I don't know these things! I'm a foreigner!

I have a strange relationship with being a foreigner. 






I'm not always sure that I like being one. I don't hate it, and being one certainly lends itself to an interesting life, and having one of those is important to me. But in Sweden, I go back and forth about how I allow this sort of new identity to play a role in my life. And I vacillate between using it as an excuse for things, and then being annoyed that it's even what I am, instead of just Corinne, in the first place. 


When I'd been in Lund for a month and a half or so last year, I went to some event for our business department, and afterwards agreed to continue on to a bar in the center of town with the guy I had been seeing. We went with a group, and as we all filtered inside, all of the sudden I realized that I didn't know where the guy was or one of my other friends who had come as well. I didn't really know anyone I was standing around. The only thing I thought to do to seem occupied while I sorted this out was order a glass of wine, and I certainly didn't need one. Some random guy started talking to me about nothing interesting at all and I stood there halfway participating in the conversation, drinking up the wine,  and let my annoyance grow at the people who had mysteriously ditched me. What the hell! How could they have disappeared! It was maybe 15 or 20 minutes later, which felt like forever, when the guy I'd come with appeared and came towards me. I looked up at him and said quietly and urgently, "Where have you been?" 
"Where have you been?" He said back. "A bunch of us have been on the dancefloor, by the other bar!" 
"What dancefloor?" I said, thoroughly confused. This was a tiny little place. No dancefloor, no second bar. 
He grinned. "There's a dancefloor and another huge space and bar downstairs. If you go over there round the corner, there's the stairway down. So I was waiting for you, wondering why you weren't coming."
Ughhhh.... I thought. These strange European bars and their underground levels. I felt dumb, and had that weird feeling where you've been annoyed but now you have reason not to be but you still sort of are. We decided to leave. Once we stepped outside he said, "You really didn't know about the downstairs part? You've been here a few times before, right?" 
"Yeah I have, but ... I don't know my way around! I don't know these things, I'm a foreigner!" I lamely complained, unlocking my bike and giving it a vigorous push forward. Then the front wheel started making a really strange sound. Will nothing go my way tonight?! I thought with exasperation and put the bike against a tree and stood back with my arms folded. The guy came after me and wordlessly bent down and swiftly fixed the problem wheel. 


This is one example of when I have used being a foreigner as an excuse. It was also one of the first of many examples in which a situation that is really not a big deal or worthy of garnering anxiety or frustration or annoyance becomes so anyway because of this heightened sense of unsureness that one may find in living abroad, especially in the early stages. Had this happened in Santa Barbara, whether I'd been drinking or not, I would have excused myself from the random conversation and confidently bounced around the bar looking for familiar faces, or stepped outside and called the guy. Instead of the sort of pathetic act I employed in the story above.


Of course I came to feel quite comfortable and at home in most locations I hung out at around Lund. And I'm growing ever closer to that feeling in Stockholm. This helps make the 'foreigner feeling' fade away and be almost forgotten most of the time. But I've been wondering this last year why, when I think that I've come so far and accomplished so much personally and feel so strong and capable, do I feel more vulnerable and often emotionally weaker than I've been in years? It's so annoying! Like two steps forward and one step back. 


I've started realizing that maybe there is in fact a reason to excuse myself a little bit sometimes. I am, in fact, a foreigner. I spent a year living in a foreign country and then decided to and did stay there and move to another town there and start a new job, all still in an often unfamiliar place with unfamiliar processes where things happen in a language I'm not fluent in. I remember my Swedish friends in California getting homesick, and knew that there wasn't anything I could do to help them even as much as I wished I could, it's just that when things are a little hard they feel even worse when you're so far away from what you grew up knowing. Perhaps it is a lot that I've been dealing with, and maybe I get a little grace for that. Sometimes I think that all the changes and decisions shouldn't affect me, after all, I feel very at home in Sweden, I have a ton of friends who really care about me here, and I have never once doubted my decision to come or to stay. Plus, I'm so super confident!...and adventurous!... and independent!!!... Right? No excuses for weakness?


But perhaps, underneath the surface, there is room to be a little weak. 


It's okay that even when plenty of things are lined up just right, I feel like they aren't. It's okay that I am a little more emotional even when I can't point to the exact reason for it. For me to have extreme highs and lows as I settle in.  For me to sometimes feel like I can do anything, and look around in wonder at what I'm doing and where I've gone... and then to sit on my friend's couch on my visit back in California and tearily wonder aloud to him why I haven't come far at all, and when will I have life handled and know how to do it all right? He shook his head and said, "Okay, girl with the masters degree who is about to start a great job at an international company and go back to live in Europe. Don't worry. You are fine. We aren't worried about you. You are doing great." My friend Meg sent me a birthday card this fall that said, "You're one of the bravest people I know," and I think about that line all the time, wishing to live up to it. It's sometimes hard for me to see myself through another's lens when I feel that sort of loneliness that only a foreigner knows, and place the demands on myself that I don't place on anyone else, which is to be perfectly awesome and unaffected and loved and breezily have everything figured out. 


I've decided recently to say to myself, "It's okay," more often. And I want to catch myself in moments where I'm feeling overly affected by something and remember that it's not completely that situation that is making me feel weak but that the overall experience of being a foreigner is lending itself to making me feel more precarious. If I remember that, then I can, instead of pout and drink more wine, skip around the place, find the dancefloor, and join the party. And laugh about how it took me awhile, but hey, here I am. 


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I want to dedicate this post to my family and friends in California, since I couldn't live abroad and flourish like (I sometimes believe) I am without their truly incredible love and support. 


In particular, I write in remembrance of my Great Uncle Jack, who passed away last week. He, like my aunt wrote, had a Big Bold Heart. He always said exactly how he felt; so very few people actually do that. And when I last saw him in August, he said to me, like he always did, "You're beautiful. We're proud of you. You are a great young woman. I love you." 


I'd like to live, no matter what country I'm in and what I'm doing, so that the same can be said of me someday. That I lived with a Big Bold Heart. 

Comments

  1. I couldn't agree more with the things you said here! I just moved to Oslo from Southern California and I find myself having to work up the energy to just go to the grocery store across the street. Something that was really easy, and sometimes enjoyable back home has become a daunting and draining experience here.Its just one of the daily activities that reminds me that I am not like the people surrounding me! It's hard to just look at things positively all the time, or feel strong all the time, and I love that you were so honest about it!

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  2. Hi Jeanette! Southern California to Scandinavia... it tilts your world upside down, doesn't it? :) Glad you found me, I read through your blog just now and will continue to! Really interesting and of course, I identify with a lot of it!

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  3. Hi Corinne,
    I read your article....I going to move in Stockholm for work, and I am a little scare. I lived for two year in LA and now I have to change. I hope to find friends and feel at home over there. anyway thank you to share your emotions
    Simone

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