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“Foreigners Like Me” from Hopeprint

Written by Mary Beth Schwartzwalder  • December 6, 2017

This latest think piece from Hopeprint picks apart important concepts in our culture: “foreigner,” “majority,” “kindred.”

“They walked up the street with the babies in the stroller, dimly lit by the street lights. Though it was impossible to see their faces from across the road, their silhouettes and posture as they walked was recognizable in the way it only is when you have come to know someone. I raised my voice and hand, saying ‘Hello!’ Mom looked over and returned the greeting with a grin across her face. 

Due to a rather absurdly full season of grant writing, conferences, meetings, budget building, curriculum development, traveling to other cities for our multiplication efforts and more, the chance this evening to stand still and greet my neighbor felt like an extra treasure. As I spent a good deal of the evening alternating between coloring and building lincoln logs with their son, Ahmed, not speaking a lick of Farsi or Pashto (his mother tongue as an Afghani), I pondered anew the journey our friends take to get across the ocean to their new and foreign land… new kinds of houses, new language, new trash system, new transportation system, new ways to access food, new kinds of food, and on and on it goes.

Ahmed was quite content with not trying to understand me; he was just going to keep living his life, observing passively. Meanwhile, little Lisha pulled a book out of the bookcase, and sat on my lap to read it. As the pages turned, she could nearly quote the whole thing to me, making it clear she has spent a whole lot of days in our home with that book. Her little tongue rattled off imaginary stories and creative expressions in the primary tongue of her birthplace, English, differing from the Nepali tongue of her mother. 

Lisha knows the Nepali dishes that usually fill her family table, but she also knows chocolate chip cookies. Ahmed is dressed in the typical fashion forward, sharp manner of his fellow Afghani, Syrian and Iraqi 3-year-old peers, but is overwhelmed and lost in an almost entirely unknown world. Lisha’s presence in our living room exudes familiarity. Ahmed’s presence in this space exudes this sense of foreignness. 

Ahmed is young, and I know from years of watching little Ahmeds grow up, that in 18 months from now, he will be chattering away in a language he was clueless of today. He will not remember the land of his birth as an active memory, and this nation of the United States will be what he knows as home. His parents speaking Pashto at home, or the colorful hijab his mother continues to wear, will ever remind him he is of a particular people, but he will find himself in the strange gray of being foreign and familiar in his own home and nation of eventual citizenship. 

Ahmed and Lisha will spend all to nearly all of their lives in the borders of this nation that welcomed their families. In their personal identity, they will carry very little of their family being factually “foreigners” at one point. Culturally connected or bicultural, yes absolutely; but foreigner would not be the narrative of their own writing. Yet unless if the story changes, Ahmed and Lisha will spend the rest of their days keenly aware of this part of their heritage. The beautifully dark olive tint of Lisha’s skin, and her gorgeous Nepali features, will likely speak before her mouth does to the world she encounters. Ahmed’s name and maybe someday his wife in hijab will serve as a preface to his story written by others not himself. Whether Lisha or Ahmed feel or see themselves as foreign, and irregardless if they are no longer foreign as naturalized citizens, they will never really be allowed to forget it. This is the cultural craftsmanship of our ‘majority’ culture . . .”

To read the entire blog entry, visit Hopeprint’s website.

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