Feeling Like a Foreigner


When you travel – even within the same country, for instance from the North East of America to the Deep South or the West of Turkey to the East – it is only natural to at times be self-consciously overwhelmed by feeling like a foreigner. Traveling to a different country, where the language and culture is different, only compounds this feeling. During my first stay in Turkey, a two month intensive language program in Ankara, I suffered a lot from culture shock. I think it was only to be expected.

Luckily, my stay so far in Malatya has really been free of any problems; however, I have noticed something about living abroad that I would never had thought of otherwise. Namely, the difference between being a foreigner and feeling like a foreigner.

For instance, I am a foreigner here in Turkey. The way I hold myself, dress, speak and react are all different enough from the locals for people to realize that I am not from around here and there is very little I can do about that – at least immediately. Turks, by and large though, absolutely love foreigners and try their best to be as hospitable and helpful as possible. I have had random men who I’ve asked for directions go out of their way to ensure that I arrive safely at my destination. Speaking a little bit of Turkish does help to grease the wheels, but people are generally overjoyed to help.

In this way, being a foreigner in Turkey really has very few problems associated with it; people truly strive and welcoming as possible. I am actively encouraged to think of this new country as my new home. Although I am a foreigner here, I am not made to feel like one – the country is incredibly inclusive, at least in my experience. For example, while on my way to Harput last week another passenger on the mini-bus realized I was a foreigner and insisted on sharing his snacks with me. He then went on to lecture me about how I had to visit Izmir, smiling the whole time.

Feeling like a foreigner, on the other hand, can happen anywhere – even if your own country or hometown. This feeling isn’t linked to you nearly as much as it is linked to your circumstances. For example, I am sure everyone has had that one experience of being at a party or a meeting in which you felt unwelcome and excluded; you did not belong, and you felt like a foreigner. Obviously being in a different country, where the language and culture is different, can easily lead to the feeling of being a foreigner.

For the three months that I have been in Turkey so far, I can think of maybe one or two examples at most of when I truly felt I did not belong. The first was in Istanbul, where at a restaurant I was charged five times the normal amount for a cup of tea – the foreigner price – that I begrudgingly had to pay. The second example was when I was having a conversation with a few Turks. When they asked me a question, and I stumbled to respond, they turned to each other and said “Oh, he doesn’t understand!” and then laughed about it.

Overall, though, these are two minor occurrences that I truly had to rack my head about to think of. I am truly lucky to be in a country where, although I an undoubtedly a foreigner, I am almost never made to feel that way. Turkey has, at least for the year that I am here, truly become my new home; as it is Thanksgiving in America as I post this, I can say that I am truly grateful for that.

5 thoughts on “Feeling Like a Foreigner”

  1. Wow, that’s awesome that Turkey is so…welcoming! It must make homesick a little less dull, uh? I agree, you are lucky to be in such a hospitable place. Happy thanksgiving, Jeremy! Be merry!

  2. It’s great to hear that you feel very welcomed there. That certainly makes the whole experience much more pleasant.

    But I disagree with you when you say that feeling like a foreigner is mostly about circumstances rather than internal state. No doubt, your external circumstances are a key factor in how you feel, but there are many elements that you control as well.

    For example, perhaps when you speak to someone in Turkish, you feel more like you “belong”. Or perhaps the opposite. I don’t know how it works for you.

    I’ve had some strange experiences in Israel, because my Hebrew is very, very basic. I try to speak with Israelis in Hebrew, and when I start off a conversation with “Shalom, mah nishma?”, they just assume I’m Israeli and start speaking at 3928374 words per minute. In some sense, speaking in Hebrew makes me feel like I belong. But in another, it just highlights how much of a foreigner I actually am.

    I’m pretty sure I just went way off my original point, but whatever. In conclusion, if you ever go back in time, don’t step on anything.

    1. No, I agree wholeheartedly with you that in the end it is all about internal factors for however you feel at any time. My main point was really, though, that no matter where you are you could always feel like a foreigner, and that feeling is not truly linked to actually being a foreigner.

      I do agree that language can definitely make you feel like a foreigner if you have a negative experience. At the same time, at least for me, it makes me feel more like I belong since – by and large, in my experiences – people, even if they speak fast, are happy to repeat themselves and slow down when they realize that I am actually a foreigner… which, in some way, makes me feel more like I belong since people are willing to accommodate me.

      In stead of never stepping on anything in the past, I think I’ll just keep in mind to never fix a toaster.

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