Thursday, November 17, 2011

The token foreigner

Sometimes I think that the only reason I was recruited over here was to be the token foreigner in my department. I work for an international company and since my department is fairly new, I’m now the first foreigner. A lot of times I think that they wouldn’t have cared what my knowledge or experience is, as long as I was a foreigner. The fact that I work in outdoor clothing and I’m from Canada, it makes it even more credible to them. Because I’m from Canada and it’s cold, I must know about cold weather clothes (the fact that I had seven years experience for an outdoor company adds credibility, but that’s beside the point)

My collegues can now brag they are an international department. It’s weird though, feeling like this novelty. I was talking to a friend and comparing it to kids getting a puppy and forgetting that puppies need maintenance and training. It feels weird to compare myself as a puppy and to think that I need maintenance, but let me break it down and explain myself. It’s fun to have me around to have as the new foreigner, but it’s not so much fun to do the work it takes to have a foreigner around.

I “get” that I live and work in Germany, but one of the selling features was that I was going to work for an international company in another country that works in English. The job description and everything I was told was that English was necessary and German was a bonus. I didn’t want the added stress of working in a new country and culture in a language I can count to ten in.

But because I’m the first foreigner in my department, my collegues aren’t used to speaking English 8 hours a day and I’m not used to being the high maintenance puppy. During my first six months, I was reluctant to bring it up at all. But then, I realized that a lot of stuff was forgotten to be passed along to this token foreigner and I was getting frustruated. I brought this topic up and everyone was apologetic and made a conscious effort to speak English. No one MEANS to forget to take the puppy out, it’s just an adjustment to have a new puppy. I get that.

And though I’m super thankful because I have mad German skills for being here ten months (it’s like an 8 hour language lesson everyday!), it’s getting on ten months and it’s getting old. I talk to other foreigners in other departments (who are not their department’s token foreigner) and most of them have had the opposite experience. I’m not used to being a novelty and needing to have people go out of their way for me. And even though it kills me, I have gotten better at asking to switch to English in meetings.

The more I go thru this experience, the more I have respect for immigrants. If I think about my family, immigrating to Canada from Portugal and Belgium fifty years ago (via East Germany and Russia) I can only imagine how hard it was to come to another country and live entirely in another language.

So I’m conflicted. In a way, I feel like a princess coming over here and expecting my collegues to speak in English, but at the same time, the language we’re meant to work in is in English! And the novelty of being the department puppy is wearing off.

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