I am really weird and different. Not in a good or bad way. Just strange. That is what one person I am close with here in Colombia tell me constantly. She says I am an E.T. and I totally understand why. At home in the United States I am an ordinary guy from the east coast. I graduated university. I run a few uninteresting businesses. I’m not religious. I am neither especially close nor distant from my family. Blah blah blah. Pretty ordinary.
But what I find interesting through living abroad is that the very minor differences between me and others are multiplied. I am a mystery yet easily stereotyped by locals.
Outside of the United States I become that guy with the horrible gringo accent easily identified as a foreigner. I’m American and represent all the baggage; good and bad. I’m not catholic like 95% of the people. As a result I become the rare Jewish person, even though I barely practice.
People ask me why I am here. Do you have family here they ask? No. Are you learning Spanish? No. Are you here for work? Not really. I am here because I like it but that is not a good, practical reason to be abroad. What reason would I come here when all of my family is at home? Family is really important here in Colombia. They look at me as if a stork dropped me off here.
I also look different than many people with my lighter skin and hair. Moving on to my lifestyle. They ask where I am from and I tell the U.S. But then they ask where I live…..”No, but where is your apartment?” Um, I don’t have one but I guess I just stay with family for a few weeks when I go back home”. Then it’s my job. They think I am unemployed because I can play tennis during the middle of the day and party on a Monday night. But don’t you have to work tomorrow they ask. “I suppose at some point if I feel like it”, is my answer.
On Being an E.T.
I do not really mind being an E.T. It is not annoying or anything like that. Just interesting that someone so ordinary in many ways can be seen as so strange depending on where I am. I know it’s obvious that this should happen. But being asked by a grown woman I am attracted to, that since I am Jewish, “are you circumcised” makes me feel like I must be in Mars. The question was asked with 100% curiosity with no sexual innuendo by someone meeting the first Jewish person in their life. Of course I had a good laugh but had to wonder how different I really must seem here. And believe me I am not that type of person who enters a room, talks about myself, and makes sure everyone knows exactly who I am.
What am I really trying to say? It is that when I am “living” abroad I really understand what I am to others, in some way. I feel that much more American when the taxi driver praises his new pair of Clark walking shoes his daughter living in America bought him when she visited. Or when a European friend asks whether I tell people I am from America because he thinks I probably get crap for it. Of course I do tell the truth. I am American, something I rarely think about much except when I am abroad.
After a certain point travel really starts to wear on me. Who really wants to feel like an E.T. all the time? Still, experiencing life as E.T. provides me with an awareness of who I am. I don’t mean just the stereotypes but the complicated, personal ideas behind them. I see everyone spending time with their families. People ask me where mine is. It makes me think about important things like how I should approach the relationship with my family for example. I probably do not need to travel to another country to figure this all out. Another state probably would have done just as well.
Try it too
But to anyone who empathizes with what I am trying to say here, removing yourself from everything familiar will do wonders in helping you figure out yourself, and later on figuring out what is important to you. And if you get the chance, moving to a new country rather than a town over should fast forward that process a bit!