This is the second part of an essay on cultural differences and prejudices by Will McNiece. The first part is here.
Why You Should Be Nice to Foreigners (part two)
When I moved to Germany, I encountered two problems: the first was the bureaucracy, which was complicated but well ordered; and the second was my psychopathic housemate. The first problem I overcame in a matter of weeks, simply by hanging around at various bureaucratic offices and allowing myself to be pushed back and forth until somebody who could speak English had time to speak to me. The second problem was a little more complicated, and required me to tip-toe around the apartment for three months before secretly moving all my stuff to a friend’s place and running away, foregoing the €500 ($670) deposit and changing my phone number.
The next four years were rocky and difficult, but greatly rewarding. I had moved to Berlin as a theatre set designer, and after three months of working full-time, being highly praised for my work and yet receiving no money, I realised it was time for a change of job. I became an English teacher. In Berlin, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of English teachers. Most of them stay for a few months and move on to another city, and few of them are qualified to teach English. I was among the category of the unqualified. Nevertheless, the most important quality required of an English teacher in Berlin is to be able to hold an hour-and-a-half long conversation with the same person week after week, and that was something I could do.
Working as an English teacher, I spent twenty hours each week talking to people from all over the world, learning about their cultures and their attitudes and their beliefs, and I came to understand that foreigners and immigrants are among the most important groups of people in the world.
What I noticed about the various people I met was that they all held the same set of core values: they all wanted to live in comfort and safety and they all wanted their children to have better lives than they did. These values cut through all other values, whether that person was pro-American or anti-American, whether that person was a capitalist or a socialist, whether that person was a conservative or a liberal, whether that person was open-minded or whether that person hated immigrants.
Another thing I noticed is that people have two aspects to their selves. There is the personal aspect, which displays a great deal of empathy towards other humans, and the societal aspect, which is ruthless and callous. Consider this scenario: you are face-to-face with a man on Death Row who killed a child and is about to be executed. He pleads for his life and you see from his pleas that he is repentant for what he did. The personal side of you will most likely empathise with him, to an extent. You will probably not grant him his freedom, but you might grant him his life. The societal side of you is colder. The law is the law and it must be upheld. If you do not execute him, other killers may take advantage of your softness.
Returning to the Afrikaners – when they were aloof toward my parents, it was only a societal response, not a personal one. In that context, the response was understandable. Societies outlast individuals, and the British society that committed the atrocities against the Boers is the same society that my parents come from. The personal response never got a chance to come out, because when dealing with something unfamiliar, it’s safer to deal with it from a cold perspective.
In my English classes, I often initiated discussions like the Death Row Killer, and what I learnt was that people were generally ruthless in their views until I was able to give them a personal perspective (perhaps the killer was their son or daughter, for example). Then they softened up and saw the dual standards by which they lived. I’m not saying that people are hypocritical, though many are. I’m saying that we all live our lives by two sets of standards, and if we are to improve ourselves, we need to be able to learn which set of standards is appropriate for which circumstance. Blaming a civil engineer and his wife for an eighty year old massacre is the wrong response. Similarly, accepting an invading army into your home on the basis that they are nice people once you get to know them is equally wrong.
Most people never see their own dual standards, but living around foreigners and immigrants and interacting with them on a day-to-day basis gives people a better chance. Immigrants are often vilified in the media by politicians (probably because they have few voting rights and are not a significant threat to the politicians’ careers). They brand immigrants as lazy and uneducated, uncultured and dishonest, and their sole purpose in life is to come to your country and take as much of its resources as possible. Many people believe what they are told, and without being forced to interact with people who are not their own, there is little hope of changing their minds.
When you are a foreigner, you don’t see things the same way as the locals. While the locals might see you as a person come to exploit them, as a foreigner, you see the country as a place of opportunity, a place where you can make more of yourself than if you had stayed at home. You don’t see the locals as suckers to be exploited, and you don’t bad mouth the country you are staying in. You work hard, because you have to, otherwise you get kicked out of the country, and you do your best to learn the local culture and language. Of course, not all foreigners do that, but most of the ones I’ve met do.
I can tell you that learning a new culture is difficult. I spent four years learning German and trying to adopt the German way of life, and I discovered that there were some aspects that I liked, and some that I didn’t. I like how Germans treat people with respect, but I don’t like how they refuse to talk to strangers. I also learnt that while my German friends fully accept me, the German society will never see me as anything but a foreigner as long as I live. In fact, only recently has the German society started to accept second generation immigrants as German. Being born in Germany and growing up in the German society did not always mean you could claim to be German if your parents came from somewhere else.
Now I live in Poland. I have not had much experience yet with the Polish culture and the Polish way of life, but I have spoken to several Poles who, when they discovered I used to live in Germany, expressed their distaste for Germans and their country. Their opinions largely come from the Second World War and their grandparents, who, admittedly, the Germans did their best to wipe off the face of the earth. Those opinions come from the societal aspect of a person, and only reflect half of a healthy human mind. To properly nurture the personal aspect would require contact with a German, and then another, and another until a broad range of Germans have been sampled.
It’s not enough to meet a person from another culture once, whether your experience is good or bad. One person does not and cannot represent his or her entire culture. Once, when I was speaking with a man in a hostel, we started talking about the Australians who were also staying there. He mentioned that he didn’t mind Australians, but he hated New Zealanders. Surprised, I asked him why. “Because they’re assholes,” he said. I asked him how he knew that and he replied, “I once had a roommate who was from New Zealand, and he was an asshole.”
There are many things in Poland similar to what I have experienced before, and many things that are different. Polish bureaucracy makes German bureaucracy look easy, although the Polish bureaucrats are much friendlier. I like how Poles talk to strangers in the street, and the fact that you don’t speak Polish does not stop them from talking to you, albeit in Polish. I missed that aspect of life when I was in Germany. I don’t like how insane the drivers in Poland are: they are the second worst drivers I have ever seen (the worst being in Serbia, where I witnessed three car crashes in two days). Leaving the apartment means that your probability of living to see the next day is greatly reduced. I don’t like how chaotic life can be here, but at the same time I do. The UK, Ireland and Germany are all very established, especially Germany, where people don’t even jaywalk, but Poland still has a Wild West flavour to it. When you step out of the front door, you have the feeling that anything could happen.
There is now a large number of Poles in Northern Ireland (we call them “Polacks”), and hopefully they can show the people of Northern Ireland that, while different cultures think and act differently, those cultures are no less valid than the homegrown culture. But it’s too early to tell. Of course, the Poles, just like everybody else, travel with their own bigotry and prejudices, and perhaps the people of Northern Ireland can help them out. Being nice to foreigners is necessary because the exposure to foreign cultures highlights the flaws and strengths in our own culture. Being nice to foreigners is not a selfless act. Interacting with people who are not our own is initially difficult and frustrating and a little frightening. Then again everything that is worthwhile is initially difficult and frustrating and a little frightening. But if we continue to interact with people who are not our own, it becomes easier, we get better at it, and we grow as people. A Polish girl and I took the time to be nice to each other, and now we are in love and we live together. We have differences that sometimes frustrate us: I don’t understand why she has to do things her way when my way is obviously better, and she doesn’t understand why I have to do things my way, although it’s obviously better. But there are differences in every relationship, not just ours. I don’t know how long our relationship will last, but I believe our decision to embrace foreign cultures has made us more sensitive to each others’ needs, and I think that gives us a better chance than most. And I do know that we wouldn’t be together now if we hadn’t taken a risk and made that which was foreign a part of our own lives.
You can talk to Will in the comments below, or visit his blog, here. Let me know if you would like to guest write on this blog, too.