The secret upside to looking foreign abroad
Rather than be frustrated with always sticking out as the 'foreigner', expat Jessica looks for a silver lining to looking different abroad.
The other day, a friend asked me how it was living in a city where I look obviously foreign. He mentioned that he knew a girl who looked like me — a total guiri (foreigner) with blonde hair and blue eyes — who chose to leave Barcelona, Spain, because she was tired of people treating her differently due to her looks.
According to him, she had encounters where people were rude to her, purposely charging her higher prices in stores or seeing her as an easy target for pickpocketing. She was also not taken seriously when it came to dating.
He wanted to know — is it a real thing? Or was she just being dramatic?
I hesitated. I didn’t want to make it seem like I was a huge victim (I’m not), but yes, your appearance definitely does make a difference to how people treat you abroad.
The same experiences this girl complained about does happen to me; and every once in a while, it even makes me cry.
It’s hard to explain how draining it can be if you have never encountered this treatment on a long-term basis. It’s not the same as being treated differently when you're in temporary situations or in vacation. When you know that such treatment will pass as soon as you go back to your normal life, it becomes easier to deal with.
Others think I’m making a big deal of small things — and sometimes, it is just small stuff. But I think this particular treatment has gotten a bit worse with all the current backlash against tourists in Barcelona, which, occasionally, spills over into being flat-out xenophobic.
So yes, it's a real thing. But there is a major silver lining to this.
The ups and downs of looking foreign
Looking foreign is an instant character filter. As soon as I realised that, something clicked in my mind that made dealing with the negative stuff easier.
Those shopkeepers who double their prices for me? The people who swear at me in Spanish thinking I don’t understand what they’re saying? Waiters who are flat-out rude when I’m eating with another foreign-looking friend? Those people are absolutely not the sort of people I want to spend time with, and they’ve instantly let me known that.
So although not as many people will want to be friends with me here as they would in a place where I don’t look so foreign, it just means my appearance can be a shortcut to getting to know genuinely open, fascinating people, interested in connecting with other cultures and making friends who aren’t the same as them. In short, great people.
There might not be as many friends, but you know they’re more interested in getting to know you as a person, not about where you're from. And that’s pretty awesome.
'It's not going to go away'
It’s no coincidence that almost all my close friends here are people I’ve met through some kind of travel-related activity, such as language exchanges, the Erasmus program and travel blogging events. Part of it is because that’s what I’m interested in, but I believe it mostly comes from the attitude that people bring back from travelling. People who travel are often open to meeting foreigners — and actually excited about it too.
So while I do get frustrated, upset and wish I didn’t stick out due to my appearance, I recognise that it's not going to go away. It’s just one of the things that comes from choosing to live in another country. I know I’m fortunate because I can choose.
My roommate and I recently threw a party. We invited 60 friends coming from all over the world. Tons of people showed up from four different continents and there was an endless stream of fascinating, open people to chat with.
And I guarantee that I would not have met a lot of these people had I not looked like a guiri’.
What a fantastic problem to have.
Jessica was born in England but grew up in California, US. Taking advantage of her dual citizenship led her to seek out a Spanish adventure in Barcelona, where she continues to live and blog about her obsession of the Catalan capital. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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