Saturday, January 18, 2014

What's a Foreigner?

The people you meet along the way are not always what you expect, or what stereotypes have led you to believe.

Many people, from whatever country or culture, are conditionally mistrustful of someone from another country or culture. Simply because they know next to nothing about the 'foreign' culture. And what they've been taught often represents the worst examples of the unknown culture. (It's not inborn - watch children meet another child for the first time; there is no prejudice whatsoever.)

Americans, and I realize I am generalizing (so certainly not everyone), tend to have a highly negative opinion of the French. One example is how John Kerry was derided by right-wing talksters  as having 'French-like' qualities, clearly using the word French as an epithet. Much the same is true of many Americans' attitudes toward Germans, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, Africans, Muslims, Hindus, etc., even the English, though we tend to be more readily accepting of Brits and Aussies because they speak the same language (somewhat) and like to play golf. However, the same is true in reverse - many people around the world have a negative attitude about Americans based on what they've heard or been taught about the worst of American culture, politicians, entertainers, and the occasional loudmouth, boorish tourist they may encounter.

When I first visited Argeles-sur-mer, some were skeptical of me, not only because I was American but, worse, much worse, I was from Texas! I think they were expecting me to arrive in a 10-gallon hat (left it back in Dallas) with spurs on my boots. Most of all, they expected me to be a raging redneck who loved guns, gas-guzzling trucks, and ate only raw red meat. Those of you who have known me over the years recognize I don't quite fit the stereotype. I like my steak medium well.

Most Argelesians, to their credit, accepted me for how they found me to be. Ie, they judged me on what they knew of me from our direct interaction (and, gratefully, on endorsement of my character by D-L), not based on other Americans, or Texans, they may have known or heard about.

I recently met someone who is originally from Russia. Now, for someone who grew up during the Cold War with the Russians as the No. 1 enemy of the world, I might be expected to be very wary of anyone from the old Soviet Union. Instead, I found this person to be highly likable - engaging, professional, good-humoured, considerate ... in other words, the best qualities of people from America, Canada, the UK, France, Switzerland, and others I have encountered. If I did not know this person was 'Russian,' that nationality might never have occurred to me (aside from the accent, of course).

It also brought to recollection my application for a Top Secret clearance when I was working for Raytheon. As part of the 20-page application form, I had to list all contacts I had with foreign nationals, particularly anyone from the former Soviet Union. At the time, in the mid-90s, when I had traveled overseas relatively little, the only such person I could think of was a guy from Poland whom my boss at Link had introduced me to at some conference, or maybe it was even in Binghamton. Now if I were making such an application, I could not possibly remember the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of 'foreign nationals' I have met from around the world.

I have found over the years that basic human nature cuts across cultures. I know people from various parts of the world who are very personable and outgoing, others from the same country who are taciturn or shy and keep to themselves. Some who will say 'Bonjour' or 'Hello' to a stranger on the street, others with their heads down and eyes averted.

I don't much care about where a person is from or their political or religious views, and try not to pre-judge based on stereotypes. It's more important to me that they be who they are, that they are 'authentic.' We can agree to be different ... that's okay ... because I intend to be who I am, so you'll have to take me as I am, or not.  

1 comment: