Some time ago I wrote about being foreign. I thought it would be a one-off post. It turns out that being foreign becomes more and more important. So, yes, I am a foreigner. And it’s time to write what it means to me now. Because for me much has changed. Much much.How do I know it has changed? Well, the other day, I was walking through a shopping centre, speaking Polish on the phone, and I noticed that a number of people were watching me. A year ago I would not have given it another thought, now I became vigilant. Not particularly scared, it was middle of the day in a busy place and I am not exactly petite. But I started looking around. And as I started admonishing myself for being silly, I thought about the Poles who were recently killed because they were speaking Polish. And I knew that things had changed. They have changed a lot.
Incidentally, I find myself, a professor, thinking about the fact I work out, I probably (I should stress ‘probably) still can handle myself, and I have a rather broad back, completely absurd. It’s like stepping into a parallel universe. This is also what has changed.
But let me start with the beginning. When I came to the UK 25 years ago, I felt foreign. Everything was different. From how many times a day you say ‘hello’ to someone, through whether you shake people’s hands, all the way to when you eat your meals. I even noticed the Poles and Brits sleep on differently shaped pillows. To a considerable extent this was my experience, though, probably unavoidable.
But what I found quite strange was that mostly nobody cared. Well, they did, but in a non-aggressive way. All these questions where I was from, what language I was speaking, why my children were not dressed the ‘appropriate’ colour. Irritating? After a while, yes. Othering? Of course. I was exotic, but it was OK. Of course I understand ideological consequences, I don’t particularly like them, still it was OK.
There is more, though. To be honest, what I didn’t say in the earlier post is that foreignness is not only something you are given. In fact, it is also something you start inhabiting yourself. You see, after 25 years here, I am not really a Pole I used to be. My frame of reference has changed and considerably so. Sometimes, when I speak to friends, family, colleagues in Poland, I can see how different we are. I say I am Polish, I feel Polish, but I am a different kind of Polish, so to say. To make matters more complicated (not necessarily worse), after 25 years here, I am still not really British (or English for that matter). We still differ in so many ways….
So, where does it leave me? Well, it leaves being foreign. Wherever I go, I am a foreigner. But I would like to be very clear – I don’t mind. There is something liberating in being able not to be anything. It also makes a European identity much more attractive, which I like. I want to be clear: it’s European European, not European EU. I could even say:
I am a foreigner and I am proud.
Sort of. I don’t really like being proud of a national label. In this case an anti-national one.
I also always feel that I played a trick on you. As (some of) you placed me in the exotic East with the polar bears, I subverted your category and used it for my benefit. I have become a foreigner and I actually quite like it. I wish there were passports for foreigners.
And here is what happened in the UK over the last few months. Someone (well, plenty of someones) wants to take my identity and subvert it. From a positive choice of non-belonging, foreignness becomes something negative. A mark of shame. A stigma.The ‘bloody foreigners’ have always been there, but the few weeks, it’s increased a lot. All of a sudden I might be put on a ‘foreign list’. Associations with the Nazi Volksliste are invited!
Oh yes, I do object to it. I object to it, because it’s such a weasel way of doing things. In today’s public discourse in the UK it’s relatively hard to say: “We don’t want Poles here. We don’t want Germans or the Dutch.” So, let’s put us all into one ‘innocent’ category of foreigners. All of a sudden, it’s OK not to want us, to insult us, to play with the lives we made here. After all, we are just the (bloody) foreigners.
But as we are stigmatised, I am even more bent on remaining a foreigner. Bring it on! I am happy to be identified as a foreigner, I’ll be more than happy to wear an armband, sew letter ‘F’ into my coat (yes, the associations with the letter ‘P’ for Poles in Nazi-occupied Poland are welcomed!). And all you who now think I am being unreasonable (and I hope I am a little), stop and think about calls for lists of foreigners. Half a year ago, would you not have considered it ‘impossible’, ‘unreasonable’? I would. We were wrong, weren’t we? Am I being unreasonable then?
And so, I refuse to give up being a foreigner. If someone doesn’t like it, well, tough. I also hope that we, foreigners, can keep subverting it, so others can envy us who we are! Because it’s great to be a foreigner. Well, it was, but let’s make sure it will be again.
I want to end this post with a thank-you to Prof. Stephen Mumford. I appreciated his tweet in which he announced being a ‘voluntary foreigner’. We, foreigners, might be needing much more solidarity.