30 Aug

I can speak Vietnamese at level 10 in the Berlitz system. The Berlitz system goes to level 12. When I’m there, in Vietnam, I’m very comfortable not using English. I mostly speak northern, but occasionally a bit of southern twang creeps in – a reminder of my early days as a debonair young staffer down in the Mekong Delta. At the end of the period when I lived there full time, I could – with proper prep – give speeches in Vietnamese. I could sometimes pass as Vietnamese on the telephone. It was my job to occasionally spend days, sometimes weeks in remote parts of the country with no contact with another foreigner. During those times I would eat, breathe, sleep Vietnamese language and culture. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into understanding Vietnam and it’s people.

But of course I am not Vietnamese. You only have to take one look at me to know this. Despite my knowledge of it’s language, culture and history I would never presume to speak for Vietnam or on behalf of Vietnamese people.

* * *

I speak Michigan fluently. Both standard and redneck. Michigan is where I was born and it’s the language I grew up hearing. I can pass myself off as a native in Ohio or Illinois, but not Indiana. I can understand New York and New Jersey fairly easily, but I have to concentrate to catch what people from Massachusetts (especially Boston) are trying to say. I’m told that I do a pretty good “Virginia” impersonation, but by the time I get as far south as the Carolinas, people know I’m faking it. Georgia takes some effort, and I’m completely lost, linguistically and culturally, in Florida, rural Mississippi, and Louisiana.

I’m American. I’m as legitimately “from here” as any other fourth generation, white, non-Native American person. And yet there are places – Idaho, Oregon, Utah… – where I am most definitely an outsider. The culture is different; I talk funny and use different words for things. If you get very far away from interstate highways and chain restaurants, even the food is different. In a specific local sense, I am not “from there.”

I would be as hesitant to speak for the residents of Texas or Minnesota as I would be to speak for the residents of An Giang or Tuyen Quang.

* * *

I know from repeated personal experience as an aid worker, working internationally and cross-culturally the disadvantages of being an outsider. Whether it’s a conversation about program design or strategy with local colleagues, or a focus group with disaster survivors as part of an evaluation survey, I am keenly aware that there are elements I will not understand. Why? Quite simply, because I am not them and I am not from there.

I remain also keenly aware that anything I may say about a place or people, as an outsider, can at any time be called into question on the basis of the fact that I am not from there. Perhaps I misunderstood what I saw or heard. Perhaps my own biases, whether as an American male or as an aid worker, skewed my judgment and I was, unknowingly or not, predisposed to reach particular inaccurate conclusions.

But there are other settings where being an outsider has it’s advantages, too. There have been times where beneficiaries have been more open with me than with my local colleagues. Sometimes it is because they perceive – accurately – that local people also have their biases. Just as I have my own preconceived notions about what people are like in Missouri or Maine, so do my colleagues from Baku or from Jakarta have sometimes inaccurate preconceptions about people living Minqechivir or Nias. And so, as an outsider, I am more likely to be immune to those local prejudices – basically, more sympathetic – than someone who may look like them and even speak their language, but who is not really from there.

Someone who, like me, is also an outsider.

6 Responses to “Outsider”

  1. Mona 31 August, 2010 at 12:03 am #

    While I agree that the challenges of not truly knowing a place are huge, and something those of us living overseas deal with daily, I was glad you mentioned the advantages of outsiderhood as well. I grew up in the US but my family is from Egypt, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Cairo. A few years ago I read a book by a reporter from the Economist called Max Rodenbeck on Cairo, and I was really struck by the fact that it would have been very difficult for an Egyptian to write a similar book. As a foreigner, he was not bound by societal constraints and could navigate between the classes in a way that most Egyptians could not. Since it’s such a severely class-stratified society, a wealthy person in a poor neighborhood might be viewed with suspicion or confusion whereas a poor day laborer in a posh restaurant is often (made to feel) uncomfortable. Rodenbeck gave an interesting portrait of the city because he was not subject to the same rules.

  2. stayingfortea 1 September, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    In “Rural Development: Putting the Last First”, Robert Chambers classifies outsiders into two cultures: the negative academic culture and the positive practitioner culture. He says the first, mainly made up of social scientists and academics, engage in unhurried analysis and criticism and largely explain rural poverty in terms of social relations, while the second, mainly made up of natural scientists and practitioners, engage in time-bounded action and explain rural poverty more in terms of physical and biological factors. I wonder which kind of outsider you see yourself as?

  3. angelica 2 September, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    when I started working in development I was shocked by how insensitive some of the people I got to work with were. I was amazed that someone could dedicate their lives to this line of work and show so much disregard for other cultures. But the other side is also true, some times it is the culture itself that has created the imbalance, the injustice, so an outsider better positioned.

    for me the key is to find a balance, to have teams that include foreigners with their international experience, and the locals with their in depth knowledge of the situation

  4. Shawn 7 September, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    I enjoyed this post. I think that your point on local knowledge possibly containing biases is interesting. I was also writing some thoughts on it when I came across your post – http://shawn-bapala.blogspot.com. I reflect on how people perceive local and external (international) issues and if an outside perspective is necessary for social change. Maybe similar to Angelica’s comment


  1. Language Barriers: Real and Imagined « Bottom Up Thinking - 6 September, 2010

    […] workers are nearly always outsiders. Our differences are myriad; some obvious, others subtle. My local colleagues and I like to think […]

  2. back! (and links i liked) | the way i see things - 9 September, 2010

    […] Understanding what it means to be an outsider (h/t Tales from the Hood) […]

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