’t seem to find a way to converse on the same level as the locals in the foreign country that I live in. Sure, I can’t speak their language. And they really can’t speak mine, and English is (not my native language either) out of the question in these cases, so all that avails is the worldly language of body language, a combination of various hand gestures and me looking furiously at them for not knowing the obvious things I want to say. The outcome? Pure failure. You want an example? I’d be happy to give you some.

One time, I went to a local collection of restaurants, a food court, and walked up to the woman at the counter and pointed at the dish that I wanted. I wanted number five on the menu – the chicken. Since I couldn’t read or speak the local language, I tried to say, in English, that I wanted the chicken, while at the same time pointing at number five on the menu as well as showing with my other hand five fingers to really enhance that it was number five that I wanted. She looked at me like I just had walked up to her like Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and said some fucked (can I use profanity here?) up shit in her language.

Okay, I’m still at her home turf, and it is me who’s a foreigner here and I should kind of adapt and at least know the local word for chicken. But still, desperate for some chicken and very hungry, I tried the same combination once more, I said chicken, I pointed at number five, and I showed five fingers to really emphasise what I meant. Now, not only did she not understand yet again, now she suggested that I meant number two. I said no, and did it all once again. Now she suggested that I meant number four. This went on for a while until we arrived at my preferred choice of dish. Sigh.

I have been in her position earlier in my life, when I worked part-time at a restaurant in my student years, so I know how frustrating customers can be when not ordering correctly. But I’d like to imagine that I would’ve understood that if someone pointed at a certain dish on the menu, it would mean that someone wanted that certain dish on the menu. In my book, that’s common sense.

Another frustrating example, also in this country mind you, is when I tried to get to a meeting and stepped into a cab, showed the adress and the GPS-route to the driver, he nodded understandingly, and we took off. The GPS clearly showed that a right-hand side u-turn was the next step. Not only did the driver not make a u-turn, he didn’t even turn right. Also, he didn’t even not turn right and just go straight forward, through the intersection, he turned left, and took off on the highway towards a whole other place he had in mind for me (IKEA, outside the city). I told him to stop, while I explained once again where I wanted, no, needed, to go – only for him to look defeatedly and shamefully at me and admits that he doesn’t know where that is. Sigh.

I reluctantly paid him, stepped out of the cab into the outrageously warm day (38°C; 100.4°F), walked back where I started and this time thought I should cross the street and get a ride in the opposite (but correct) direction. One of my best decisions ever. The only downside here is that now I had the largest pit stains known to man – which I covered nicely with my jacket – but it was still kind of hot and unpleasant sitting in that suit throughout the meeting, still mad at the first cab driver for tricking me to go to IKEA instead of my meeting.

To you, stranger, this may seem like a trifle, something to shrug your shoulders to and laugh at. But you cannot believe how frustrating things like these become when you suffer through experiences like these almost on a daily basis. I’m trying to grasp what goes on inside the restaurant employee’s mind when she asks if I meant number two, or number four, when I in fact said, pointed and signed number five. Or why the cab driver agrees to take me somewhere after looking at my mouth while saying the adress, hearing me say the adress, looking at my phone at the adress, while following basic GPS-instructions, agrees to take me, and still don’t have a fucking clue where it is. Why not just say “fuck off, foreigner” like >35% of the cab drivers in this town do? I just don’t have the answers to these questions, and I’m not sure anyone has.

I am absolutely aware that I’m not the only westerner in a foreign country experiencing cultural barriers, differences and obstacles, and ending up in frustrating scenarios. And I try to always be respectful, stay humble, and not lose my cool, or face, but inside… inside, I’m boiling. I tend to lean towards the theory that there is more to this than cultural barriers, differences and obstacles. More on that in a later posts.

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