What I want you to know about being a foreigner

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here.  Today’s guest post is by Lizbet Palmer.

I was born in Namibia, southern Africa, and lived the majority of my life in South Carolina.  I've spent a lot of time traveling and I've always considered myself international.  The last two years, my husband and I have been living and doing music in Hiroshima, Japan.  Since then, my worldview has been transformed, and what I thought I knew about being a foreigner completely changed. 

Here are a few things I've learned. 

I want you to know that learning a completely different language is not always as easy as it sounds. Hiroshima is a relatively international city compared to other parts of Japan, but finding a Japanese person that speaks English is a rare occurrence.  This makes things that I thought were simple ten times more difficult. The amount of extra energy spent is surprisingly exhausting.

While I study fairly hard, I want you to know that learning the language is not always my top priority. At the end of a long day of teaching, the last thing I want to do is use my brain more.  I want to spend time with my husband or work on creative projects; sometimes I even want to just sit on the couch, exhausted, and not do anything. I think that as someone who wants to live here long term, it is definitely my responsibility to learn the pervasive language, but it's not going to happen overnight. 

What has made this experience so much better is those who have come alongside my husband and I and helped us in different ways, from apartment hunting to language practice. They come in to our lives without judgment, and are encouraging when we need it.  They show us that living in this new place that we've come to love is, in fact, a possibility. These are the things that make it worth it. 
What I want you to know is that when living in a foreign country where the majority of people don't look like me, I am painfully aware of my own differences.  I know I look different.  I am treated differently because of this, and I've had to shake it off quite a lot. I went from being fairly "normal" to the walking oddity, something to be played with or used for entertainment. What has kept me from going crazy are the people who try to build a relationship with my husband and me and treat us like human beings, just like they are. While there are still a lot of people who stare at those different from them, a growing number of people have become open to learning about new cultures and people.  
So why do these things matter? I know that when I was living in the US, I sometimes got frustrated with those who could not express themselves as quickly as I thought necessary. I confess to secretly thinking that they should hurry up and learn English already.  My experience has taught me to have patience with those who are newcomers to my country because I have been that person. I've learned that being in a new place is often alienating and painfully lonely, and just having one or two people who smile with kindness or help when I'm really struggling with something can make that experience so much more wonderful.

I encourage you to look with kindness and compassion on those who are coming to your country as an outsider.  I don't seek pity from those around me, nor do I want to be treated like a child. I have a desire to live life fully and to develop deep relationships.  Be patient. Remember that someone's identity is not whether or not they are foreign. Being friends and working through cultural our language barriers can be difficult and awkward, but I can promise that investing in relationships like these can not only change the lives of others, it will change your own in ways you never could have imagined. 

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