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The Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Looking Foreign Posted by on May 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

As you can see from my profile picture at the bottom of this post, I’m relatively Germanic-looking: blonde hair, blue eyes, pasty white skin. This means I often get confused for an actual German person, usually by Germans. They’ll approach me on the street selling this or that or asking directions, beginning with a veritable flood of German slang and casual idioms – if I’m unlucky enough, it’ll be in the near-incomprehensible Berliner dialect.

Itchy Feet: Comprehension

Now, I quite enjoy being mistaken for a local. Though I’m an expat, I like to think that I’m integrating well into German society, and I like to think that my German is so good that even a local can’t tell the difference. This may be very, very far from the truth, but I like to think it.

So when Germans think I’m German, I don’t like to disappoint them, because it tickles me that they think I’m one of them. I’m just now getting to the point where my accent doesn’t immediately betray me, but at the time of writing the above strip, if I opened my mouth, the jig was up. As soon as they discovered I wasn’t German, they’d switch to English, and Germans are frustratingly good at English. Then things get complicated – oh, you’re not German? But your father is German? But you don’t speak German? But you’re learning German? Don’t ask for my life story, just sell me your product, make me feel German, and we’ll both be happy!

My wife is Italian. She rarely has this problem, in Germany anyway. Rather, she gets confused for a Turk, mostly by other Turks. She’s considering learning enough Turkish to say “sorry, I don’t speak Turkish, I’m Italian! Let’s speak in German!” (Maybe a Turkish speaker here can help her out?)

Still, there have been many times I’ve wished I looked more like a local, particularly traveling through countries where pasty blonde folk aren’t the norm – they’re the most interesting thing to happen that day. I remember coming back to Berlin after a month in the Congo and just being so happy that nobody paid me the slightest attention. I could blend in and be forgotten, for once!

As a language learner, however, there’s a certain benefit to looking foreign. Even better if you don’t look American – though Turks mistake her for being Turkish, Germans rarely speak English with my wife, even after they learn she’s not German. They can’t assume she speaks English, so they simply slow down and speak German more clearly. If there’s no other language to fall back on, the locals enter into to a conversation with you knowing that you’re learning their language, and treat you accordingly. It’s like having a shirt on that says “Be kind, I’m learning your language!”

But things are different everywhere for everyone. Trying to learn Arabic in Morocco as a white person might be difficult since Moroccans will almost always default to French (which is much easier to learn passably – you might even end up learning that first!). And of course we haven’t touched on the myriad racial prejudices out there – I’m sure non-whites have an infuriatingly difficult time in countries like Switzerland, where no matter how good your Swiss German might be, you will always be an outsider. The same is true for whites in China or Japan, I’ve heard.

That said, speaking new languages can often transcend the visual barrier. In many countries, like Italy, the locals will be delighted that you can speak even a little Italian. The more obscure or lesser-known the language, the fewer words you have to learn before you’re being invited over for dinner. And there’s nothing better than meeting someone in a foreign country where neither of you speak the other’s native tongue, so you meet halfway in a language you’re both learning. Then the struggle is mutual!

How you look and how you’re perceived has a big impact on language learning. What role has it played for you?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. seyma:

    I don’t know others, but when a foreigner tries to speak Turkish, we get proud. We switch to the language that he or she will feel comfortable as well as us, at least that is what I do.
    By the way the Turkish version for your wife is ‘Üzgünüm, Türkçe bilmiyorum, italyanım, hadi almanca konuşalım.’

  2. Natalya:

    Hi, thanks for the article. A tip for your wife in Turkish “Kusura bakmayın, Türkçe bilmiyorum, ben İtalyanım! Almanca konuşalım”. 🙂

  3. Christian:

    I’m not Turkish but I’ve studied it for a couple years:
    “sorry, I don’t speak Turkish, I’m Italian! Let’s speak in German!”
    ‘Özür dilerim, Türkçe bilmiyorum. İtalyanım. Almanca konuşalım!’

  4. John Broomhall:

    In preparation for a year-long motorcycle trip to Cantral and South America, I spent two years studying Spanish. I really did not want to be culturally isolated by language, communicating with locals along the way was very important to me. But as a 6’2″, completely bald gringo with a rather full white beard, I found I must have been quite intimidating. Most people just wouldn’t approach me, assuming I didn’t speak their language, and besides I must have looked scary to them. I always found the best ice-breaker was children. I would walk up to a family and speak to the children first. It was a quick way to establish I not only could speak with them, but that I was a friendly guy as well. I always got compliments for taking the time to learn a bit of their language. Around Christmas, people started asking to have pictures of me with their kids. Papa Noel!

    • Leana:

      @John Broomhall I learned this myself, when travelling as a young lady in Central America. My friend and guide noticed that I gravitated towards breaking the ice with children and gave me a sage warning! We were traveling in Guatemala and going up to Todos Santos in the highlands — a beautiful trip, with great people to meet, and we met many indigenous people. My friend warned me that, sadly, some children had been kidnapped in the area and the perpetrators were locally thought to be foreigners. In fact, he said, it could likely be true. He told me not to speak to the children or even to express interest in the children (praising them, etcetera) unless I was friends with the adults, first! Needless to say, I was shocked by the sad situation, but I followed suit, and was very glad. Later, we met up with my friend’s former host family and were in a village where they knew us, so things were different and we could be more relaxed. He even had little presents for the kids.
      But I thought I would share this word of caution.
      This was *quite* some time ago, about 20 years… I don’t know how much things have changed in the area. However, I did later read that a foreigner had been killed in the area and it had to do with the issue my friend had warned me about!
      I don’t want to share negative things about traveling, though. By and large, my experience has been vastly positive. Here’s a link to a more uplifting travel story!http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/world/man-visits-all-countries-without-flying-319257.html

  5. Jann:

    I certainly agree with you. I had this experience while travelling in Italy. Several times it was assumed due to my dark hair and eyes that I was a native speaker which was very flattering. With only my beginner’s Italian, a phrasebook and the kindness of the people we encountered I was able to communicate fairly well and even do the hotel bookings or ask for directions for a week’s touring.

  6. Andrea:

    I am American of Asian descent, and speak pretty decent German, having lived in Germany for some time. Several times I’ve had people talk about me in front of me (whether good or bad) because they don’t think I understand what they are saying. The look on their face is priceless once I open my mouth and start speaking German. I’ve also been told a couple of times that I don’t “look American.” I’m guessing they meant I’m not Caucasian. This would have been offensive to be said in the States. Though I do have some Asian cultural inclinations (because of upbringing by Asian parents), I do strongly identify myself more as an American, and I’ve learned while living in Europe to be more forgiving about these kinds of comments.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Andrea So weird, I’ve definitely found that in Germany too. I have American friends who are of Asian descent, and my European friends are constantly referring to them as my “Chinese” friends. I guess as Americans you really do become more multicultural.

  7. Juan:

    I am a Colombian living in Russia. Many people in european countries ask me how have I “survived” to this foreigner question in Russia, the “terrible” Russia. I also like to disappoint them and let them understand that looking foreigner doesn’t mean I will be suddenly sent to a gulag… Russians are highly educated and and respectful of foreigners. But they make a strong difference between Russian nationality and Russian ethnicity. For them, these are completely different things. You can have a Russian passport, but that doesn’t mean you have a Russian culture.
    They get very surprised when foreigners speak their language; they start to observe you with curiosity. Actually, it’s funny to see how Russians and foreigners speak: when foreigners don’t understand what Russians say, Russians think that they need to speak louder. They really believe that the problem is in foreigners’ ears! One can find fantastic situations of incomprehension when this happens, sometimes I can’t stop laughing on it.

  8. Loving Language:

    Thank you! I had a funny experience in Ukraine. I lived there in college and learned to speak Russian and Ukrainian fluently. Fast forward 10 years, and I went to work there with my wife and family. My wife looks Ukrainian, but me, not at all. Suddenly I found that Ukrainians are talking to strangers all the time. They had never done so with me, so I didn’t know. That meant that random strangers would address my wife in Ukrainian. I had to jump in to translate, and that made people’s heads spin. The Ukrainian-looking woman can’t speak, but the non-Ukrainian one can.

    I also found it tough to get Moroccans to speak Arabic to me. I finally had to learn to insult them. “What? Do I look French? I’m not,” or, “What’s wrong? I spoke to you in Arabic and you answered in French. I’m not French–is there something wrong with your Arabic?” When I could do this in Arabic, they would speak to me more often in Arabic. I really had to force the issue, though.

    With East Africans in Minnesota, where I live, I get a laugh every time I go up to one and start speaking their language, even if it’s just “hello.” I think it’s amusing to see their language come out of a white head 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Loving Language Haha, amazing! Good to know, too – my wife and I are planning on returning to Morocco to improve our French and pick up Arabic, so we’ll keep in mind that it’ll be difficult. “Is there something wrong with your Arabic?” I love it.

      So you speak English, French, Ukrainian, Russian, Arabic, and an East African language. Are there others hiding in there that you’re not telling us about?

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