To Be a Foreigner

After unwillingly getting on the plane after just getting to be at home for about two weeks to fly even further than I do for college, I arrived in Hungary, was immediately found by a staff member from AIT, and driven to the place that would be my home for the next three months. My flight had been delayed so it was near midnight when I was given a tour around the neighborhood. The streets were lit with orangish light, hummed with the voices of people chatting, and smelled like rain with the occasional puff of cigarette smoke. It was very different from the quietness of the suburban nights at home which were only interrupted by the sound of cars rolling into the driveway or the occasional bark of a dog as joggers passed by. As I walked with my mentor around the area, it felt safe, but in a hazy and dreamlike way. It was probably due to the lighting, my fatigue, and my general tendency to have no sense of danger, but in hindsight, it was probably also because of the relaxed atmosphere. Some shops were closed, a few restaurants were still open, and people simply walked slowly down the streets or sat at the tables outside of bars and cafes to talk. With the exception of the guy that loudly asked if I spoke English the moment I walked out with my mentor, that night had been very peaceful. Everyone seemed to be slowly going on about their own evenings and enjoying the relaxing night.

Two days later, when I stepped out onto the street in the middle of the day by myself for the first time since arriving, I had just one goal: get food. The target destination: the Tesco across the street. The big question: how to get there? I had walked from one end of the street to the other but could not find a single crosswalk. Just as I was about to imitate the man that had hopped over the railing to run across the four-lane street, my dormmate texted me: “yeah but its also possible to go underground.” So I took the stairs leading down to the metro, tried a few exits, finally found the right one, and successfully brought the things and went home.

My struggles with directions aside, I had been very nervous, even though all I was doing was going across the street to get food. I felt unnaturally conspicuous as an Asian in a place full of non-Asians, surrounded by voices speaking words I couldn’t understand, and signs and labels that did me no favors. As the cashier rang up my purchase, I opened my mouth but didn’t speak, because I didn’t know Hungarian, and I also didn’t know if the cashier would understand English. When English words reflexively escaped my mouth, I felt awkward for trying to say something that wouldn’t be understood. For the first time, I truly understood why my parents hated going shopping without my brother and I to translate. The frustration when you know what you want, but couldn’t read the labels in order to figure out if the item was the right one. The bewilderment of not knowing what the cashier is saying, and the embarrassment when all you can do is either speak in your own language or use the universal smile. It was a valuable experience. My parents should’ve dumped my brother and me in a foreign country sooner so that we’d be more understanding of what it was like to feel so foreign.