When I was younger, I thought being a ‘migrant’, or a ‘foreigner’ or an ‘expat’ were things that made a person different– an outsider. I thought it was easy to separate people into two categories: native and other. My world was small and my thinking black and white. But on this ever globalizing planet, where the pace of change keeps accelerating exponentially, it is becoming harder and harder to maintain such clear categories. Everyone is beginning to feel a bit foreign, because all of us, whether we’ve never left our hometowns or traversed the globe, are migrants through time. Parents feel foreign to their children and vice versa, as the lives they lead look more and more dissimilar. The borders and languages of today are a far cry from those of even just 20 years ago. Minds are educated differently in the classroom with new techniques and types of information. A child of the seventies becomes a mother of the two thousands, and then a grandmother of what is sure to be a new reality all together.
And so this year spent living abroad in a little apartment in a little corner of a ‘foreign country’ has forced me to accept my differentness and to explore the empathy that arises from the shared experience of being different. I’ve learned more about the interconnectedness of our diverse world this year than ever before, and much of that learning has occurred without having to leave my building.
On the bottom floor of my building lives a Syrian family with three children. They came to this country as refugees two years ago and have since taken up the noble and heavy task of remaking their lives. The first night I moved in they were there to greet me and carry my belongings up the stairs. They brought me toilet paper and dinner and a warm cup of tea. We laughed immediately over our shared struggle with the German language and how much paperwork is required just to survive here. Over the months, they have fixed my bike, changed my light bulbs, reset my heater, driven me to the airport, invited me over for cake and so much more. Their daughters come upstairs for a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of an older girl, and I go downstairs for a taste of the stable life of a family. In our differentness, we are one.
The second floor is inhabited by a German couple in their seventies who have lived there for thirty years. Their names are old school German and their English is broken- the tail end of a generation that did not learn it in school and did not need it in their daily lives. They are grandparents and retired insurance brokers. My first interaction with them was one of remorse- I had broken one of their hallway plants moving in a sofa and knocked on their door to apologize in murderous german. They smiled and waved it off, “es macht nichts.” Through the next few months they brought me pots and pans when I mentioned my need, left their door open when I locked my keys inside my apartment, brought my chocolate for Christmas and giving me missing ingredients to finish my half-completed muffins.
Though sometimes awkward, sometimes challenging, my interactions with my neighbors have been a highlight of my year. They teach me about kindness, generosity and community. We are a group that has almost nothing in common, and yet we decided to look out for each other simply because we are neighbors. That’s all.
I wish this for anyone, anywhere, foreign or national, young or old, rich or poor. I have felt alone much of this year, but when I see my neighbors I immediately feel less so. They brighten my day and I know I could go to them if anything were to happen. With all the xenophobia and fear mongering in culture today, it’s easy to forget how simple it is. We all need a helping hand. We all need a smile in the hallway. We all need to realize that foreignness is a shared human experience, and it is beautiful.
When my parents came for a visit, I joked that our building is the United Nations, except with less arguing. They agreed and felt reassured that their daughter was going to be alright at the end of the day. And I am. And when I move out at the end of June, I will be happy to move on to the next phase, but sad to leave the UN.
Who knows where I’ll live next– LA? New York? Frankfurt? But I do know that wherever that may be, I will try to be the first person to greet my neighbors with a smile and say “I’m here if you need anything.” Always.
P.s. Photo from here