What It Means to Feel Foreign


When a friend first suggested we get tickets to attend “The Old Country,” a panel conversation with three young authors as part of The New Yorker Festival 2012, all I knew was that it sounded cool. Moderated by longtime New Yorker contributor, Adam Gopnik, “The Old Country” was to center on the themes of immigration and emigration. Of its three featured panelists — novelists Jonathan Safran Foer, Tea Obreht and Gary Shteyngart — two are U.S. immigrants (Obreht was born in Yugoslavia, and Shteyngart hails from Russia) and all three had written books that dealt with the concept of traveling to a foreign land.

But as we settled into our seats, I began to wonder: In today’s age of globalism and interconnectedness, where everyone has a cell phone, and Facebook account, and Skype login — and a couple of these authors themselves are writing fluently in a second (or third or fourth) language — is this idea of “being a foreigner” even relevant anymore?

The lights began to dim and I looked around. Row upon row of seats were filled in with hushed, bobbing heads — it was a packed house. The fact that this talk had garnered such a crowd suggested to me that yes, the theme of feeling foreign certainly is still relevant — but perhaps in a different way than it was 100, 50, or even 25 years ago. As I surveyed the audience, it became clear that they were a diverse bunch: There were twenty-something Manhattanites with stylish handbags; middle-aged businesspeople with reading glasses strung around their necks; hipsters rocking slick fauxhawks and black-rimmed glasses; soccer moms and tourists; elderly couples in sweaters carrying copies of magazines under their arms. Young and old. Male and female. U.S. and non-U.S. born. This wasn’t an audience made up entirely of adventurous ex-pats and émigrés. This was an audience made of up of, well, people, from all walks of life. The concept of “being a foreigner” isn’t always exclusive. On some level, it’s universal.

As the authors began talking, I realized they were touching on some themes that all people can relate to — immigrant or not. Don’t get me wrong, these writers’ experiences were extraordinary and unique, and only they can fully appreciate the complexity and nuance of their situations. But they also spoke broadly about moving to a foreign place, not knowing where they were going or how it would be different, taking in all the sights and sounds and details, and forming crystal-clear memories — perhaps in an effort to familiarize themselves with their new surroundings. They used humor to break the ice. They formed relationships. They mourned losses. Through it all, they clung tightly to loved ones.

I began to see the similarities between feeling foreign and the act of growing up. Aren't the descriptions of the two experiences strangely equatable? Learning to walk? Venturing out of the home? Getting one’s first job? Falling in love? The very act of living presents constant opportunities for feeling like a foreigner. We’re continually trying to build connections to each other because we feel separated, detached, sometimes isolated in our thoughts or emotions. Isn’t that the whole point of all of this technology, anyway — to alleviate the ache of feeling foreign?

Ironically, ever since he evolved, man has felt the need to explore. We’ve moved continents and climates. We’ve taken to the land, air and sea. Heck, Felix Baumgartner even took to space! And we’re always looking for where to go next. Exploring — putting ourselves out of our element and trying to make sense of a new place — is in our DNA. Or perhaps it’s the desire to acclimate that’s in our bones.

“The Old Country” was relatable because it underscored that feeling foreign is part of the human condition. No matter what form it takes, and no matter the degree, at some point we all have to deal with the feeling of being “lost in translation.” At least until there’s an app for that.