Admit that everyone is born foreign.
It’s normal to be a foreigner. I try to say this to myself every time I wake in Switzerland, hearing the rooster crow from the farmer’s house across the way, watching a dinosaur-sized stork whiz by, listening to the church bells over the lake, absorbing every tune of bird song into my tired body. Birth is living. It is waking to one more possibility of saying or doing something fine in the big sky we all share overhead. Every day we’re new, breathing in an hour that smells and tastes a little different if we decelerate our spinning minds enough to observe. And so it seems in this way we are always foreigners.
Yet some people say they want foreigners to go home. Like many of my “foreign” friends in Switzerland who hail from all over the world, this sentiment feels nothing like the good bird and bell kind of foreign. It simply feels bad like an unwanted weed or an invasive hedge. We try to ignore it on most days as we learn a new language or try a new way of eating warm cheese. We try to act as if we belong. Being hated for being foreign is a little like being hated for being — at all. It is a bridge burning over the idyllic lake beside which we all live, work, dream, and breathe.
By late morning on many spring weekends, I hear the laughter of a community comprised of several people who would prefer an American activist, talkative woman like me, with kids like mine— would go home. I know this fact because of the barbecues we aren’t invited to, the glares, stares, silence, the deep laughter, and of course the exclusion. I know it by some of the incidences that have happened that are too specific to write here because I have zero desire to make someone else feel shame or more hate as I’ve felt. Someone must already feel bad to hate foreigners I tell my kids. They must. They must have a story that got them to that place, too.
I wish I had the chance to tell the people who hate ‘‘foreigners’’ that many of us, even outside Switzerland, are living in different countries or towns or villages hoping to build bridges not burn them. I have wanted foreign friends for all my life. Not only in the national sense of the word, but I’ve wanted them in the way that I’ve wanted to know people who believe in a God I might not see, who feel things I don’t yet understand. When I travel down a road or across the world, all I want to do is find the new thing, the new story, meet the person I’ve never known before. That’s how I feel about foreigners.
Foreign is the taste of the curry cooked by a woman from Switzerland who tells me about her difficult childhood. She came here alone from Thailand as a child, started a small business, and built her success on the confidence of her upbringing. Foreign is another mother who volunteered with me at the refugee camp (pre-COVID) between working as a Swiss social worker. She told me about her trek from Ethiopia as an 8-year-old child alone with her brother. Foreign is the woman down the street raising speckled bunnies in her side yard who always waves, is patient with my barely understandable German, making me feel lovable despite my utter sense of awkwardness.
Maybe foreign is really about becoming awake to the real stuff we’re made of. It’s accepting the root of the specific feelings, tastes, and even the baggage we emerged from. We all grow from different kitchen tables, different parent struggles, biases, and winding journeys. We’ve all made tons of mistakes.
And yet, I often sense that many “nationalists” in Switzerland and back in America get lost in the illusion of one group’s perfection, of that sense that they are not foreign at all. They might tell themselves that foreignness is about language, religion, color, and tradition when I’ve noticed that no one ever speaks quite the same language here, no one has quite the same God or skin anywhere. One of my neighbors said she wants me to speak ‘‘her language’’ and though I’m working to learn what I think that language is (and am painfully slow at language learning,) I’ve noticed that she speaks nothing like the smiling bunny lady down the way. Every individual took a lifetime to acquire the way they treat strangers, the way they love even when they don’t completely understand someone. Language is much more than words. It’s the way someone speaks their story but also hears someone else’s. It’s the way a person comes to the door to say hello, for no reason. It’s giving grace to a person and wanting absolutely nothing in return.
Every time I meet a new refugee mom, we speak a new language. We communicate through linking eyes, mirroring over masks. We talk in hand gestures, in strands of sounds, in ways a whole person moves when that they are open to someone different. I want to know you, we can say with our whole selves. And so we meet in the middle, as foreigners landing in the same new land.
After four and a half years in Switzerland, and making friends and acquaintances from too many nations to list, I’m grateful to land on the rich ground with others who are unlike me. But I’m also working to be glad to feel the isolation of my foreignness if it helps me understand those “foreigners” who regularly feel excluded due to their skin colors, economic backgrounds, nationalities, religions, disabilities, or perceived otherness. I’ve found a root of belonging that grows from somewhere in me. It comes from more than the language of the Michigan town where I was raised. It exists beyond the artist mom who raised me or the California coast where I met my husband and gave birth to two of my kids.
Out back in the field, I see where I belong in a more elusive way. I move past the people who want me to return home, and I find my home. In the space beyond what divides us all, I hear the birds again. I see weeds, brambles, and flowers mingling, glorious in spite of one another. These wild things are foreign and at home in unison. And when I lie in the lake, sometimes I look up and see how easy it would be for each of us to be kinder. I know how every little one of us is only foreign when we fail to find ourselves belonging to the wonderful blue flawed story— the great big world we all were born to inhabit together.