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The Vacuum Issue 5 spacer Issue 5
Reflections Of A Foreigner
by Liam O'Rourke
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Who is a foreigner? An American investor, a Swedish exchange student, the German wife of an ex-soldier, an Italian who has been working here for over 20 years, an Australian working in a call centre, an English nurse, a Lithuanian doing seasonal work on farms at scandalously low wages, a Portuguese working in a chicken factory, a Palestinian refugee, a Chinese immigrant are all real-life examples of different types of 'foreigners' that one can come across in the North in general and in Belfast in particular.
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Reflections Of A Foreigner
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What makes a foreigner? I noticed that there are different degrees of being foreign here. Some are 'more' and others are 'less' foreign. For example my impression is that a Briton, a North American or someone from Australia are considered here less foreign than someone from Spain or Norway. There are a number of explanations for that. There is the common language, a relatively similar culture, the fact that many people from Belfast have immigrated, worked and have relations in those countries. People coming from France, Sweden or Italy are 'more' foreign than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts because they have strange accents and names, are less familiar with the English language, come from countries that have very few connections with the history and culture of Belfast and the North. Then, there is also the difference between the 'foreign' and the 'exotic'. People coming from Africa, Asia are 'exotic', qualitatively different from the rest, because they have cultures very different from the European ones, different skin colours, and religious beliefs. When does one cease to be a 'foreigner' and become a 'local'?
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One of the things that I have noticed, is how difficult it is in Northern Ireland for the various types of foreigners to integrate themselves in the local life. For example, I know a Chinese person that has lived in Belfast for over 35 years who is still looked upon as some exotic curiosity; in the eyes of local people this person is more 'foreign' than some Australian who has been here for just 35 weeks. Despite the fact that I have more connections with Belfast than most people in county Kerry (having an Irish name, a father that comes from here and having lived here for some time), I will nevertheless always be looked upon as a total foreigner because of my Belgian accent. Things are also made more complicated by the fact that there are not just different degrees of being foreign here, there are also at least three different categories of 'foreigners' according to the reason why they are here. They are (a) short term tourists, (b) temporary visitors - most often students spending some time over here, (c) long term residents. The problem is that local people tend to collapse the third category into the first two. When you sound foreign, locals usually assume that you are just here temporarily. It does not cross their minds that there are actually people from other countries who are long term residents over here. After a few years, long term residents can find it quite annoying to still be treated like ignorant tourists. In most advanced European cities, foreigners are just part of local life, they are barely noticed. But in Belfast, they are still heavily stigmatised. This shows that it has still a long way to go before becoming this modern, cosmopolitan, multicultural city it likes to present itself as.
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Belfast is a small provincial town. It is a monolingual and monocultural city (even if some people use the Irish language and culture), and this has an impact on its residents’way of thinking. When one comes from multilingual and multicultural city like Brussels, where it is compulsory to know at least the two official languages (French and Dutch) plus English to get around, and where there is a vast amount of different cultures (many Arabs, Africans, Asians, Anglo Saxon) the 'foreign influence' in Belfast is missed. In order to develop itself, a culture has to interact with other cultures. It is unfortunate that the locals haven't really had that opportunity. This would have added significant value to the local culture and the locals’ understanding of other people.
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