Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

Everything is foreign, nothing is foreign

January 1st, 2013 | Alina Müller

I stood on the hotel terrace in the balmy evening looking down at a busy motorway, and across it a palm tree lined beach, and I remember thinking only two things,

“How did I end up here?”,


“Should I sit down and order a beer?”,

hoping that the casual and universal nature of such an act would trick me into feeling less desperately displaced and give some purpose to being alone on the terrace of a hotel overlooking a beach in Salvador in North-eastern Brazil.

A few days ago, this time on holiday, I had a stop-over in Salvador. In the taxi from the airport, driving on that same motorway, I pointed out to my fellow passengers the hotel where, back in 2005 and newly-arrived from Sweden, I had spent those first anxiety-ridden hours of what became a 10-month stay.

And as we were dropped off in Rio Vermelho, a neighbourhood where I used to go out, the sounds of the busy bars in the square, the heat and the humidity triggered that familiar feeling of foreignness that never left me when I lived in the city. I was reminded of how, walking around the streets those first weeks, I was unable to read the emotions in people’s faces and the intentions in their body language. The city stretched along the waterfront, old colourful dilapidated  mansions alongside giant fifteen-floor apartment blocks. It took me ages to figure out how to navigate its neighbourhoods and after many months of living in the city, I still kept getting on the wrong bus trying to get home from work.

There are different strategies for fending off the anxieties of being a foreigner and achieving that much-desired sense of ‘belonging.’ A common one, often employed for shorter stays, is to make your house your castle – bring along your favourite pillow from home, get some plants, make  your house an island of familiarity in a sea of foreignness. This is a good strategy and can work quite well until the demands of everyday life require you to leave your castle and face the world outside. Having a home in this sense, though, at least gives you the energy to mediate the unknown and, when overwhelmed, you can always retreat back indoors to regain your strengths. (In retrospect, having moved around a lot, I should have been better at this. My half-hearted efforts in this regard used to consist of spreading my clothes around in my new room and always bringing along the same ten books and the same coffee machine).

Another strategy is to try to transplant your community to your new country – complete with customs and traditions, artefacts and, depending on your level of ambition, even institutions. A necessary condition for this is that you end up in a place where there are already quite a few of your fellow country-people and that you share a vision. You can start small by installing a satellite dish or setting up a shop that sells produce from your hometown. Follow it up with a restaurant, a bar or a bakery. Eventually you can go all out and build a church, a hospital and schools that teach in your mother tongue. When successful, the result of this strategy is the envy of any foreigner who’s struggling to shake off the feeling of being displaced. (Rosemary, in Don De Lillo’s Underworld, observes the Italians living in the Bronx in 1950s New York: ‘The Italians. They sat on the stoop with paper fans and orangeades. They made their world. They said, Who’s better than me? She could never say that. They knew how to sit there and say that and be happy.’)

Yet another strategy, one that can require tenacity and a strong sense of purpose, is to re-imagine and re-invent yourself in the new place, building around you a new community from scratch. The context and circumstances are extremely important for the success of this strategy – for you have to be free to imagine yourself in the first place. (And it so often happens as an immigrant that your life instead ends up being defined in relation to others’ ideas of you.) It helps, for example, if you blend in easily with the local population from the start. It also helps if the locals – and this depends on how well you blend in – don’t keep reminding you of how different you are and regularly suggest that you have invaded their country and taken their jobs and have the wrong religion and the wrong memories.

Finally, as some may remind us, there are the wonders of social media, which make it possible for you to be away from home but really never be away at all. Chatting, skyping and sharing on Facebook and Instagram allow you to seamlessly fold the new place into the old one and at the same time actively keep up with all the developments ‘back home’. But thinking about it, I’m not sure it counts. Really, in your mind, you were never a foreigner in the first place.

None of these strategies is better than the other, and there is no guarantee that any of them will help you achieve that almost mystical sense of belonging. In real life, we probably employ our very own mix of these and others. During my stay in Salvador, whatever my mix was, it didn’t work very well. Perhaps the tension between having a very specific idea of what ‘home’ was suppose to be like at the time and the fact that Salvador – despite or most likely because of its unique splendour -was so far removed from that image, meant that I never really gave the city a chance.

In an interview with The Atlantic in 2000, Susan Sontag declares  “I like foreigners. I feel like a foreigner in New York. I like not being too comfortable.” Echoing that sentiment, after a few hours back in Salvador, on a terrace overlooking Largo de Santana, I announced to the people around the table  ‘I could live here again’. Before they could react, I hurried to add, ‘for six months’. I suppose that if all strategies fail, we all have a threshold for how long we can endure – or enjoy, for that matter – feeling like foreigners. In an age when so many people have to leave their home, what a privilege it is to have the option of not having to cross mine.