A foreigner is shown a harsh welcome at Yokohama, 1861.
Today it’s much easier to be foreign in Japan. Photo: wikipedia commons.
I thoroughly enjoyed this article at the Economist; hoovered it up.
Ernest Hemingway, set the ground rules for the writer as foreigner when he was part of the 1920s expatriate community in Paris: live in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (or equivalent), work in cafés, meet other artists, drink a lot.
Not everyone can be Hemingway. Many foreigners today are threadbare students, overworked managers, trailing spouses. The male expatriate in Bangkok is a great deal freer than the female expatriate in Jeddah. The lot of unwilling foreigners is far worse still. A life of foreignness imposed by poverty or persecution or exile is unlikely to be enjoyable at all.
Even so, all other things being equal, foreignness is intrinsically stimulating. Like a good game of bridge, the condition of being foreign engages the mind constantly without ever tiring it. John Lechte, an Australian professor of social theory, characterises foreignness as “an escape from the boredom and banality of the everyday”. The mundane becomes “super-real”, and experienced “with an intensity evocative of the events of a true biography”.
I often feel a homesickness for places i’ve visited as a foreigner, but rarely (or ever?) for my real homeland.
Beware, then: however well you carry it off, however much you enjoy it, there is a dangerous undertow to being a foreigner, even a genteel foreigner. Somewhere at the back of it all lurks homesickness, which metastasises over time into its incurable variant, nostalgia. And nostalgia has much in common with the Freudian idea of melancholia—a continuing, debilitating sense of loss, somewhere within which lies anger at the thing lost. It is not the possibility of returning home which feeds nostalgia, but the impossibility of it.
From the Economist. Thanks, Christine.