Saturday, November 27, 2004

Sovereignty of SeaWitch

Conversing with an Immigrant: Basics 101
[By an Expat in Greece]

If you know any foreigners in your neighbourhood, here are some things you might want to be know before you start up a conversation with them. If you have already talked to them, and you receive strange looks from them, this blog might help explain why. I'm a Canadian living in Greece but any foreigner will be able to relate to them.

1. Which country do you like more, this one or the one you came from?
This is a loaded question for a foreigner. A lot of us will still prefer our home country to the new one because we're familiar with it. We grew up there, our families are there and for whatever reason we chose to live in a new country, the country in which we were raised will usually have an edge. So don't ask this question unless you're prepared for the answer. I always try to find something nice about my new country to say to them and then generalize the both of them and say that you can find happiness anywhere if you want to. They seem to like this.

2. You don't look foreign, you look like a Greek.
Some foreigners find this offensive. Is it really a compliment? It's more of a backhanded one if you read between the lines. What they're subconsciously implying is that they believe your nationality is inferior to theirs and what foreigner wouldn't love to hear that they don't look like the native population? These well-intentioned people don't stop to think that just because we're in another country doesn't mean we're ashamed of being foreign.

3. Are you American? Oh Canadian? Same thing.
Of course, if you're French, you don't want to be told that being Belgian is the same thing. Or if you're German, being Polish is the same thing. You should see Greeks have fits when I tell them, "Yes, we are the same as Americans...just like you and the Turks." If they don't turn their backs on you at this point, you've found a very tolerant friend for life. It's not that foreigners all have a problem with our geographic neighbours but each country IS different from the one next to it. I've lived in both the US and Canada and even though we speak the same language and share some of the same traditions, we are still different in many aspects. This comment is also a dismissive one...they don't know much about the two countries so they combine them according to what they've seen in action movies.

4. You shouldn't speak English with your son, he only needs to know Greek.
Call me crazy, but outside of Greece, who else speaks Greek? And even if my mother tongue wasn't english, it's always good for children to know as many languages as they can. All foreigners should attempt to learn the language of their new country but all their children should know both the language of his new country and his parents' language. It never hurts to be able to communicate with as many people as you can.

5. Your country has no history.
How many times I've heard this one, I can't count. I get so tired of hearing it that now my standard response is "your country has all the history in the world, and where has it gotten you?"

6. You're from Canada? I have a cousin in Chicago.
What do I do with that one? Chicago is in an entirely different country. Even after I tell them I'm from the east coast, they expect me to say something. Just what I don't know, but they wait for a response. Do they expect me to know their cousin in Chicago or tell them about my favourite restaurant in Chicago? I've never BEEN to Chicago. The people who tell me this are just attempting to find some common ground with me. I realize that. But after 7 years of being here, I still don't have a good answer for it. I can't give them a lesson in geography, that would be rude.What's worse is if they actually give me the name of the restaurant their cousin owns. I try to politely tell them that I don't know about their cousin's restaurant in Chicago any more than they would know my friend's school in Gdansk, Poland. It's that far away.

7. You're from Canada? It's a beautiful country. Not like here where we have so many foreigners.
Ummmm...the problem seems so obvious with this one that I can't believe people even say it. I'm not Greek. I am a foreigner as well. I'm part of that group which you believe is a problem for your country. Please, don't ever say this one to foreigners no matter how much you THINK it's a compliment, it isn't.

8. You need to get rid of your English accent in Greek.
Of course I do. I'd love to. They're right on this one. I'll do it today. Today, I will speak Greek without an accent. It's too easy to lose an accent in a foreign language, isn't it? That's why Greeks who speak English after 15 years of language institute training still speak with an accent. No wonder many foreigners feel embarrassed to speak a new language when they're constantly criticised. But don't give up my little foreign compatriots! Keep speaking the new language...your accent won't be as pronounced with more practice. Remember, we have to communicate first and become a world-renowned, grammatically flawless public speaker second.

9. Do you have your papers?
This question pops up when you've said something to them they don't like. It's intimidation. In my case, I hear this one mostly when people don't want to pay their bill in my stores. Their justification for not paying is the threat that they'll tell someone I'm illegal in this country. Just the assumption that I'm an illegal is amazing. It's strange. No policeman has ever looked at my residence permit. Just the thieving customers.

10. Can you get me into Canada?
I got into Canada because I was born there. Other than that, I don't know any other 'easy' way how to get anyone else "in". The Prime Minister and I aren't as close as we used to be so I can't guarantee you he'll take my calls anymore. I don't own a ship so I can't smuggle you there. What's next? Here's an idea...try Canada's Dept. of Immigration. Maybe, just maybe they might be able to help.

So, the next time you feel like striking up a conversation with a foreigner in your country, keep these things in mind and you'll be surprised how many NICE things we have to say about your country.

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