A newspaper from my hometown called me and asked whether they could do an an interview for a mini-series about people who have moved abroad. This being a tabloid newspaper, I was at first a bit concerned that the headline would be something like “These traitors have abandoned their homeland” but in the end I agreed.
The journalists asked all the usual questions and I gave easily quotable answers. But afterwards I was thinking that there is another aspect we didn’t talk about: The feeling of not belonging.
The other day I was at my bank (UBS) in Switzerland. Here, the banks have terminals in the entry area that can be used to do online-banking from within the bank. That day, the queue at these terminals was really long but I could see that the two bank tellers didn’t have any customers. So I went in and said (in French) that I have a bill to pay and could I please do this here.
And the guy had the arrogance to tell me: “No, we cannot do that. You have to do that at the machines.” And I just stammered “Ah. Oui. Merci.” Afterwards I was sooooo angry at myself. I was so angry at not having the vocabular to tell this guy: “Bullshit. You can do as much and hopefully more at your terminal than I can do from the foyer.” Which is of course what I should have done and which I would have done if this conversation had taken place in German, Swedish or English. But my French just isn’t up to it.
Afterwards I was thinking about how often that has happened to myself; that I just except something because I lack the language skills to make my point. Fortunately I couldn’t remember many of these occasions but I could remember a few. And it made me think of the foreigners who live in my own country and what that does to a person over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to learn the language of the host country (I started my French course in the first month of my stay in Geneva) but odds are that you will never learn a language as well as the locals.
And that probably makes you a little bit more insecure, a little bit more docile and less likely to stand up for yourself.
Functioning in an environment where you don’t understand the language (properly) is hard. And it’d probably be a good experience for everyone to be in that situation – and not just for holidays but longer so that you have to deal with all the small stuff like the bank, the landlord, the local municipality.
Maybe then we’d have a little bit more tolerance towards other people.
Have you been in a situation where you accepted something because you could’t express yourself properly?