Stranger in a Strange Land

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The recent events on campus as well as the meetings and activities of the last week or so reminded me of a chapel talk that I gave over seven years and the was published in Agora. Preparing my classes for Friday, I re-read that chapel talk and found it as timely as ever. After talking to Julie Shockey Trytten, we decided to make it accessible on this venue.

I would like to talk about only one verse of the reading, namely verse 19: "And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt." I do this not as an expert of Biblical studies or even theology nor as a pastor or someone who regularly attends a Lutheran church. I also do not want to read this line in its context or as an expert on the status of foreigners in its legal, social, ethical, or what-not aspect – all the Biblical scholars in our midst would be much more suited to do this. What I would like to talk about today is the main theme of the line, namely "being a foreigner."

What immediately jumped out to me when I read this quote was the double-valency of "treating foreigners" and "being foreigners." In some sense, this quote seems to echo the golden rule "do to others what you want to have done to yourselves" and even the so-called "greatest command" "to love thy neighbor as thyself." What grabs me about this quote, however, is not its moral imperative, but the implications that foreigners are not necessarily that different from the audience since the audience as well as had been, at one time, foreigners. What interests me about this quote is the sense – and I am not making any exegetical claim here – that we are all foreigners. However, I do not mean this in the sense of the famous line "we are all foreigners – almost everywhere" but rather along the lines of the observation made by the French philosopher Julia Kristeva that all of us are "strangers to ourselves."

So what does it mean to be a foreigner? We typically mark foreigners by difference: difference in appearance, difference in language, difference in clothing and behavior, difference in belief and custom. And people whom we identify thus as different, we treat differently than people who we identify as one of us, as our community. In the benign case, we ask them "where they come from" and feel that we have to explain everything for them; in more extreme cases, we marginalize them and discriminate against them. This discrimination can be subtle in that we ask just a little more from the stranger than we would from those who belong to our in-group to the obvious application of a double standard and outward oppression. But why do we do that? Isn't it nice when people ask "where do you come from?" Doesn't it show that the person who asks cares? The behavior that I refer to as benign discrimination is indeed often experienced as positive by visitors but not so much by people who want to make a new place their home. For example, foreigners who visit Japan for the first time often experience the curiosity a lot of Japanese people have towards foreigners and their eagerness to speak English as a sign of being welcomed. The same politeness, however, starts to grind if you try to make Japan your home. How many times a day is it fun to answer the question "where do you come from" or to hear the comments such as "ohh, you are really good with chopsticks"? This kind of politeness and hospitality works well for visitors but keeps those who want to become a part of the community at a "safe" (?) distance.

What is important for me to point out here is that at least the behavior I refer to as benign discrimination is often times not intended to be malicious. However, comments such as the above ones unmistakenly drive home one basic fact: Ultimately, questions such as "where do you come from" are not about a person's origin but most of all express difference and roughly translate into "ohh, you are not one of us, you do not belong here." For example, just the other day, a patron in one of Decorah’s many bars who had never met me before went with two sentences from "where are you from" to "if you don’t talk like us you should go home where you came from." This experience illustrates that even seemingly innocuous questions give expression to this fine and invisible line that distinguishes us from them. Comments like these create two groups, the in-group and the out-group: those who belong and those who do not. In her book, Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva clearly identifies the mechanism at work in this kind of interaction. What happens in those encounters, according to Kristeva, is that when people who mostly live in a homogenous group or at least a group that understands itself to be homogeneous, the code of behavior that organizes the social interaction of the community breaks down when difference is encountered. Confronted with someone who is different in appearance, language, or clothing, members of the mainstream or the in-group feel that the code of acceptable behavior that governs the social life of the in-group does not apply to foreigners. And thus any kind of behavior towards those who are marked as different and who are identified as strangers seems permissible. In the benign cases this leads to a behavior that is patronizing, in extreme cases, however, to oppression. This mechanism is best exemplified with ideas about sexual morality. For some reason and completely without reason, most communities think that foreigners have a loose sense of sexual morality. For example, a lot of Americans seem to think that Europeans are sexually promiscuous or at least more "open" when it comes to sexual morality, while a lot of Europeans seem to think the exact same thing about Americans. When I was at the University of Tübingen, one of the German students was dating an American exchange student. While some of his German friends were warning him about the laissez faire approach to sexual relations they presumed Americans would have, the American friends of his girl friend suggested just the opposite, namely that Germans could not to be trusted when it came to sexual relationships. What lay at the basis of these comments were not in-depth studies about the sexual morality or behavior of specific demographic groups but the simple mistrust of the other projected on the sexual behavior of a whole group.

But I digress. So if difference is the mark of a foreigner, how can we understand his or her situation? Kristeva brilliantly described the foreigner's predicament as one of double exile. A foreigner is one who has become estranged from his or her homeland as well as one who is never at home and never allowed to be at home in his or new community even if it is, as in my case, the community of choice. Once marked a foreigner – always a foreigner. Ultimately, a foreigner is someone who is marked as different and thus is no-where at home but therefore free to be at home everywhere.

At this point, I would like to take step back from the reflection on what it means to be a foreigner and to live in a foreign country and ask if a foreigner is someone marked by difference does not that make everyone a foreigner or at least a stranger? I do not want to scare anybody here, but this line of thought has some merit. One of the main ideologies in the USA is individualism. But is it possible to become an individual with being different? I am not a developmental psychologist but from what I remember from my readings of Freud and Erikson, it seems that at least those two thinkers indicate that the notion of difference is the mark of and step towards individuation. But it seems to me that it is not only the difference from others, an external difference that is characteristic of and necessary for individuation; an internal difference is also necessary. There is of course difference among the members of every in-group, among Americans, even among Lutherans, and, as we all now, among members of one family and among siblings. We all get this. What is sometimes more difficult to accept is the insight that we as individuals are not monolithic and that there is something like an internal dissonance. There is the difference between myself today and myself 10 years ago. It is the difference in knowledge before and after I take a class. There is the difference before and after any transformation–or make over as we say today–be it physical, social, or spiritual. And then there is the difference, we do not like to talk about: the difference between our ideals and that we actually do; between the is and the ought; between what we want to be and what we are. It is not a coincidence that one of the first thinkers to postulate and outline the development towards psychological maturity, Sigmund Freud, also thematized internal difference. He not only distinguished between the ego-ideal and the repressed thoughts and images but also suggested that those repressed images and thoughts come back to haunt us in nightmares, Freudian slips, and, nowadays we can add, horror movies. He also termed those aspects of our psyche, which we want to forget and from which we want to distance ourselves, the uncanny. He called them the uncanny because they manifest themselves to us in a rather unpleasant way. And it seems to me that to be at home with oneself, one has to embrace this difference. Or to put it differently, if we embrace the difference that is inside of ourselves, if we embrace the fact we are not a unified whole but that we are estranged from ourselves, that is, if we accept the fact that we ourselves are forever foreigners, only then can we become at home with ourselves. While embracing the uncanny might seem scary at first, only when we accept that we are what Kristeva calls "strangers to ourselves" are we free to be at home with ourselves. Then we do not have to exclude people who seem different anymore. Then we can "love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt." Then we can encounter foreigners as fellow foreigners and thus as one of us and ultimately, feel at home everywhere in the world.

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

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