Sunday, 29 August 2010

Improbably An Insider Of Sorts

Whenever I am enveloped by the European continent, I am instantly soothed and irritated. (Come to think of it, I feel like that in every continent.) In the city of Toronto, Canada, half the people are foreign-born. In Sydney it's more like 3/10. In New York City it's just over 1/3. In most European capitals, however, it's less than 1/10. The most international parts of Europe I have been to are London (the exception to the rule with 2/5), Barcelona (13%) and Stockholm (37.5% immigrants and non-Swedish born, according to Wikipedia)... everywhere else has smaller amounts of immigrants and a high percentage of people who openly display attitudes which people in Australia, Canada and USA would deem racist.

I've been reading a portion of V. S. Naipaul's work, The Writer and The World, in which he describes suddenly finding himself in an environment in which his race/ethnicity (or appearance of such) is seen as unremarkable, comfortable and familiar by the majority, who also share numerous of his physical attributes. It reminds me of other experiences I've read - Zadie Smith commenting on how it feels to be suddenly in a majority-black environment after being used to being a Black British girl in England, or an acquaintance of mine in Sydney, Matthew, recounting how it feels to no longer be typecast by a resentful white majority in Australia, in returning to his city of birth, Shanghai.

When I go back to Europe, I am something different to everyone. To immigrants I am a friendly face and an open mind. People stop by to chat (the Lebanese girl who opened up to me whilst waiting for the train in Berlin), complain (the Pakistani convenience shop owner in Copenhagen) or indulge their desire for infatuation (the Senegalese construction worker in Stockholm), and we bond over our appreciation of Europe yet our sense of being an outsider. (I would never want to be of like mind as the xenophobic, racist or homophobic contingents. In that sense, I prefer to be an outsider, especially to those who would see me as such.) I recognise the well-travelled, open-minded, kind-hearted individuals immediately through the way they look upon everyone else. Fluidity in accommodating new concepts, a gentleness in the eyes, elastic defenses. I do not long for identification with a national psyche - I am interested in the transnational individual. The appraisal of different races, a diversity of paradigms, and a multiplicity of ways of enjoying life.

Perhaps the sense of inclusion I do feel is not racial but cultural. Whether in Sydney, Stanford, Santorini or Stockholm, I am still Slav. My race is displaced in each of those locales. Sofia, where I can pass for Bulgarian before I open my mouth, is somewhere I would never consider living permanently, as nightmarish as Siem Reap (they're of a similar level of Epiphanie-unfriendliness). However the proximity of Barcelona or Berlin to Eastern Europe mean that my race elicits a kind of distant friendliness - a recognition of a neighbour, a merry cohabitant of the multitude of frameworks that is Europe.

Conservative, backward Europe would embrace me, but I choose to run away. I am an asset over there, dramatically facilitating a dialogue between the most open parts of people and their fearful shadow/double. I vaguely fathom the context for their xenophobia, and humbly remember how predisposed I was to follow in their footsteps had not my parents decided to see 'how the West lives'. In Europe, my suppressed Australian-cum-American identity demands expression, just like in Australia I'm always seeking to escape the limitations placed upon me.

And yet, for the most part, I feel more comfortable in Europe, and always will.

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