It can be isolating, frustrating, embarrassing, even scary.
It can make you feel like shouting, "I'm not an idiot! I'm just Canadian! I'm actually kinda smart back home!"
It can make you heartily vow never to take your native language or country for granted again.
It can also come in pretty damn handy sometimes.
Take, for example, one moment on the NYC subway in July 2008. Coming back from an intense Yankees game, my family and I were making our way back to our hotel. We couldn't quite figure out how to work the turnstiles going into the subway, so we ended up not having enough passes for all of us to get through. Because the subway was PACKED with ebullient Yankees fans pressing to get on, we realized we had reached the point of no return...
"We'll have to sneak on in pairs," my mum said. So my brother and I casually slipped through the barrier together, swiping the one pass for the two of us. We were naturals at it!
My parents however, were not quite as suave. In fact, it was blatantly obvious that they were trying to sneak in. Big surprise there, two NYPD officers came out of nowhere and seized my mum and dad. "You'll have to come with us," they said firmly, whisking my parents away while Michael and I gazed on in horror, abandoned as orphans on the subway.
After being taken into an interrogation room, it dawned on my parents that they had one card to play if they ever wanted to see their poor children again...
The patented "Clueless Foreigner" card.
"We're so sorry, Officer! We're just simple Canadian tourists in this big ol' Apple for the first time, eh?"
(OK, so my parents didn't ACTUALLY say that, but it gives you an idea of the kind of behaviour you should be aiming for in a situation like this. PLAY UP YOUR COUNTRY'S STEREOTYPES!!!)
And it worked! My parents were released with little more than a warning, and my brother and I weren't left to fend for ourselves in New York City a la Macauley Culkin in "Home Alone 2" (although if we had had my parents' credit cards on us like Kevin McAllister did, we may have been ok on our own and headed to the Plaza).
Today I realized again the advantages of the Clueless Foreigner. I'm becoming more and more Russian in my habits and preferences as the days go by, and one of my newfound loves is for that most basic of Russian foods, the humble cabbage In fact, there is a common saying here:
Щи да каша – пища наша (shee da kasha, peesha nasha): shchi (cabbage soup) and kasha (porridge) are our staples.Anyways, since cabbage is literally sold on every street corner here, and it is absurdly cheap, I've been buying cabbage a few times a week at a little vegetable stand. Today, though, the guy who was working tried to hit on me...in a very creepy, grin-and-show-off-your-two-gold-teeth kinda way.
Not only was he physically repulsive (sorry, but a leering gold-toothed grin doesn't exactly make me think I've found my Prince Charming), but his method of "chatting up" was vaguely stalker-esque. He wanted to know where I lived, who I lived with, if I lived with women or men, and what my telephone number was. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe he wasn't hitting on me but instead was planning to rob my flat or something...
Don't worry, I didn't tell him anything, because...
I played the Clueless Foreigner card!
I just kept repeating the phrase, "Ya nye paniDYELnik," which actually means "I'm not Monday." Why did I do this? Because the Russian word for Monday and "understand" sounds somewhat similar ("understand" is paniMY-yu). So instead of saying, "I don't understand," I was saying, "I'm not Monday," which makes me look like a REALLY clueless foreigner.
He looked totally baffled at first, but then he finally realized that I wasn't going to give him any answers so he gave up, took my 27 roubles, and handed over my cabbage. Muahaha! Clueless foreigner - 1, creepy cabbage-seller - 0.
And yes, for the record, I know that today is Thursday, not Monday :)