Perceptions of Immigrants
I had an important realization about the situation of foreigners and their experiences in dealing with the native culture.
Earlier today, on my way to the grocery store, I saw a lone stroller lined up along the bike racks outside of a local restaurant. The weather is relatively mild around this time of year in Oslo, but it certainly does not make good conditions for an exposed infant. With no one nearby, a thousand thoughts immediately rushed into my head regarding my role in the situation: "If an infant is in the stroller, should I go into the restaurant and ask to whom is belongs?" "Is my Norwegian good enough to communicate that I am looking for the guardians of the baby I'm holding?" As I was walking over to check on the stroller, I started worrying about whether I would need to contact authorities. "Will I sour the mood with the police by requesting they speak to me in English?" "How will I appear to others walking into my dormitory with an infant?" "If I'm approached, will my difficulties with Norwegian lead to me being misunderstood, perhaps even considered a kidnapper?" As I was approaching the stroller, I felt a hesitation that I never expected. I am going to help a child that might be in danger. Why should I hesitate?
No infant was in the stroller. I was relieved that this was likely just the solution of some restaurant patrons of what to do with a bulky stroller and that the infant was warm inside the building. However, I was also relieved because I wouldn't be forced into a situation where my foreigner status might work disastrously against me. This experience made me realize how foreigners might be misunderstood in native cultures for being hesitant to help in these sorts of situations. I was aware of the gaps in my understanding of the culture and the language, and I feared that by trying to help an infant find its guardian(s) that I might make the situation worse for the infant and for myself. This apprehension to help others might in other contexts be perceived as coldness, inappropriate reticence, or even hostility. Importantly, I was experiencing this apprehension as a Scandinavian-looking white person in Oslo; I can only imagine how much more hesitation a black immigrant from Uganda might feel in this circumstance.
I walked back into my dorm feeling much more empathy toward the immigrants in my home country. The large influx if Hispanic expatriates in the USA likely experience similar issues, especially if they have a limited grasp of English. Indeed, considering the monolingualism of many US citizens, there may not be a common language between the immigrant and the native. It is easy to criticize the Hispanic immigrant for ignoring an injured man on the street when natives flock to his aid. The immigrant, though, could very well fear that their intentions would be misconstrued and that they might make a bad situation worse, especially if the language barrier is strong.
I am a stranger in a strange land. I am of course familiarizing myself with the culture and feeling more welcome every day. However, the experience of being an immigrant is a unique one, and I intend to take the lessons I learn as an immigrant back with me.