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Life as a Foreigner



For all of the confidence you gain living abroad, nothing will humble you more quickly and make you feel completely out of your element than getting sick in a foreign country. For the past two weeks I have been battling some sort of cold/flu virus. To add insult to injury, I woke up Saturday morning with an incredibly swollen and painful left eye (it was a bad eye infection)!

Not only was I worried about my eye (and in lots of pain), I had no idea where to go or what to do about it! I started googling eye doctors in Florence, but it was a Saturday morning and not only was no one open, but I couldn’t find any nearby. Desperate, I left my apartment and wandered to the center of town hoping I could find a sunglasses or eye glasses store that might be able to help. I finally found one but, of course, there was no doctor on a Saturday. Fortunately, the kind sales lady recommended that I walk down the street to the Misericordia. I only had a vague idea of what the Misericordia was. I knew it had something to do with health and emergency services, but other than that, I was at a loss. But I was desperate, so I walked in.

In stressful situations I tend to lean on speaking in English more than I should. All I wanted to do was walk up and ask for help and advice in my native tongue, but nobody at the Misericodia spoke English. I managed to convey what was wrong and that I was looking for an eye doctor. The lady at the desk was so sweet and reassuring. She explained that there wasn’t one in town, but she could give me directions on how to reach the Misericordia just outside of town, and that she could make an appointment for me. A bus and a tram ride later I arrived and was treated by a wonderful eye doctor (all for the low price of 48 euros).

While everything worked out, that day got me thinking about what it feels like to be a foreigner. The stress and pain of being ill shook my confidence. Although I ended up being capable of navigating the Italian healthcare system in Italian, the process was certainly intimidating as a foreigner. I remember growing up in Florida and listening to people complain about foreigners who didn’t or couldn’t speak English. Lines like, “if you come to our country, you need to speak our language.” As a sheltered and privileged youth, this made sense to me. But as someone who has lived in a foreign country and had to learn a foreign language, I am completely appalled at what I used to agree with.

Living in a foreign culture with a foreign language is hard! Plain and simple. And language fluency isn't as simple as we think. Fluency isn’t black or white. It is a process that has its ups and downs and is often affected by situations and stress. Furthermore, it takes years living in a foreign language to truly gain fluency. I will never again judge those in the U.S. who struggle to speak English or who sometimes revert to their native tongue in stressful situations.



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Ashley B
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13 comments:

  1. Great post, and I completely agree! I moved to an English-speaking country a few years ago, feeling fairly confident about my English. It's still a steep learning curve - strong local dialects, slang, a local's fast pace of speech. In my experience, it's people who've never in their life experienced living somewhere else who love complaining about 'foreigner's who don't speak the language'.

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    1. YES! All of that makes such a difference, and if you’re anything like me, you have good days and bad days. And I couldn’t agree more that it’s the people with zero experience with another language/culture that are the most bigoted. PS - your english is probably better than mine ;)

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  2. I completely agree! There's nothing more alienating than being sick in a foreign country and not knowing exactly what to do. Happy it all worked out for you in the end.

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    1. It really is the worst! But like everything in life, what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.

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  3. Great post! It's so easy for people who only speak their native tongue to judge others so harshly. Being an american in France has really helped me to empathize with foreigners in the US and all the " You live here you need to speak English PERFECTLY WITHOUT ANY HINT OF AN ACCENT!" nonsense. People like to say the French are rude but I have never run into one who told me my French needed to be perfect if I wanted to continue living here!

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    1. Yes, Europeans often have to speak multiple languages and because of that, I find that they are much more forgiving... Except for Florentines. They claim they invented modern Italian and they are pretty protective of it and will constantly correct you. But it is never in a malicious way. They just want to help you improve, or so they tell me lol.

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  4. When I worked at MAC, I often had customers who did not speak English very well. I'm pretty empathetic and have great comprehension, so we usually figured things out, but a lot of other people working in customer service are not as understanding. I figure that having been in other countries and made a fool of myself by either speaking little or no of the native language. I always have this thought whenever I'm in this situation or see someone else in it - http://i.imgur.com/YD0DwV4.gif

    jess | Bows & Bouquets

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    1. That gif is perfect! I constantly want to shout in Italian that I am so much smarter and more articulate in English lol. It is scary how close minded people can be and what we teach our children.

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  5. I'm amazed at the cost of your medical care. That same service would have easily cost 4-5 times that in the states.

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  6. Living in our native languages I think there are so many benefits we don't realize! Similarly I have always had medical insurance until the past year...though I can easily navigate the language being unsure how much treatment will cost has been difficult. I used to go to the doctor for everything, now I'm constantly asking "is it worth it?!" I hope you're starting to feel better, I can imagine sickness in an unfamiliar health system would be a little overwhelming!

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  7. I am glad that everything worked out! Since a lot of people have commented on it, I think that in general, you don't need to worry too much about getting a huge hospital bill for minor health issues when travelling abroad. The biggest bill I've ever had for a "regular" visit to a European emergency room was 90€. Obviously if you have a major problem and need to get airlifted home, that's another issue entirely, but you should get travel insurance for that kind of emergency.

    My family and I have gotten sick all over Asia and Europe, and my experience after visiting probably 30 different hospitals is that doctors want to help sick people, and most of them understand how hard it is to not speak the language. Another important thing to remember is that people are proud of their country and they want to show you the best care possible because they want you to have a good impression.

    My brother once had a huge rash and the Children's Hospital in Florence flew in an infectious disease specialist from another city to treat him. So in that case, they were freaked out that he had brought some new, terrifying disease into the country and he needed to be seen by the best doctors so they could decide whether to quarantine him (this was not the outcome, thankfully). I don't even think that we got charged for that because they were just so happy that he wasn't carrying a plague, haha.

    It's definitely scary being sick in another country, so it's good to remember that the world is full of wonderful people, full of empathy :)

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  8. This post comes just at the right time! I work in retail and this week we have been having a lot of Chinese and Japanese customers that do not understand English. I had a difficult time but was never rude or mean to them like some of my co-workers who flat out yelled at them when they could not understand something. Have patience for foreigners because you never know when you might end up in a country that does not speak your language.

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  9. I lived in Italy for a few years (Naples) as a US military health care provider, and I often worked with the Italian healthcare system so I know how chaotic it is when you are not ill; I can only imagine how it is when you are. I'm glad everything worked out.

    I love the photo and the wall art. At this point in the semester, I mostly want to take naps!

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