Friday, 3 June 2011

Zen and the art of Xenophobia

Yesterday I listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4, always a radio station worth listening to. This was “Off the Page” where a group of writers discussed “foreignness”. One speaker, Amanda Mitchinson, described buying chicken when she lived for two years in Cairo. On the first occasion she located a smiley lady in the market who shooed her away to finish her shopping while she killed, plucked and cleaned up the selected chicken. She returned later to find her chicken parcelled up in newspaper. On opening the parcel she found eight wings, a neck, one leg but no breast meat. The next time, she hung around while the deed was done, took her parcel of chicken home and discovered, six wings, some neck meat, one leg, assorted bits of offal but still no breast meat. On the third occasion she did managed a small amount of breast meat. During her two year stay in Cairo she regularly bought chicken from the same smiley lady, received progressively fewer wings and more different bits of chicken but never enough to reconstitute a whole bird.

Never mind discussion with Bedouin about the cost of brides in different countries, for Amanda Mitchinson being foreign means never getting the whole chicken.

Another speaker talked about living in France and believing he had mastered not only the language but the local accent quite well. That is until the day he went to book a table in a restaurant in Paris. As he walked away he realised he given them all the necessary details except for one important one: his name. So back he went to the restaurant, only to find that there was no problem; he was booked in as “The Englishman”. So much for going native!

Now, towards the end of my two years in Vigo I did find that when I met new people they did think I might be Spanish. Similarly, when we went to Figueira da Foz in Portugal last October I heard someone talking about my husband as “the English chess player” and commenting that he wife was not English but Spanish. I find that quite hard to credit as I feel I look very English and not at all Spanish. Maybe after a while you pick up mannerisms as well as accents.

However, I do agree with one of the speakers who said that no matter how long you live in a country you remain foreign. You wear the wrong clothes, speak the wrong way and have the wrong expectations. Above all, you don’t have the shared history; your school and youth experiences are all different. (I remember going to Italian conversation classes and thinking during a discussion about education that the Spaniards and Italians in the group had more in common educationally than I did with either group.) One speaker on the radio programme even went so far as to say that this also applies to cities. He is from Philadelphia but has lived for over thirty years in New York. However, he never feels he can call himself a New Yorker!

My sister and I discussed this a little in her recent visit, swapping frustration about things you can’t buy in Spain that you just take for granted in England – and, of course, the other way round. What struck us both is how hard it is to escape from the stereotype of your own nationality. When it rains in Andalucía, or in Galicia for that matter, someone is sure to say, “Oh, this must make you feel at home! The rain must remind you of England!” Well, no, actually; the rain is different!

Now, my sister has lived for almost 35 years in Andalucía, far longer than she ever lived in the UK, but she still regards Southport as “home”. My son, in contrast, refers to London as “his city”; he’s lived there for less than one third of his life and seems to have cast off his North of England personality. He apparently has no need to have been born in the place to feel that he belongs there.

Different people obviously experience things differently. Apart from odd bits of vocabulary, my sister speaks English just the way she ever did. A friend of ours who moved to France about fifteen years ago reckons he finds it hard to think in English; he has no problem speaking it however. Another friend who has lived in France for going on 40 years visited England for the first time in a long time recently and amused us all by having a very slight French accent when she speaks her “native” tongue. Similarly my young friend and ex-student, Craig, who has lived mostly in Spain and France since he graduated from university a few years ago is developing a nicely clipped, general European accent in his English. Interesting!

And, of course, we must not forget that being foreign is in itself interesting. One of the BBC guests expressed the view that everyone should live in a foreign country for a while. It makes you take stock of yourself and your country, makes you see life differently.

1 comment:

  1. But London is my city! It's the only city I've ever lived in. I never lived in Manchester.

    And Tricia is so Spanish, in everything except accent.

    Em's dad refers to Jakarta as home, except when he's in Indonesia, then "home" is Surrey. So it's wherever he isn't.

    Where do you think "home" is? Not Southport surely?