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Travel and being a total foreigner

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Recently I came back to Leipzig from a fascinating trip to mainland China and Hong Kong via Abu Dhabi, with a brief visit to Macau. I will post deeper details and photos about this bout of travel in the coming weeks.

For today, I’d like to tell you one of the main things I miss about that travel experience: being a complete outsider.

My boyfriend and I were in Abu Dhabi for only 15 hours, in which people spoke English all around us and to us, the majority being foreigners themselves. In formerly British Hong Kong, where we spent several days, most people we encountered spoke some English. In formerly Portuguese Macau there were signs in English, Portuguese and Cantonese all in one, and all the street signs and many store signs we noticed were in Portuguese. That’s where the familiarity stopped, as no one we encountered in Macau actually spoke a word of Portuguese, and barely any English.

But it was in mainland China, where we spent the brunt of our travel time, that we got the total effect of feeling toddler-like; except perhaps at the major tourist spots of the huge metropolis of Shanghai.

See, when I don’t speak a language at all or only know greetings and inane little phrases, I do feel like a toddler. But I was a cute exotic toddler in mainland China, being taken pictures of by curious Chinese people, saying “ni hao” and ending the conversation there, no chance of sounding or looking Chinese at all. Along with it, I generated no expectations of knowing anything. Though admittedly at times frustrating, this was mostly a blissful state for me, suspended in the space of travel. (Other people we met had different experiences.)

There we were, the group of 17 or so oversized toddlers being guided around by our very patient and deft native Mandarin-speaking tour guide. He managed to get us across the security checks at every Chinese metro station and into every crowded bus and train with voluminous luggage practically without a hitch. He managed to get us properly fed and alcoholized and entertained during the lulls.

Yes, there were signs in English, and plenty of Western brands (with Starbucks being more frequently visible in Shanghai than in any Western city I’ve seen). There was even a village we visited in Yongding that seemed to almost completely cater to tourism. But we simply could not communicate verbally with people most of the time. We couldn’t do very basic and essential travel things such as buying a train ticket, checking into a hotel or ordering food when there were no pictures on the menu; let alone ask for directions. Amid our hilarious attempts at Chinese, our accent saying place names was incomprehensible to the locals.

And I loved it.

Following someone around and not having to figure things out on my own was a welcome respite from navigating living abroad.

As soon as I returned to Germany, I was reminded of my inadequacy. I’m embarrassed of still speaking English most of the time, unable to get through this largely self-imposed language barrier. After all, I’ve been living here for more than three years now. I feel that my German should be much better (as the British author of the funny, insightful book Make Me German felt, and finally decided to act on it).

I should understand my mail better, have a better knowledge of local politics, not be afraid to call service people on the phone, and be able to talk with my growing circle of German friends a lot more smoothly in their native tongue. The clearly noticeable annoyance of at least one of them (even though his English is quite good) has made me feel even more uncomfortable. I’m in the awkward position of trying to break through this expat bubble, being caught halfway in and halfway out, neither here nor there; not a total foreigner, but also not so close to being, uh, shall I speak the thorny term, integrated.

My problems are ridiculously tiny compared to the refugees coming in. I haven’t suffered outright discrimination or calls for my deportation. I live in a pretty good apartment. I came here invited. I didn’t have to run from destruction or recover from serious trauma. The stereotype people assign to me is usually related to samba, parties and soccer, rather than anything related to extremism or conflict. Regardless, as this society gradually takes me in from the fringes, it expects more from me. This is so even when it comes to my most open-hearted German friends and understanding boyfriend and his family; and I think this would be true of any society. Unfortunately, I’ll never be totally in anywhere, since moving around has been the norm for me and I’ve got no roots. Perhaps I should remember that next time my Ausländer badge particularly weighs on me.

Even in my native Brazil I don’t feel quite at ease. I’ve been living away from there for so long that some relatives imagine that I have acquired a foreign accent (I don’t agree). Although I’d say I know more about Brazilian political history than the average Brazilian, since it’s what I’ve been researching for some years now, I’m largely unfamiliar with current local trends. People I meet ask me for travel tips for Brazil and I’m unable to give them much. I behave like a tourist in my own hometown of Rio. On the U.S. I could give a lot more practical info, since I spent pretty much all my teenage years and early adulthood there; and yet I must say I’m not considered quite one of them either. I never call myself American although I am an American citizen and speak English about as well as I speak my mother tongue. I’ll always be “Ana from Brazil” in the U.S. and “Ana meio gringa” in Brazil. Neither here nor there…

So right now I feel like going back to China, where I can’t even try to pretend to belong, know what I’m doing or fudge the language. Though I think the bliss in my ignorance couldn’t last more than a few months. Once I’d have to register anywhere or go to the doctor or actually do anything beyond frolicking around, my near-total lack of belonging and communicating would probably also get old…

An aspiring social scientist and former newspaper reporter, an avid eater, a pseudo-philosopher and poet, an occasion-propelled singer, a semi-professional socializer, a movie addict, a Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, but with special attention to travel, entertainment and lifestyle.


  1. Love the article, very interesting concept too. You’re right about sometimes feeling more comfortable in strangely more uncomfortable situations though. Sounds a bit crazy but I think I agree. Sometimes feel like I have to do more to conform and fit in when I’m in an English speaking place rather than somewhere that I can’t communicate in. The toddler analogy works too as you certainly feel more childlike in those circumstances.
    Spent a month in Germany back in July down in Bavaria and absolutely love it there, may be my favourite country. People are so friendly and the food/drink is amazing. On our way round the world slowly currently so could end up in China at some stage I reckon (https://jwalkingin.wordpress.com/).

  2. Thank you very much, Jonno! You’ve got a very nice-looking blog and I think it’s very courageous what the two of you have done and are doing – I greatly admire people who have the guts to drop everything and travel for extended periods of time, to get to know the whole world. Perhaps one day I will do that too, for now I am doing one little bit at a time. 😉 Where are you at the moment?

    • Thanks, Peggy! I don’t know, sometimes I’m ok with not talking, every travel can have its different flavor and allure, I guess! Plus I wasn’t traveling alone, so that probably helped with the lack of communication with most others. There were a couple of very nice Chinese people who knew some English I got to talk to, though.

  3. I really agree with you that there is freedom in being an obvious foreigner sometimes. I did feel that in Taiwan and I would have been incapable of anything without my friend there. And of course I feel the pressure too in Germany. But I think it also has to to with the part of Germany that we associate with. All of our friends and colleagues at the university are so fluent in English. Being in the German countryside is much more relaxing. I speak German freely (and badly) since few of the people we meet speak any English or at least don’t feel comfortable in English. In Leipzig I do feel a lot of pressure to “integrate” even if I speak English with friends and colleagues. But in the countryside people seem to put few expectations on me. So while my doctor’s receptionist and the uni bureaucrats makes faces at me when I talk to them as if they are trying so hard to understand, Manu’s relatives only smile and tell me how great my german is; however, my true abilities are somewhere between those two reactions.

  4. Oh, Ana, they always put us in a box. And we are not in-between, that is another box. Long live the airports, long live the traveling – out of the box! Most of the world is still split up between (nation)-states. And most people never experience but the local or national. We dip into different kinds of local, national and transnational. Some we would like to belong to – and we would, if not for barred access points. That is what makes us different. And, our numbers increase: with every refugee entering Fortress Europe and every person moving places. Russia and Ukraine since the downfall of the Soviet Empire joined the US as the largest migration destination countries. Who would have thought that?

  5. Thanks for that perspective, HF! We do move within a different space – but have you managed to make it into home somehow, whatever that means? Is home, as one friend once told me, “where the toothbrush is?”

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