Being and foreignness

For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition.” — The Economist, December 17th 2009


The Weihnachtsmarkt in this town was a small affair. It began at the western end of Hauptstrasse, with a stall selling dry fruits and nuts, and continued up the street, extending partly into the neighbouring Marktstrasse or Blumenstrasse, and ended at the eastern perimeter less than a kilometer from the start. The stalls, small log cabins with pine sprigs and yellowish light bulbs strung across their roof angles, displayed the usual wares: chocolates and gummy bears, gluh wine, crepes, potato pancakes, bratwurst & schnitzel, christmas-tree knickknacks, and ceramic crockery. At the intersection of Marktstrasse and Höllgasse there was a small carousel, manually operated, with eight horse-shaped mounts each painted a different colour. Not far from it stood a märchenzelt, a fairy-tale tent, white and round with a conical top, glowing like a dimly lit bulb. This tent was where I was headed, with Wife and some friends, on a cold and overcast November evening not long ago.

The evening’s plan was simple but unusual: from 7 to 8 P.M. children visiting the tent would be read Indian stories in German by a few Indian ladies. Wife, one of the storytellers, had made me a target of her daily practice sessions the previous week. The story she had chosen (“Sukeshini and the lake demon”) was about an Indian girl who tricks a demon and brings water to a drought-stricken village; she had translated it into German with the help of a friend. Others had chosen similar stories, Indian folk tales translated into German.

Inside the märchenzelt six or seven boys and girls sat facing a middle-aged woman reading a German fairy tale. At 7 P.M. the Indian ladies, dressed in colourful sarees or salwar kameez, started the session with a Namaste. “This is how you greet people in India,” one of them explained. The children mimicked the gesture and giggled. Then the stories were read out loud, one after another, each storyteller pausing in places to ask a question or to explain the context. Some of this context was presented as illustrations: colour printouts of scenes from the story — taken from the original storybook — or of an Indian situation or custom, like a festival or a feast served on banana leaves. The kids looked at the copied illustration before passing it on, and occasionally a curious parent leaned over their tiny shoulders for a quick glance. In the middle of the hour, after a couple of stories, the ladies sang a nursery rhyme in Hindi. The boys and girls were asked to repeat, line after line:

Haathi Raja bahut bade
Sund utha kar kahan chale
Mere ghar mein aaon na
Halwa puri khaon na
Aaon baitho kursi par
Kursi boli chatar-pattar!

The parents joined the children in this recitation. It was a charming reversal, with the Germans attempting what the Indians had been doing so far: speak in a foreign tongue.

At the hour’s end the children sang the rhyme once more, said Namaste, and left. Outside a slight drizzle had begun; we picked up some gluh-wine and crepes and stood chatting under the awning of an electronic store, next to its brightly lit windows. The store appeared closed, but soon a man approached us, with the obvious intention of entering it. Middle-aged, huge and bald and white like a WWF wrestler, he stopped in front of me and asked, with a half-smile: “Darf ich?” May I?

I moved aside, making way for him to pass, but instead of entering the store he looked at us and grinned: “You’re drinking Gluh-wine?” he asked, in German. “Indian ladies aren’t supposed drink wine, are they?”

The ladies laughed and protested. But we knew he only wanted conversation, and soon he began with questions about the Christmas Market: How do you like it? Do you celebrate Christmas in India? Are there such markets there? At one point, looking at the traditional garb visible beneath our jackets, he said he had always wanted to wear a lungi.

“Lungi?” I asked, wondering if he really was referring to the traditional garment worn by South Indian men.

He drew an imaginary circle around his large waist, and said: “Yes, lungi. Where can I get one in Germany?”

I had not seen a shop here sell lungis; it would have to be acquired from India, I said.

“Will you bring it for me?” he asked.

“Sure. What colour do you prefer?”

“Blue” he said, without hesitation. “I like blue.”

“The next time I visit India I’ll bring you one.”


I smiled and nodded. He lifted his right hand, closed into a fist, inviting me to do the same; I rapped his knuckles, like a boxer rapping an opponent’s glove at the start of a match.

“I’m Michael” he said, and pointed to the shop: “You will find me here.”

He would hear from me, I promised.


A few days later, during a weekend when the weather constrained me at home, I read an article that described the struggles of a family in Germany. It was a depressing report, a piece whose gloominess mirrored the weather outside:

Krause has kept careful notes on many of the incidents he and his family have experienced, and he has notified the authorities. “It’s the sum total of the relatively small things,” he says. “At some point, you ask yourself if you are being overly sensitive. But the opposite of sensitive is insensitive, and that’s not how I want to be.”

His daughter, the oldest child, goes to kindergarten. “They are all very nice there, the parents and the teachers,” Krause says. But once another child told his daughter, “you are black, dirty and bad.” Where does such a thing come from? “Such a thing doesn’t kill anybody, but it is an indication of an attitude that would seem to be widespread,” Krause says.

In a department store, according to Krause, one of the saleswomen said “poor Germany” when she saw his dark-skinned wife.

In a pharmacy parking lot, a car refused to stop for Krause’s wife and child, coming dangerously close to them. When Krause rushed to stand between his family and the car, the driver stepped out and called the family “monkey asses.”

All this was in the recent past, in a city perhaps a few hours from where I lived. Some Germans there were as intolerant of foreigners as the Germans in my town were curious about them.

I recalled memories of that recent evening at the Weihnachtsmarkt; the contrast could not be more stark. My neighbours, well-to-do Germans in a small town, had understood the promise of an encounter with foreigners. To them, mere tolerance was not enough; they looked beyond, were curious for more, and they actively sought interaction: this was where the adventure began. It was like traveling to a foreign land while staying home all the time; walk into a tent and be transported, magically, into a world where people spoke strange languages, where women carried water home on their heads, where feasts were served on banana leaves; or talk to a stranger and secure a promise for an exotic foreign dress you’ve sought for long.

These were the same people, the Germans in my neighbourhood and the Germans in Mr.Krause’s city. They belonged to the same race, spoke the same language, ate the same bratwurst, and drank the same beer. They also shared a common past. But their responses were different. Should this be surprising?


Sometime in the early nineties, during my college days in Bangalore, a small band of self-styled radicals visited our hostel one morning and summoned all students into the central courtyard. The hostel warden was away; curious to hear what this group had to say, around thirty of us gathered as directed. One of the outsiders began to address us in a conspiratorial tone. He said Bangalore was in danger of being run over by Tamilians from the neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu. This was already happening, he asserted. The foreigners were diluting Karnataka’s unique culture. Tamil was replacing Kannada on the streets. Prominent positions in the industry were being usurped by the wily Tamilians, and if nothing was done to check this inflow we would soon end up as minorities in our own land. It was time to rise up, he said, and to do something about it.

We received leaflets and we were told to spread awareness of the problem. No one asked what the solution was, and no one told us. Among the hostel inmates present that day were a couple of students from Tamil Nadu; they listened, stunned by the rhetoric, and in the following days they kept to themselves. Only after some of us joked about the incident did their anxiety lessen.

But a few inmates, students from Karnataka, were consumed by the ideas sown that day. They discussed how difficult it now was to find a Kannada-speaking autorickshaw driver, how often Tamil movies featured in cinema halls across the city, and they wondered why the Tamilians did not stay put in their own capital, Madras. Soon emotions climbed higher, and the Tamilians in the hostel began to face resentment in small but visible ways, in the common room or on the cricket field. One day we found a sign stuck on the notice board: “TamBrams Go Home” (Tamil Brahmins Go Home). Someone tore it up quickly, and it struck me that despite our common background a few of us had responded very differently to the implied threat revealed by those radicals.

This was my first contact with ethnic regionalism, but the concept wasn’t new to the country. A well-known movement was started in the 1960s by Bal Thackeray: Maharastra for Maharastrians. (Later the rhetoric and ideology expanded to embrace all Hindus, in opposition to Muslims. More recently, his nephew Raj Thackeray has taken up the cause of the Maharastrians, openly opposing immigration of North Indians into the state.) Similar sectarian attitudes have been prevalent at various times in other parts of India.

Fear of foreigners, anti-immigration policies and sentiments, right-wing movements: these elements are present in many societies today. From the media one may be led to believe that these issues are unique to our times, that they are perhaps a consequence of modernity, of globalisation and all the migration it has triggered. How accurate is this portrait?


In the eighth century BC, Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, expelled all foreigners from Sparta because he feared they would corrupt the city:

Lycurgus actually drove away from the city the multitudes which streamed in there for no useful purpose, not because he feared they might become imitators of his form of government and learn useful lessons in virtue, as Thucydides says, but rather that they might not become in any wise teachers of evil…He thought it more necessary to keep bad manners and customs from invading and filling the city than it was to keep out infectious diseases. (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, XXVII, 3).

Sparta was unique among the cities in Ancient Greece in its extreme hostility towards foreigners. Athens, on the other hand, offered resident foreigners — known as metics — an official status. There were laws to protect a metic; he could not own property, but had access to other forms of wealth, and he paid taxes. He was liable to serve in the army, but could practice any profession. In the fifth century BC, when metics in Athens formed close to ten percent of the population, a law was passed: the offspring of a union between an Athenian man and a metic woman could not claim citizenship of Athens.

While metics were mostly from the neighbouring Greek states, and spoke a dialect of Greek, the situation was different for foreigners who did not speak Greek. These “barbarians” had less rights than metics did (they could not, for instance, participate in the Olympic Games) and they were also the target of hostilities. In the words of playright Aristophanes, citizens of Athens were the flour made from Athenian wheat, while barbarians were the rejected chaff.

Athenian politicians were worthy predecessors of the modern Thackerays. Demosthenes, speaking in the fourth century BC about Philip II of Macedon, had this to say about the semi-barbaric Macedonian:

He’s so far from being a Greek or having the remotest connection with us Greeks that he doesn’t even come from a country with a name that’s respected. He’s a rotten Macedonian and it wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t even buy a decent slave from Macedon. (Third Philippic 31)

Two and a half millenia later, this statement has a contemporary ring to it.

Foreignness, then, is not a modern concept. Ethnocentric attitudes, views that place our “group” at the center and make us judge others in relation to it, have always been with us. History has plenty of evidence here, but it has little to say on why this is so.


In 1967, zoologist Desmond Morris published The Naked Ape, a popular account of the human species interpreted through an animal-centric lens. Two years later he extended his arguments in another book, The Human Zoo, which used a similar comparison with animal behaviour to explain why civilised societies — especially in dense urban settings — are the way they are. In his view, “the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo,” and to understand humans in the city one must look at animals in captivity, in a zoo.

The Human Zoo, though full of oversimplifications and some fanciful theories, offers some interesting pointers that help us understand our attitude towards outsiders. Describing the concept of “super-tribes” (a group of a few thousand or more people that began to live together when the first cities emerged), it says:

In a super-tribe [man] no longer knew personally each member of his community. It was this change, the shift from the personal to the impersonal society, that was going to cause the human animal its greatest agonies in the millenia ahead. As a species we were not biologically equipped to cope with a mass of strangers masquerading as members of our tribe. It was something we had to learn to do, but it was not easy…we are still fighting against it today in all kinds of hidden ways — and some that are not so hidden.

Although striking, Morris’s theories cannot explain the diversity in our responses – why do some people fear outsiders, some tolerate them, others embrace them? Reason, a capability that is uniquely human, seems to play an important role here. Some of us have evolved, through thinking, a different set of answers to the problem of dealing with strangers. How did this happen? Does culture play a role? Are some societies more capable of this than others?

Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist, explores some of these questions in his book The Argumentative Indian. In an essay on reason and identity, he debunks the notion that the West, with its values of individual liberty and tolerance, is better equipped to deal with this issue. Although he does not offer a solution, Sen highlights some examples of tolerance in the past – notably during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar — and is optimistic about the future:

The central issue here is not how dissimilar distinct societies may be from one another, but what ability and opportunity the members of one society have — or can develop — to appreciate and understand how others function. This may not, of course, be an immediate way of resolving such conflicts…Rather, the hope is that the reasoned cultivation of understanding and knowledge would eventually overcome such impulsive action.

It is unclear if — and how — we can encourage this “reasoned cultivation of understanding and knowledge” within a modern society. What we know, however, is that people like Michael — the German in my town — exist, and my eleven years in Germany tell me that their numbers are growing. Most of the time I am not conscious of my foreignness, and when I am my foreignness appears in a positive light. To be foreign, as The Economist observes, is now a perfectly normal condition.

7 thoughts on “Being and foreignness

  1. Reibekuchen ….. all the way !! 🙂 …. on a serious note …. cannot agree more to what you said 🙂 … personally I have observed that people who have traveled more around the world and interacted with other cultures are usually more tolerant and open. But this does not include the ones just going to Teneriffa every year 😛 Hope you catch the drift …. all I can say is that there are all kinds of people anywhere you go. Good or bad, tolerant or intolerant like you mentioned with the Greek example exist everywhere all the time 🙂

  2. I think about this all the time.

    I’ve been thinking about this since my early teens when I first learned of the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust and it bothered me that people could hate other people so much that they’d actually try and exterminate them like so much vermin.

    I tried to figure it out on my own, I tried to read as much as I could about it.

    I was astounded that later, (many) Israelis behaved in much the same way as the Nazis with the Palestinians. I was astounded that many did not.

    I wondered about our own caste system.

    I thought about the BJP and RSS and VHP and my own tiny flirtation with them when I was about 19 and only just beginning to be politically aware and the Shah Bano case and the Muslim refusal to have anything to do with a Common Civil Code made me SO angry.

    I wondered about my own parents and their strong anti-Muslim prejudice based on Partition experiences and the way my father, who often told me I could be friends with anyone I liked but I could never marry a Muslim, said to me on the night of 6 December 1992, after the Babri Masjid was brought down, that what he said before didn’t matter, nothing made sense anymore, I could marry whoever I liked, even if he was a Muslim, that the more racially and religiously mixed children there could be in the country, the better for us all.

    I read Partition stories and Holocaust stories. I read about Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Serbia. I read about Somalia and Rwanda. I couldn’t stay away from TV news when Gujarat happened, I was shattered after November 2008 and like Humpty Dumpty I’m not together again the way I once was. I thought about it and think about it and it’s never out of my mind.

    I thought I’d never figure it out. But I think, eventually, I did. The reason, that is. But there is no solution. It’s this: some people don’t see other people as human. And some people deliberately refuse to see other people as human for specious or practical reasons such as fear of fewer resources, such as territory.

  3. Thank you for these detailed examples and for your own reflections on them. As you know, I think about this subject all the time too. It’s interesting that the Greek word for foreigner, barbaros, has born those additional meanings of “coarse, violent, unwashed, uncultured” all the way to the present day. I don’t know what the solution is, except that the world is becoming both browner and much less ethnically homogenous, which will eventually force societies to change their attitudes. But how many decades or even centuries that will take is unknown, as well as the human cost. In the meantime, those of us who travel and live as foreigners in other cultures have opportunities to make connections and build bridges, even if we often wish it worked more equally in the opposite direction. Excellent thoughtful post.

  4. Your essay points out the great variability of human nature. We are both attracted and alarmed by the strangeness of other races and cultures. When we encounter people different from ourselves interest is aroused, which is natural, and it may result in positive or negative feelings. I myself have traveled a good deal in my long life, and lived in several countries other than my own (including 2 years in Germany). In general I found people friendly and accepting, but I occasionally encountered hostility and openly expressed anti-American sentiments. It’s sad that some of us still have not learned to approach people of cultures that are not our own in an accepting way. Your account of the Indian story telling was a hopeful example of a way to teach youngsters to learn not just tolerance but admiration for different ethnicities.

  5. Thank you, all, for sharing your thoughts here. It seems we all have experiences to share on this matter – foreignness is something none of us can really avoid. And the way we negotiate this condition lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

    While researching this essay, I found it much easier to find negative stories — episodes of racist behaviour — than positive ones. One of the things I want to follow up on is to look for cases where people have learned to live together while maintaining their differences, and understand the reasons for this success.

    The “Interpretations” series ends with this post, but this is a subject I will return to again.

  6. Had a great time reading your insights. Thank You for such wonderful essays. I also spent a year in Germany (Berlin) and had some of the best time of my life with friends of a different skin color.

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