TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
SO YOU WANNA BE A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER?
…Maybe you think it’d be cool to move far away and make a life for yourself in a foreign country. If so, more power to you. I encourage your wanderlust entirely. But if you really do want to get that passport and GO, GO, GO – please consider a few things before you embark.
GET A JOB.
If you’re going to move abroad and become a professional foreigner, you’re gonna need a job in the foreign country of your choice. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many ambitious young people I’ve seen show up in Europe, only to smoke pot and couch surf for an entire year. I’m not saying that’s a bad way to spend a year of your life, but if you’re looking to stay for the long haul, you’re gonna need to find proper work. Politically speaking, I must say that Europe has moved significantly to the right since I first arrived looking for a residence and work permit way back in 1993. Freeloaders are not welcome anywhere. Xenophobia is trending and most countries, in Europe or elsewhere, will demand that you add something to their society in the form of work, as opposed to “milking” their system.
First and foremost, consider teaching English. Why? Because there’s plenty of work. Everybody, from the humble shopkeeper to the travelling Grandmother to the evil terrorist, wants and needs to speak English. The power of English teaching jobs is that, as a native English speaker, you’re not taking a job from a local person. I was originally awarded a work permit in the Netherlands because a Dutch person could not do my job, because a Dutch person is not a native English speaker. To be clear, when I advise you to teach English, I mean for you to teach at a private language school for adults. Forget teaching English in elementary education as you’ll need teacher certification in the local country. The private schools for adults generally do not require local elementary education certification. Find a T.E.S.L or a T.O.E.F.L. program and apply there. One of the best advantages to teaching English in one of these programs is that you will absolutely have to use your cultural identity to get the job done and that, after all, is the core of being a professional foreigner.
GET A DEGREE.
Get a college degree before you leave your home country. Any college degree. I happen to have a Bachelor of Arts with a minor in T.E.S.L. but you don’t have to have one of those. Any degree will do. Just be able to show the locals that you finished college. When I taught at the Nuns in Vught, they pretty much hired any native English speaker with a college degree as long as they could put two sentences together and were possessed of a reasonably amiable demeanor. But the college degree was a must – so do whatever you have to do to get one.
LEARN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE.
This one is hard. Really hard. It took me three years to learn Dutch, and I’m good at languages. I took formal lessons and read books with uplifting titles such as “Dutch in Three Months!”. Ultimately though, there’s only one way to really learn a foreign language – you have to NEED to speak it, not just want to speak it. Until your livelihood, your personal relationships, or, in some extreme cases, your physical safety are at stake, you won’t learn the local language in your country of choice. Simply wanting to “sound cool” or “push your boundaries” are not enough. You gotta need it, to learn it. In my case, I ended up learning Dutch when I met people who didn’t want to speak English. They understood English, and spoke it a little bit, but I learned Dutch because they spoke it to me constantly over a long period of time. Finally, I learned to speak Dutch.
The rewards of becoming fluent in a foreign language are endless. It enables you to really talk to people. You can shop for stuff without having to flail about at the mercy of others. You increase your potential for getting a job. Some studies show that speaking multiple languages wards off dementia in later life. But this is just the practical stuff. The real reward of speaking a foreign language is inclusion. We are social animals and we all need our tribes; speaking the language is your ticket to a place in the tribe. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving in your new home country. When you speak the local language, you become a participant. You get to speak your mind. You count. You matter. You are truly seen and heard.
It takes time. It will require truck loads of patience and determination. You will need to be vulnerable and accept making mistakes. You will have to accept that you will forever have an accent and your accent will always label you as a foreigner. It’s a genuine challenge, one of life’s greatest challenges if you ask me. But it’s worth it. The sense of achievement is unsurpassed by little. Some people think that only “certain people” can learn a foreign language, as if learning a foreign language has something to do with intelligence or a special genetic disposition. Bullshit. If you can read these words you are smart enough to learn any foreign language. You just gotta need it, you gotta work at it, and you gotta keep working at it until you get it. When you do, you’ll feel an enormous sense of pride that lasts forever.
PICK A COUNTRY, ANY COUNTRY.
Leaving the country of your birth and moving elsewhere is a shock to the system. We all handle that shock differently, but it’s a shock nonetheless. We don’t have the expression “culture shock” for nothing. As a result, my advice is for you to find a foreign country and make it your home base. With a new “home country” you can put roots in the ground and grow from there. If you’ve ever listened to a professional musician talk about life on the road, you’ll hear that they never really “see” much in the countries they visit. Sure, they have fun and they pick up a few things about the places they pass through. But that’s it – they’re just passing through. A professional foreigner needs to stay somewhere long enough to compare and reflect upon what it means to be foreign, and to use that knowledge in some way that makes them a living. It’s the difference between being a tourist and being a foreign resident. Tourists are on vacation and headed to the airport sometime soon. Foreign residents are cemented into a foundation from which they can learn.
Obviously it doesn’t matter which country you choose. Whatever floats your boat. I would recommend a country that doesn’t share your native language, but that’s just me. I think being forced to learn a new language will enhance your experience tenfold. A stable country with a working economy and a lack of war would be nice. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to more volatile places. Maybe your sense of adventure needs a less stable country. I don’t know. It’s your call. Every once in a while I get an email from the American Consulate in Amsterdam warning me not to go to this country or that country because it is too dangerous, corrupt, or hostile to Americans. I’m sure these advisories are well researched and include the very best of intentions, but something about them awakes the rebel in me. Don’t go to Haiti, they say. Well, we’ll just see about that, Mr. Uncle Sam! I’m not saying I’m taking my next vacation in that “shithole country”, but I am saying I determine what is a shithole and what isn’t, not my Government. And so do you. Just pick a country and go live there as opposed to breezing through as many countries, as quickly as possible.
DEVELOP A THICK SKIN.
Being permanently foreign is not for the faint hearted. It takes resilience because some people in the local country are going to resent you, demonize you, ridicule you, pick on you, and, sadly, hate you. It’s hard, but you’ll have to do it.
Believe me, I am no paragon of thick skin. I can be ridiculously over-sensitive. This has pros and cons obviously, but over the years I’ve somehow found a way to not let the haters get me down. Do yourself a favor though – let that negativity go. As a professional foreigner, you have much to offer your new homeland. Never forget that…