On being a foreigner, again.
After months of talk, I’m finally in Berlin and enjoying a warm day sitting outside on a quite street.
I’ve been trying to ressurect my German of course. Though “resurrect” is surely too strong a word for something which was never quite alive in the first place!
Thankfully many of the words are coming back, but I’m also remembering some of the meta-experiences of being the foreigner. For example:
- Like a child again: Being a foreigner feels a lot like being a child. I’m filled with childlike wonder at seeing new ways of doing things. The horizontal centrifuge washing machine is so fascinating! The way you tell the waiter how much you’re paying, not how much you want back–so interesting! And also childlike in feelings of powerlessness. Not knowing how to properly take out the garbage. Not being able to participate in “grown up” conversations. Having to ask questions all the time.
- The choice to “Tune Out”: It is easy to “tune out” a foreign language. So I find it much easier here to get lost in my own thoughts. And as it’s more socially acceptable for me to not understand what’s going on in a conversation, I’ll often “tune out” for lengths of time to think deeper about something that someone has said and drift off into implications. I remember getting on the airplane to fly home after a year in Germany, and being truly annoyed with all the English jabber around me that I could not help but listen too–so distracting!
- Most Interested Listener Problem: Listening takes my full concentration. And with limited language capability, I rely heavily on the speaker’s body language and facial expressions to piece together what they are talking about. So when someone in a group is speaking, I give them my rapt attention, never taking my eyes away for fear of missing a clue. I then appear (and am) the most engaged listener. And yet I am understanding the least! But subconsciously, they start directing more and more of their talk to me, and direct follow-up questions to me (“So, has this happened to you too?”, “So you agree?”), and generally direct the conversation to me once they are done speaking. Ack! Then I am busted, outed, revealed! (Perhaps I didn’t manage to understand anything at all?) The trick then, is to listen as closely as possible all the while appearing to be one of the least interested listeners. Not so easy!
- Need For Creativity: When you’re only catching bits and pieces of a story, it demands extraordinary creativity to try and fill in the gaps. I find this to be a nice mental exercise. E.g. given “horse”, “field”, “yesterday”, “first time”, “jump”, “and then I laughed”. Was he riding the horse in a field, and jumped off? Or the horse jumped? Or maybe it was the first time riding in that particular field? Or maybe it was the horse that laughed? In any case, you have to keep all possible storylines currently in your head until you get enough (understood) context from later in the story to eliminate possibilities. If the needed context doesn’t come, then my stack overflows and it’s time to start over.
- Fake it till you Make it: When people figure out that you’re not understanding everything you say, they feel compelled to stop and explain (or to switch to English). But most of the time, all you need is for them to keep going and later context will fill in the gaps. (See above.) So I find myself relying heavily expressing the usual signs of interest and understanding (“I see.”, “Really?”, “And then?”, “Oh!”, ” No way!”) to keep them talking. A friend in Osnabrück once outed me on this, saying that I was one of the best foreigners at this “skill”!