Apr 27, 2008

Neither here nor there

Nicole B. has invited me to join InterNations, a sort of Facebook for expatriates, wherein one, among other things, can "Find reliable information and tips from other members about your local living environment". That sort of thing makes me balk.

Merlyn Trey Hunter has written about the culture shock a foreigner typically experiences when adjusting to a new country.

Interestingly, Nicole B. has left a rather aggressive comment on the whole matter of being foreign at Trey's.

Are they wrong to have such negative reactions? Heavens, no. You can't go by me, you see. I have felt some of the alienation and frustration but rarely more than a twinge. This is because I have spent part of my childhood in both California and in Norway, and so I've never had to struggle with either language or either culture as an adult. I have some of the common cultural rites of passage necessary for "getting" what bonds people, like grade school and having only one TV station in Norway when I was a kid, or teen car driving and high school in the US, common denominators that make all Americans smile with delight or roll their eyes. I am familiar with both macaroni and cheese and "pølse og potetstappe" (sausage and mashed potatoes, and preferably a lot of ketchup on both).

OK, back to that InterNations thing Nicole wants me to join. When I read that part about sharing information and tips, I drew a blank. It's that sort of thing that makes me feel I don't have anything to offer. (So I'm still undecided, Nicole.)

You see, I live in Norway like a Norwegian. With the exception of getting a visa stamped in my passport and not being able to vote in national elections, I have never not lived in Norway like a Norwegian. I went to a Norwegian school. I have the characteristic TB vaccination scar on my upper arm that every Norwegian my age has. I speak not only the language but the local dialect. I am employed like a Norwegian and I live like the Norwegians do. Nobody here pegs me as a foreigner when they hear me, and if my name baffles them, they often assume I'm married to a foreigner.

That's how assimilated I am.

You know where I'm a baffled foreigner? In the US. Every time I go on vacation in my native country, I have to ask friends how much to tip, or what is this item on the menu, or how do I use the phone, or what would appropriate dress be for the occassion and exactly how big is a medium ohnonono, give me the small, I can't drink all that. And if I have to ask a stranger, like asking the barista at Starbuck's what size a medium coffee is, I'll get a funny look, because they just can't marry the perfect American accent to a question only someone recently escaped from a lifetime in a religious sect would ask. So I have the odd experience of feeling stupid when I visit my own country.

However, I spent years being stupid in Norway (a second-cousin laughed her head off at me trying to understand the proper use of "Takk skal du ha" (literally: thanks shall you have) and I still remember understanding the humiliation but not the problem, as it were, and the ensuing fight in the kitchen which ended when my aunt said she was making waffles so stop that) so I generally shrug such things off. Which is also why I have been spared 90% of the culture shock Trey talks about.

I am reminded of the old woman who boarded the bus in town one day. She asked the bus driver, "Går denne bussen til post officen?" She wanted to know if the bus stopped at the post office, and used the English word for "office" in an otherwise flawless Norwegian question. In an instant, we all had her pegged as a returning emigrant. I will be her in 40 years, baffling everyone with my perfect accent - Californian or Bergen - and very imperfect questions. Or maybe I don't have to wait that long:

In 2001 I was introduced to frappuccinos during a visit to Rhode Island. What a yummy treat in hot weather: Iced cappuccino! When I saw a Starbuck's in Vienna on a hot day in 2006, I went in there to get a frappuccino. They asked me what flavor. I stuttered that I didn't know they had flavors. Oh, yes, they did. I was so unprepared for the question, I almost yelled, "I want the normal kind!" The barista didn't understand. She pointed to the menu, but all I saw were the different flavors. Eventually, she understood I wanted no flavors and only when I was a bit calmer and at the cash register, did I see at the bottom of the list a flavor called "original".

Once again, my perfect American accent failed at conveying that I am not your typical American tourist - or even your typical American.

Does this bus stop at the post kontor?


Sparkling Red said...

I get what you're saying. There are more and more people in this world who live betwixt and between cultures, or at least don't belong fully to any one. Have you read Pico Iyer "The Global Soul"? I think you'd find it interesting.

max said...

Does this bus stop at the post kontor?

Probably not!

['Sometimes the social networking can give me the hives too.']

Nicole said...

You can join even as a Non-Expat and be the local Scout for your region.
Help some lost souls to find the post office ;)

Have you any idea what happened to Merlyn Trey Hunter?

Keera Ann Fox said...

Spark, I'm not between cultures. I am made of both. I simply do not want to have to choose. Unlike Pico Iyer, I do not feel homeless. If anything, I have one home too many.

Max, I'll have to find another bus. ;-)

Nicole, that may be a better fit. A non-expat expat. :-) I wish I knew where Hunter went to. His takes on being foreign were very interesting.