Where are you from? When are you going back?
What is it, that makes us feel set apart from others? What drives the feeling of being a stranger, of not belonging?
For some, it might be appearance, for others culture. It can be our language, our bodies, our upbringing… It can also be one, or both, of the opening questions in this article.
I have been thinking about this since I first set my foot abroad. Being in a different cultural context than your own, not knowing the language, often confronts you with these questions. They can be posed by anyone at any time. And they seem totally innocent and legitimate. But are they?
I started travelling at a young age and soon understood that I needed to at least know some of Europe’s main languages to be able to move freely in this world.
I was privileged enough to be able to choose what I wanted to learn and to some extent where I wanted to learn it.
Thus, I went to Australia as an exchange student and learned a lot living in a culture I knew nothing about. Australians are just as interested in Europe as Europeans are interested in Australia – that is: not a lot. We seldom see Australian news in the papers over here, and in Australia they don’t worry much about what happens in Europe, which is why I almost missed the news about the Berlin wall coming down. I did learn a lot about Japan though – and consequently about the principle of subsidiarity. The main question I was asked in Australia, was not so much where I was from – they all thought it must be Switzerland – but when I was going back. Which, of course, made me feel like a constant visitor.
Skipping ahead, touching down in France. I am in Angers, in the Loire Valley. Enjoying a scholarship that allows me to study at ”l’Université Catholique de l’Ouest”. I love French, but I can’t speak it. The first six months I am struggling with separating one word from another in the fast stream of words pouring out of the French. It seems impossible but I know I can do it. I had been in the same situation before.
And I finally get there! I break the code, and I start speaking French. And suddenly, my French is better than my English. It is like the floodgates have opened. Language pours out. Language takes over. There is no stopping it. I get the jokes. I understand the cultural context, I make friends with French people! I feel that I am changing. That I have understood something, that had remained hidden from me before. And I answer the questions about where I am from and when I am going back in fluent French.
A year later, I am back in Sweden. Changed again. This time a bit wiser. I know that not many will be interested in my experiences from France. They had not been interested in Australia – perhaps it was too far away to be of value? But I am back. And nobody wants to know for how long I will be staying in Sweden.
There are two interesting observations here. First – I am obviously accepted in Sweden. Never asked where I am from or when I am going back. Second – it seems symptomatic that there is very little interest in experiences from other parts of the world.
I have heard so many stories of people arriving in Sweden – they bring with them stories from war, from fleeing persecution, survival stories worthy of documentaries and simply stories telling us about a life outside of this little pond we call ours. But they have no one to tell these stories to. Nobody is interested. In fact the stories of minorities, of immigrants or of indigenous people in Sweden are not widely spread.
Next time around – I went to Germany. It was amazing how one language leads to the next. How breaking the code of learning languages helps with every new language you take on.
I became fluent in German, I got engaged, lived in Berlin, got a job as a translator from German to Swedish, while working as a freelance journalist for Scandinavia – and even producing tv in Germany.
But somehow, I still felt I had to explain myself. I always felt like the odd one out. I had not grown up in the same cultural context. I did not have the same references as the Germans.
It was a close call, if I would go back to Sweden or not, but finally my love of storytelling, my love of radio and tv-production, working full-time with what I am passionate about, pushed me to go back.
But it was hard. I had spent so many years in Berlin, that my social context had changed. My friends, my interests and my feeling of belonging had shifted. Going back required starting over in a whole different way than ever before.
That is when I realised, not only that I am extremely privileged to be able to choose to go back, but also that I had missed being amongst people who understand where I come from. To the core. People, who had seen the same tv-shows, followed the political discourse, been to school, learned the same values (almost) and who actually knew what I was talking about.
Not having to explain myself. Not having to tell ”my story” over and over again.
Not having to answer the two mandatory questions of every new encounter:
where are you from? and when are you going back?
As a result, I never ask those questions, ever.
Compared to many other immigrants in Germany, I had a very good position. I was a foreigner from a country with high esteem. People from Scandinavia were well looked upon in Germany.
That was not the case for everyone. Thus, I can only imagine the feeling of being the ”odd one out” for all of those not being privileged enough coming from ”the right country”.
It is shameful, because we are all humans. We have the same needs – being loved, being understood, being part of a community. We all need this. And we all miss it when we don’t have it.
Imagine not being able to go back. Not being able to choose where you want to spend your life. Not being understood. Perhaps not being able to really learn the language. Always being looked upon as the ”odd one out”. The one, not eligible for a job, for an apartment, for a life equal to others.
It is excruciating. And it is not ok. Not everyone has the possibility to choose what to do in life, where to stay, how to live. We have to understand what kind of privileges we are born with.
If you have experienced even a shimmer of something similar to this – feeling like the odd one out in some situation. Then, you might be able to magnify that and imagine what it would be like for someone in a far worse position.
And as soon as you do that, you understand why listening to those coming here for whatever reason, is so important.
Why listening and engaging in dialogue is a way of letting others in. Letting them take part in society. Evolving together and widening all of our horizons.
And why the questions ”where are you from” and ”when are you going back” can be pretty excluding.