It's not often I feel uncomfortable in London. Being a white person that speaks fairly standard English, it's rare that I feel the stare of others on my skin, hear the whispered judgements of others as I walk past. As a woman, I've been subjected to my fair share of unwanted attention, especially when running, but in an unfortunate way, that's something I've become accustomed to.
Last weekend, we had friends visiting. While not exactly exotic, they were French, and on most of the occasions where we were out and about, showing them the sights of London, we were all speaking French. I don't presume for a moment that my accent would get past a native speaker, but as we wandered through the crowds we could be excused for being a group of French tourists.
And there it was. The feeling of people watching us. A muttered comment about the French being rude as we waited to cross the road. Suddenly, I felt alienated from the country I was born in, simply for speaking another language. I cannot imagine the weight of something like this, every day. If, before I even opened my mouth, what I was wearing or the colour of my skin already turned people against me, made them think I was different and deserving of unwarranted attention.
So why is it, when we see or hear something 'other,' our initial reaction is suspicion or ridicule? The only other time I've been in a distinct minority was in China. For the first time, the colour of my skin marked me out as very different to those around me. And the reaction varied. For some, it was curiosity, with a lot of questions, that I sometimes found offensive (How much do you weigh? How much do you earn?). For others, it was simply staring at the weird foreigner, or even stroking her arm hair, or remarking at how fat she was while squeezing her arm. But even then, I was in a position of power. As a visitor for only a year, the novelty of it meant I didn't feel threatened, and because I was leaving after a relatively short space of time, it became part of the tapestry of living in a strange place. For those who live in Britain, they cannot be afforded that luxury.
Part of it, of course, is fear. But there is also safety in putting things we're not sure of into little boxes so that we don't have to think about them. It is only since having a French partner that I have become attuned to how frequent it is, still, to hear jokes about ridiculous French stereotypes. I overheard a writer saying that she had subverted her readers' expectations by making a German character 'nice.' Lack of education is not an excuse here. Are we still so lazy as to rely on easy jabs to find amusement? Each time we laugh, or we joke, we are reinforcing dangerous ideas that if you are different, you are either a point of ridicule, or you are not to be trusted.
People are individuals, beyond any accent, language, skin colour or mode of dress, and they deserve to be treated the way you would like to be. After all, transpose yourself to another place, and you too become the foreigner, the strange one, to be pointed at in the streets.
At the weekend, I could have turned to my observers. I could have told them that I do speak English, and that their remarks were rude and hurtful. In some ways, that would have felt like a betrayal. For me, this feeling of difference was a borrowed skin, something I can take off as soon as I revert to my normal voice. So I didn't say anything. I let myself feel lost and accused, if only for a moment, of being one of those 'foreigners' that some use as a scapegoat for so many of the world's problems.
It didn't feel good. It's about time we stopped making others feel foreign, and accept the myriad of experience and difference that make us unique.