Feeling Foreign

American students pledging to the flag in a fo...
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It’s taken a while, but I’ve started to find blogs written by other women living outside their home countries — one in a regional Spanish city, one in a small Italian town and even a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia.

I love their posts because hearing other women describe their lives in a country other than the one in which they were raised helps me feel less foreign. I live only a nine-hour drive away from my hometown and a six-hour drive to the border, but sometimes it feels very far away.

I left Canada, where I was born and started my journalism career, more than 20 years ago to live in the U.S. in a small town 25 miles north of New York City.

I love it — I stare north up the Hudson River to astonishingly beautiful views, can enjoy all the things Manhattan has to offer and have a town so charming its main street has been featured in several films, like The Good Shepherd and The Preacher’s Wife and Mona Lisa Smile.

But even after all these years, I still sometimes feel foreign. I love Thanksgiving — family, friends, gratitude, pumpkin pie — but am left cold by the insane commercialism of Black Friday. (Although Canada, and others, has instead the commercial insanity of Boxing Day sales, which have nothing to do with sports.)

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, although I can sing the national anthem. I now know what a “do-over” and a “Hail Mary pass” and “step up to the plate” mean — all these sports references! I know that New Yorkers stand “on line” and that ordering a “double, double” (two sugars, two milks in coffee) or a bloody Caesar (a cocktail) here will elicit only blank stares.

It’s easy enough to memorize the number of senators or why there are so many stars or stripes in the U.S. flag. It’s much more  challenging to play cultural catch-up!

But I never (thank Heaven) had to write the SATs nor freak out over which college to attend and whether or not it was affordable — I attended the University of Toronto whose annual cost (no, this is not missing a zero) was $660 my first year. It now still costs only $5,000 a year for Canadian residents.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, as I keep a running video in my head of what life might have been like had I stayed in Canada. Of course, there’s no way to know, is there?

I visit Canada up to six times a year, as my parents live there (in separate provinces), as well as dear friends going back decades. Every time, someone asks if or when I’ll move back. With a green card, I can only leave the U.S. for  year at a time, so it would take an amazing job offer to lure me north, and for the moment, none is forthcoming.

In my adolescence, I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for four months and, at 25, lived in Paris for 10 months. In Mexico, men hissed at me on the street and in buses, two words: juerita and fuerita: little blondie and little foreigner. My very appearance marked me as foreign with my waist-length blond hair and pale skin.

Both experiences changed forever how I saw the world and my place in it; once you’ve made the break away from everything you know, you discover how adaptable you are. You find kind people live everywhere and realize that you can thrive many time zones away from where you’ve always felt best understood.

Have you ever lived outside your native land? Did you enjoy it?

How has it changed you?

9 thoughts on “Feeling Foreign

  1. I have traveled many places and am keenly aware of the various cultural differences. Even within Canada, the different regions are vastly different culturally. Getting to know those slight nuances are what thrill me about traveling!

  2. Pingback: Feeling Foreign Abroad and Feeling Foreign At “Home” « Woman Wielding Words

  3. I was born on a third world Island in the Pacific, my family was then chucked to Washington DC briefly before going to Germany. Then back to the DC area, then back to my island of birth, then Belgium, then home to England. My husband, when people ask where I’m from, affectionately says, “She’s a stray.”

    1. Love it! You are what is more formally known as a TCK, “third culture kid” (which I’ve blogged about here); TCKs are very cool indeed. They adapt beautifully and have a distinct worldview — Obama is a TCK as are many of his senior staff. His very ability to remain distant from politics is “un American” to some, but typical of TCKs. TCKs are raised outside of the country of their birth — so they/you can fit in easily everywhere while belonging, in some ways, nowhere.

    1. I agree.

      I left Canada because I was always deemed too brash and ambitious to be properly Canadian. Came to the US where I was still too modest and quiet in some ways to compete effectively with Americans. I always feel quite at home in France, though.

  4. I was born in Dallas, had a New York childhood, and moved to Scotland in I was 13.

    I’ve said in some blog posts that where I’m from depends on the day, my mood, whether it’s Thanksgiving or Hogmanay. 😉

    After my Thanksgiving post last week, someone who’s been reading me for a while, asked if I was American. I am, but I think I’ve been here too long and my life is such that I don’t consider myself an Expat American Living In Scotland.

    Sometimes, I feel foreign in Scotland. At this point in my life, I would feel more foreign in America.

    My culture is like my accent. I have different, multiple inflections.

    I love this post, thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for sharing this…I like living outside Canada although I sometimes miss it. In 22 years, I have also become very American and very NY (i.e. aggressive, direct, big on networking) which sometimes causes friction when I try to do business with Canadians and find them (even more) infuriatingly slow and risk-averse, which is one reason I left.

    NYers, for better or worse, make decisions quickly and it’s one of the things I like best.

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