When you're a foreigner in your own country
Some of the dictionary definitions of a foreigner say that it is “a person not naturalised to the country,” an “alien to the country,” or “a person from outside one’s community.”
I have my fair share of experience with that. Yes, I have traveled to many countries and, yes, I have experienced being that kind of foreigner all over the world.
But sometimes, I have experienced this in my home country, too. And that made me feel even more like a foreigner than I ever did with any other foreign experience I've had before.
After spending 25 months overseas, I came back to Switzerland, knowing it wouldn't be easy. I had been prepared for many things and heard from friends that went home before me, telling me they had a bigger culture shock when they returned than when they left.
And they were right.
It hit me full-on.
The first few times I went to my home church, I heard people whispering, “That’s her.”
This was the church where I went to kids' Sunday school, where I got baptised, where I gave some of my time and energy over a few years, and where everyone used to know me. This time, I walked in, and nothing and no one felt known.
All I wanted to do was turn around and leave. I usually sat through worship times with my eyes closed so no one would see my tears, and my brother’s A/V corner was a safe haven when I was supposed to be fellowshipping with my so-called friends after the service.
While for my friends, not much had changed, I felt like everything had. It wasn’t their small talk, their behaviour, or their personalities—although, of course, to some extent, this had changed too—but the major thing that changed was me. And no one seemed to notice at first, but nothing came natural to me.
I was a foreigner in my own home church.
Fast forward one year, and I had adjusted for the most part. Although there were things I struggled with or disliked, there weren’t many things anymore that made me feel foreign. Until one day, I met up with my French friend in Geneva, one of the bigger cities in Switzerland.
She had been staying there for the past three months, but of course, in that scene, she was supposed to be the foreigner, and I was the local. But given that Geneva is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, I never felt at home. All day long, she guided me around—bought my bus ticket, ordered food at the restaurant, and introduced me to a local custom that I had never even heard of. I didn’t speak the language and didn't know the place, their systems, or anything else about it. I was alien.
Fast forward another year. Because of my job, I have the privilege of hosting many foreigners. At the end of last year, we had a few people from the ship Logos Hope here in Switzerland. The team of five, originally from three different continents, definitely didn’t fit into the traditional Swiss church setting. They stood out because of language barriers, skin color, and the way they behaved; and their enthusiastic spirits and lively personalities definitely contrasted the rather reserved, typical Swiss.
In places like a youth group meeting, they were obviously foreigners and tried to quiet down so they would fit the diplomatic environment. In their free time, though, they didn’t seem to bother about their behaviour as much and seemed to be themselves a lot more. They didn’t feel the need to fit in.
Fast forward another few months, and I sit here writing this article. And while many more examples come to my mind, I think about the essence of what makes a foreigner. When I travel to a country for a short while, I often don’t call myself a foreigner, but a tourist. Even if I don’t fit in, I don’t feel the pressure of needing to do so. I only call myself a foreigner when I go somewhere for a longer period of time, when I feel the need to fit in.
We are all unnatural at times.
So are we all foreigners?
What really makes a foreigner foreign is not the feeling of having to fit in itself, but it is the pressure that comes with needing to feel natural and known.
And sooner or later, we all get to know that pressure.