A Foreigner’s Lesson on How to “Deal” with Foreigners

I’d just completed my walkabout of a one-street town filled with takeaways and information centers for those seeking to kayak down the Whanganui River. I stumbled upon an all-too-common sight in the traveling experience: the irritated, flustered local and the non-native language speaking tourist.

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In this case, a Chinese woman was attempting to locate the proper bus heading north, while the Kiwi bus driver tried to explain that he was traveling south. What I witnessed was some of the most condescending human behavior in the history of time:

This one … going to Wanganui … over there going north. This goes this way, that goes that way, so get on this one and you’ll be fine. Go over there, oh happy day.

The driver’s words hit a sore spot for me, forcing me to recall times when I too was one of the masses back home who felt one had to “deal” with foreigners rather than sympathize with their plight. Non-English speaking people had no place in the states, and anyone who used broken speech must be of lesser intelligence.

Sadly, many around the world still believe these things to be true. Even more sadly, ten years ago, I would not have hesitated to give similar sarcastic instructions to a poorly spoken Mexican-American if he had asked directions at the bus station.

Lost in Llanddwyn, Wales
Lost in Llanddwyn, Wales © Richard0

Hard Lessons Learned Abroad

That is, of course, until I made the decision to live in a foreign country, and learned what it was like to be at the receiving end of such talk. It really makes one think about how much we take for granted.

In Austin, Texas, I know every restaurant, every bank branch, every movie theater. I can read the billboards, the menus. I can shout obscenities across the street to random people and expect to be understood (for example).

In Japan however, I was forced to start from scratch:

My education? Gone. I couldn’t even tell others what I had studied.

My cultural references? Irrelevant. Hollywood may be an unstoppable force worldwide, but I prefer political satire.

My sense of humor? It wasn’t even understood, let alone appreciated. How can I use dry humor and sarcasm in an unknown language, assuming it even exists in the same form?

Who are we as travelers in foreign countries? We’re the ones who have to be “dealt” with. Just a few among millions who chose to live a portion of their lives abroad: teaching ESL, experiencing a different culture, seeing a new perspective. Many of us have sophisticated degrees from university. We are (hopefully) familiar with the art, literature, politics, and history of our native culture.

And yet in these non-English speaking lands, we are the simpletons, the outsiders. The ones pointing to pictures in restaurants to survive day-by-day. The ones who need assistance when renting a car, renewing a visa, and the unexpected that requires a native speaker. We may be studying the language, but it takes time. As far as any locals are concerned, we may as well be illiterate, poorly spoken fools.

I was recently reading an article on the politics of speaking English abroad, which makes a convincing case for travelers and expats to speak in the tongue best suited for both, i.e. if you have a Japanese and a Finnish person who speak English better than the other’s language, then don’t get weighed down with the politics of speaking English, just let the words flow.

Unfortunately, without any kind of middle ground, neither speaker is in much of a position to offer anything. Broken sentences make it appear as though he is stupid. The fact he needs something from you means you are inconvenienced by someone who still hasn’t learned the skills necessary to survive abroad. And you can’t help but wish that such situations never arose, that this person would simply disappear and none like him return.

I certainly used to think so.

Confusing Traffic Signals, Buenos Aires
Confusing Signals, Buenos Aires © lrargerich

How to “Deal” With a Foreigner: A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way

We might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be fresh out of university and brimming with ideas, people perfectly capable of eloquence. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence: you can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you. An assumption so far from the truth it’s laughable.

Nowadays, when approaching a local in a foreign land or being approached by a passing traveler, I catch myself, instinctively recalling why it is I should speak to him properly even if he can’t understand a word, and treat him with respect:

You’ve been there before

I flash back to a time in Japan when I too was dirty, hungry, tired, and in need of information. Granted, I wanted to try and resolve the situation on my own, but it’s often not possible; as travelers, we need a helping hand from time to time.

He/she is not stupid

There are plenty of rocket scientists and brain surgeons in this world of ours who don’t speak a word of English. Would you care to match your intellect with theirs, based solely on language skills?

Patience is a virtue

You know your approaching friend doesn’t speak English. It’s going to be a long, difficult conversation. Suck it up; your companion there is sacrificing just as much of his dignity reaching out to another. He’s counting on your help, and becoming impatient or frustrated will make both parties dissatisfied with the encounter, helping to further prejudices and widen the gap of internationalization.

It’s not the foreigner asking for your help

Just a person displaced in this crazy world of ours. Foreign and local alike, we all have our limits; would you think twice if someone born and raised in a neighboring city questioned you about a local attraction? Why should someone from another country, near or far, be any different?

It’s often fear that leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to – no, not suffering, but good guess – misconception and prejudice.

While this may seem obvious to someone constantly on the move, having to negotiate in Chinese markets, talking to Russian Couchsurfing hosts, and finding the best bus across Nairobi, it’s often fear that leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to – no, not suffering, but good guess – misconception and prejudice.

An example: you awake from your hostel in the middle of Chiang Mai with the expectation you can grab a motorcycle taxi and make that 12:04 train to Bangkok. Unfortunately, due to your location well off the beaten path, taxis are few and far between. When you finally manage to flag one down, the driver speaks only Thai, taking you to three different stops before you’re finally able to convey your intention of going to the train station. It’s now 12:12 (assuming the train actually left on time – which I might add, is a big assumption in Thailand).

You feared that you would not reach your destination, causing you to become frustrated at the driver. When you do realize the train has already left, the words have almost flowed naturally from your hidden prejudices: “bloody Thai taxi drivers … they can’t understand anything!”

The cycle is complete, and chances are you’ll be quick to share the story with others, who may well further their own prejudices based on secondhand information.

If only there had been a way to avoid this situation entirely … oh wait … don’t act like you have to “deal” with the driver in the first place, nor anyone who happens not to speak the same language as you. Remember: a little empathy goes a long way.

Have you had similar experiences traveling abroad or perhaps in your own hometown? Share them with us in the comments below!

  1. Excellent post, Turner. I’ve been nothing short of humbled in my Asian and South American travels at people’s patience with and acceptance of my poor language skills. Like you, I used to not understand, and it makes me sad that many Americans (and others) still don’t.

  2. Don’t see anything wrong with what the driver said. Isn’t it a good idea to speak simply when talking to someone who isn’t well versed in your language? The point is to help them understand as quickly as possible, not provide them with an engaging conversation.
    It’s not condescending, it’s just more practical. Don’t be such a bleeding heart.
    Boo article.

  3. @Steve: So, rather than addressing the overall point of the article, you’re commenting on one small quote at the beginning of the post?

    I do agree that the driver’s statement doesn’t come across as condescending, but that’s not reason enough to ignore everything the author said after it.

    Great article, Turner. I run into a number of foreign students here on campus, and sometimes it’s more difficult than it should be to remember that they’re just as lost as I was when I went gallivanting through Eastern Europe this summer. :)

  4. @Steve: The text alone isn’t automatically interpreted as condescending, but I can clearly picture it being delivered in the “you’re a f***ing idiot” tone.

  5. Great post. The concept of tolerance is interesting to think about.

    Hal Amen stated, “Like you, I used to not understand, and it makes me sad that many Americans (and others) still don’t.” I agree with this.

    It’s funny though how the tables can turn and turn. I’m American and I have a huge distaste for tourists (particularly American ones) that think they are superior.

    As a traveler in a foreign country, you start to look at your fellow countrymen in a different manner, as if they should positively represent the country from which you came.

    Is there a need to tolerate other travelers when you have surpassed a foreign environment and they have not?

  6. I am a New Yorker. Tourists are a part of /life/ around here, especially if you happen to be around Midtown anytime after midday. And yeah, we all gripe about them — constantly. It is part of becoming (or being) a New Yorker, you learn to despise tourists. I admit it.

    But I gotta admit, as an aspiring traveler, this article was a slap in the face (in the “I needed that” way). I might start quoting this article next time I get in a conversation with other New Yorkers about Midtown. :)

  7. So is this a blog post directed to people who travel and can relate to this and hence don’t need the advice or is it directed at the minions of Americans who never travel and won’t even bother to try to understand this post? :)

    I feel compelled to relate something.

    Since my wife is Filipino, I have a lot of interactions with Filipino abroad. It’s quite interesting that with their limited English, they feel that anyone who can’t speak English is stupid. In China, experienced Chinese English teachers are being given lessons on basic teaching methodology from people who have never taught a day in their life back home. Why? Because they are obviously unqualified if they can’t speak perfect English. :)

    I don’t think it can be stressed enough, just because someone can’t speak English, it doesn’t mean they are unintelligent. Some of the greatest minds in history couldn’t speak a word of English. :)

  8. I hate to admit it but I’m one of the many who used to think less of people who can’t speak English. And I am from a non-native English speaking country.

    But when I started working as a tour guide, it all changed. Was not so easy dealing with condescending foreigners.

  9. I don’t speak any language, but American fluently and even that is in question some days. I’ve had people in Paris stop, help me read my map and point me in the right direction. A woman on a train to Melun concluded we might not know we needed to change trains…I understood enough French to understand we needed to change trains, but not enough to understand which platform so she walked us over to it. A few words, a smile, a nod and many, many people are helpful. Sure you get the rude sometimes, but no more then you get here when you do speak English.

  10. I have also the same experience when I worked far from home with different language. Totally different but the good thing was I made friends and I am so glad they speak english fluently and they are very helpful. It was hard at first but having friends like them I’ve learned a lot and become so attached with their culture.

  11. Now since you have also been on the other side of the coin, could you tell me how to break the cold wall? I have been living in a tiny village in the UK for 5 years, out of those 5 , my kids have been going to a school for 4 years, and guess what, no friends yet. I will say like in the book of chocolate, they are too polite, that they pass me by without even looking at me.I have tried to integrate by doing all sort of things from getting involved in the school to doing fundraising events etc … Still, people do not talk to me unless they need help in the school. So how do you deal with this ? This is so cold, tough, and cruel culture, I give up really, hoping one day to leave this hell. Good you change your mind about foreigners.

  12. Last week I stopped on my bicycle to give directions to a couple of lost Americans looking at a map – I directed them to the National Gallery, then went on my way to the shop I was heading for, and then cycled on to the park where that art gallery is, where I’d arranged to meet a friend.
    They were obviously suspicious of me; I saw them again as I cycled around the park, looking for my friend. They stared at me, then very deliberately took a photograph of me, scowling. Strange!
    @Yasbeth, find a class where you can meet people as you learn, say, woodwork together; join a cycling club – shared activities can cut across cultural prejudice, and once you make one or two friends, others will relax.

  13. I’ve been living in the US East Coast for 5 years, making friends in here has been challenging. I consider myself a nice person and I treat everyone with respect, regardless the shape of their eyes, skin color and so on. I wish more people, whether American or not, realise as you did that we all are HUMAN BEINGS. It would be great if we all behave in a more respectful and civilized way. I’m mexican, but that doesn’t mean I do not deserve to be treated nicely. We Mexicans are friendly and treat tourist as nicely as we can. We don’t think in ourselves as superior nor inferior than other people.

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