how to deal with terrible neighbors (xenophobic edition)
May 26, 2010 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm living overseas, and recently moved into a new neighborhood. My neighbors have the obnoxious habit of congregating outside on the footpath and talking smack about the local foreigner-me. The things I hear are always heart sinking, and sometimes mindbendingly scary. What should I do - if anything, and how can I stop it from getting me down?

I'm living overseas, and recenty moved into a new neighborhood in the last couple of months. I'm a visable minority here in this linguistically, culturally and racially homogenous country. I speak the language though not super-fluently, but can understand alot more. This neighborhood is a quiet, traditional sort of neighborhood. Closely packed houses face out onto the street, and neighbors congregate out on street to chat...and it seems to talk smack about the local foreigner.

Starting from the first day I got to the neighborhood, things seemed off. Days passed, and I started hearing people talking about the foreigner in the street from my living a not nice way. Since then it has grown more and more vicious. First it was, why doesn't the foreigner go home, the foreigner's not wanted here (insert long rant about the rude coarse nature of foreigners and how lawless they are). Then it was, the foreigner's scary and dangerous. And lately, it's been we've got to get rid of the foreigner. Let's get the police/immigration/a landlord/someone, anyone!! onto him. I figure that it's all bravado, and bluff, and if they succeed in getting any of these people "onto me", they're going to be sorely disappointed, cause, well, I've done nothing wrong and am here legitimately. Really I don't know where they could be getting any of this from. I'm quiet, don't play loud music, haven't had any visitors, haven't had any parties, throw my garbage out on the right day. I don't look scary as far I'm concerned, and never got any attention for that when I living in my home country. I haven't even seen many of my neighbors!

I haven't made any special effort to hear this stuff. It just comes in loud and clear from outside when I'm trying to mind my own business, in my living room, or sleeping in my bed. I try not to hear, but most days I get woken by it. If I'm home during the day, and not listening to music through headphones until I'm sick of it, I'll be a captive audience to two or three anti-foreigner slurs in a day. A cynical part of me suspects that my neighbours are being extra loud in the hopes that I might go have a cry and pack my bags. A defiant streak in me resists leaving. I know I've done nothing to deserve their comments, and I get a small measure of calm from trying to focus on the fact that there are some things I cannot change, such as my neighbors' minds. I need not concern myself with their opinion since it's patently so wrong.

At no point has anyone said or done anything to me directly, however. In fact when I greet my neighbors they at least nod back, and once when I was feeling in a passive aggressive mood, on hearing another rant taking place outside I greeted them and commented on the weather and tried to engage them in a chat. The people that had been having a conversation about the foreigner, suddenly were responding and groping around for an English response. If you hadn't heard the conversation, you would never get the sense they didn't like me.

But I cannot help but feel scared. I'm concerned by the escalating nature of the comments. What might be next for me? In my more OTT moments, I worry about whether a backstreet bashing is round the corner. I also feel a mourning for the life in which strangers didn't care about me in a negative way for no particular reason, and didn't imagine strange crazy things about my personality without having talked to me. I mourn the time when I could receive a courier package without hearing someone loudly announce that fact to all, as soon as I close the door (books from an online bookstore- not drugs!!!). To be honest, all the other casual prejudice I've encountered, in addition to this, has brought my regard of humanity to an all-time low. I've gone from being somewhat shy, but generally OK with strangers, to being standoffish. I find myself doubting the motivations of other people far too much.

I don't know what to do - Should I broach the subject in some way with them, or should I keep up with ignoring it? I guess you could argue that they're having their own private but loud conversation, and the contents of it, no matter how offensive have nothing to do with me. And does mefi have any thoughts on how to deal with being the object of my neighbors irrational hate, and how not to let it get to me? Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It might help to have an idea of the region you're in so people with specific cultural knowledge can advise you better.
posted by the foreground at 11:51 AM on May 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

So, confronting them never crossed your mind?
posted by ReeMonster at 11:53 AM on May 26, 2010

That's really terrible - I'm sorry about your situation. There's a lot to think about here, but one thing I wonder about is you mention not having any parties. Are you isolated there? You say you don't really know the neighbors, but presumably you're working or studying in this country and know some people.

Maybe you should try to have some of your friends/coworkers/fellow students over to your place, which might help your neighbors see that you're seen as a normal and well-liked person within a community that they would recognize as their own? Best wishes to you.
posted by Philemon at 11:54 AM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Depending on the local hospitality customs, consider inviting them out for food (as a group)? The rumors are easy to build when there's no connection.

Obviously, this also depends deeply on context to the history of the region. Places with high colonization/ugly history, there may not be any way to resolve tensions.
posted by yeloson at 12:00 PM on May 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

You know their language well enough to understand what they're saying. Do you speak it well enough to engage them in more lengthy conversation?

Why not just go out there in the alley, introduce yourself, tell them exactly what you're doing in their country, and ask them if they can help you or you can help them somehow. Tell them about the books you receive, offer to teach them English, help their kids with homework, whatever. Or is it another English-speaking culture that is just very different from your own. Please give us more details.

Are you male or female? In some cultures a woman alone is automatically suspect.
posted by mareli at 12:01 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Please contact admin. to let them know where you are located. It's hard to address here without knowing . . .
posted by 6:1 at 12:04 PM on May 26, 2010

A few thoughts, having been the 1 foreign in a neighborhood like that in a country like that:

- People are bored and like to gossip. You're an interesting topic.

- Is it a place where people might actually do something? Is it a violent place? If so, can you move?

- Can you start being a good neighbor? Chat with people in their language. Make cookies. Play with the kids in the street.
posted by k8t at 12:08 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ditto on the fact that it would help to know what culture this is (even broadly: Asia, South America, etc.), and even what gender you are.

In the absence of that info, a stab in the dark:

I've gone from being somewhat shy, but generally OK with strangers, to being standoffish.

You're self-imposed (understandable) isolation might lead to you being perceived as worse than standoffish, but actually judgmental and hostile. These kinds of misunderstandings happen in the US as well (says the shy, slightly different looking girl who used to get called a stuck up bitch). Especially if there's a strong culture of neighbors hanging out with each other outside all the time, are you inadvertently sending the wrong kind of message by not participating or making yourself available at all?

In fact when I greet my neighbors they at least nod back, and once when I was feeling in a passive aggressive mood, on hearing another rant taking place outside I greeted them and commented on the weather and tried to engage them in a chat. The people that had been having a conversation about the foreigner, suddenly were responding and groping around for an English response. If you hadn't heard the conversation, you would never get the sense they didn't like me.

So can you try studying on a porch outside, answering any questions, sharing some bread or food? (Not sharing food socially with neighbors at some point can be seen as quite strange and hostile in some cultures.)
posted by availablelight at 12:08 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I come from a country where many people say mean things about Americans (they are stupid, fat, arrogant etc), but if they know one personally then they mean "All Americans except Fred". To diffuse the situation you could try to interact so that they know you personally - you could watch sports with them at a local bar or tea house, go outside with a tray of lemonade and cookies when they gather outside, join a local hobby club or anything where people get to know you a bit more.

Be careful of cultural misunderstandings. Things likely to upset some foreigners that people sometimes overlook: trying to bond with their kids specifically, especially if you have none, do not do this; volunteering and mentioning it as often as possible; and offering to pay for things other than your due portion which you should always be careful to pay, for example a small amount towards gas/petrol if transported.

Also be aware that in some places entertainment is very limited so anything new will be the talk of the town until something newer and more interesting comes along. People do not mean to be personally rude about it for the most part. It may also take a very long time to establish a bond with people in places where everyone has known each other since birth, and you should not try to push things before people are ready, which could involve them seeing you around for months or even years.

The situation is not at all your fault so it seems unfair that you have to do anything if you want it to change, but thats how it works sometimes.
posted by meepmeow at 12:10 PM on May 26, 2010

"Then it was, the foreigner's scary and dangerous. And lately, it's been we've got to get rid of the foreigner. Let's get the police/immigration/a landlord/someone, anyone!! onto him. "

OP is male.
posted by iconomy at 12:11 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, that really sucks. I feel horrible for your situation. I suppose if it was me, the next time I heard a group of them talking about me I'd go outside and say:

"Hi, my name is _______. I'm from ______ but I really like it here. It's beautiful and quiet. I apologize I don't speak your language well, but I'm studying hard to improve. I've heard you talking and I want you to know I'm not a monster, I'm just a quiet (occupation) trying to do my best. Perhaps we can all go out to eat sometime so we can get to know each other better?"

If you shake each of their hands as you say this, you might make a connection. Of course all of this might not be right route depending on location, culture, gender, etc.
posted by sharkfu at 12:14 PM on May 26, 2010

It would be helpful to know where you are, what position you occupy there (job? spouse? student?), and whether this is an area given to the kind of violence you describe.

Other than that, my only idea is to go out there, as you did before, with a plate of really delicious (to the local palate) cookies. If you can persuade them to eat some food from you, they may feel inhibited about insulting you.

If that won't work, maybe you should move to a nicer neighborhood, and make an effort to make friends there.

I'm really curious about what kind of place would give you such a difficult time, and what your country of origin is that you'd be such a target.
posted by amtho at 12:20 PM on May 26, 2010

In general, people hate what they fear. And they fear what they don't understand. Knowing that, and from what you said about them "responding and groping around for an English response", I would think that if you make an effort to let them get to know you as a person, and not just as a foreigner, you'll be able to win them over. Probably a lot faster than you'd expect, too.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:23 PM on May 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Out of paranoia, I wouldn't recommend home-baked goods. If your neighbors are determined to be vile they might try to convince people that you tried to give them poisoned food... considering the Mean Girls at schools managed to do that to me in grade 4 and these people seem to be operating at around the same level of social bullying.

So maybe bring out a sealed package of cookies and a selection of canned drinks, for example.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:23 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

This all sounds as if it is specifically meant for you to hear. Try opening the window and smiling and waving? Like many bullies, they'll probably lose interest if you don't take the bait.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:47 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, it would be helpful to know which country this is. I feel so sad for you, this sounds like a terrible situation.

How did you come to live in this specific neighborhood? Are you renting? If so can you ask the landlord what exactly is going on? I have seen this happen (to a much lesser extent, though) in India to a nice (and quiet) neighbor of mine, but your mention of "linguistically and culturally homogeneous" makes me suspect that it is a different country. For whatever it's worth, there was no reason in his case, other than the fact that he was "different" and people were bored and gossipy. And it was all restricted to talk and general unpleasantness, rather than criminal intent. (In another case, a fortyish male acquaintance of mine was not able to even get an apartment rental, based on his "foreignness".)

Are "all" your neighbors like this? Does anybody seem more friendly at all? If so, you could engage this specific person in conversation, and ask them outright what the problem is. You could also share with this person(s) where exactly you are from, what it is that you do, where your family is and so on. It may also help, as someone else suggested, to have friends and co-workers over; all this may help you be seen as less of an "unknown entity". I don't recommend the idea of food and drink sharing in the current situation.
posted by prenominal at 1:02 PM on May 26, 2010

I would move away from this harassment.
posted by xammerboy at 1:06 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

This sounds so disheartening. There you are, trying to get settled in and adjust, and you have a bunch of critics keeping track of your deliveries and giving a running commentary on your supposed shortcomings. So sorry to hear this!

Since you mention throwing your garbage out on the right day, I think you're in Japan. I had neighbors there who went through my meticulously-separated trash hoping to find a plastic wrapper or bit of foil in the wrong bag.

Whether you're in Japan or somewhere else, things are bound to change with the neighbors over time. If they keep saying the same things - scary, criminal, etc - after a few months, they'll just sound stupid, even to each other, without any "proof." So, be friendly, keep your nose clean and, uh, don't let the turkeys get you down. Think of it as a kind of hazing. In the meantime, I hope you have a support system somewhere else there - work, school, club? - so that you don't have to deal with this alone. Good luck!
posted by troubleme at 1:13 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

A few questions:
- Where are you from, and where are you living. The situations are different if you are from Mexico living in Arizona, from the U.S. living in Japan, or from England living in France.
- What is your personal ethnicity, and what is the local? I am assuming that they are different, and this is why you don't "blend in" even without speaking?
- What is your age range?
- What is your gender?
- How do you look, physically? Large and imposing, small and frail?

From your question, we know very little. If you were in the U.S., the appropriate response to these people is vastly different if you look like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson or you look like Betty White.
posted by I am the Walrus at 1:18 PM on May 26, 2010

After you first moved into the neighborhood, did you make any effort to meet your neighbors and introduce yourself? I did not get that sense from your post, so at first read I'm inclined to think that your neighbors are reacting more to your isolation. Add the fact that it appears you still aren't making an attempt to integrate yourself into the neighborhood (no visitors, no outward clues of your lifestyle), and it wouldn't surprise me that your neighbors are going to draw their own conclusions about you. Particularly when you appear to be very secretive, people like to gossip about what you could be hiding.

Maintaining your own private life is perfectly fine. You don't have to disclose everything to your neighbors. I think, however, that some attempt to be a part of, or open to, this seemingly close-knit community might benefit you as far as your neighborly relations go.

I greeted them and commented on the weather and tried to engage them in a chat. The people that had been having a conversation about the foreigner, suddenly were responding and groping around for an English response.

Am I correct in reading this as English is NOT the native language, and that you started this conversation in English? Maybe you might get a better response if you spoke to your neighbors in the native language. Even if you are not "super-fluent," people are generally more tolerant if they get the sense that you're making a sincere effort (and with time you'll probably become super-fluent).

And going back to the point of introducing yourself or opening your life to your neighbors, having conversations like these will show your neighbors that you are a person with likes and dislikes, not just a nameless stereotype. Talking about the weather is fine, but that shouldn't be the defining characteristic of yourself in the eyes of your neighbors.
posted by CancerMan at 1:19 PM on May 26, 2010

Is there any neighbour you could build up a closer relationship to than occasional nodding?
posted by Omnomnom at 1:19 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a dreadfully uncomfortable situation. I would agree with the suggestions that you should actually try to become friends with one or more of the people in your neighbourhood. Begin small, with simply exchanging friendly greetings, and work up from there.

Of course, what country you are living in, and where you are from would be helpful info for giving you suggestions on what appropriate ways might be to become friends. As it stands, you'll need to figure that out with assistance from people at work, perhaps? Other supportive people who know the context? I'm sure there must be someone who can tell you what appropriate neighbourly interaction is in your part of the world....
posted by bardophile at 1:21 PM on May 26, 2010

Is your race/nationality and the country you're currently living a match that often has problems ?

I understand you're the lone foreigner in this area, but generally do the locals see and interact with other foreigners regularly in their daily lives ? Do you think this prejudice is against you, against foreigners in general or against your particular country of origin/race ?

I think if it were me my actions would depend on the answers to those questions.

I remember reading, I believe on metafilter, about Westerners talking about living in South Korea and even after many years (and being good linguists) saying that they'd always be 'the foreigner' or 'an outsider' to the locals.
posted by selton at 1:22 PM on May 26, 2010

Ah, culture clash. My favorite (really, it's fascinating). It's inevitable and most people never gain the perspective they'd need to see beyond it. So in one way, though not a very comforting way, you can pity and forgive them, for they know not what they do. Job #1 for you is to thicken that skin partially on the strength of that knowledge. You're in a situation where this is very commonly the result. Since it's basically automatic, you can depersonalize it by recognizing that it's not about you. So while I can sympathize due to similar experiences, stop with the pining and mourning. Accept it as your reality and become an active puzzle solver. What pieces need to be turned, flipped, spun, and placed how in order to make things flow better? I realize that's partly what you're doing by asking this question. Be assured that you will learn and grow from it as you do from most struggle and pain, and you'll be better for it. Another reason to thicken your skin is that you can't let a handful of neighbors, or even a period of living amongst another culture, bring your "regard of humanity to an all-time low". Recognize that as a normal but temporary emotional reaction. It won't always be true, is part of your education about life and people, and so can be endured and eventually appreciated. Speaking of temporary, be sure read up on the stages of culture shock and figure out which one you're in. It's real, every time.

OK maybe thickening your skin should be job #2. The first should be to alleviate your sense of fear by taking steps to assure your safety. A good way to do this would be to locate a fellow ex-pat from your country, if you know of any, who has been in-country for a while, describe what's happening, and get some feedback, perspective, and advice. If you think you are legitimately threatened, you'll need to remove yourself from that threat - you mentioned you were already there but moved to a new neighborhood, so maybe you can move to another non-threatening area - or get an idea of what protections are available to you. It's inconvenient, but if it's serious enough, you'll do it. If you're staying, and if the neighbors see you as lawless, then perhaps there is a good power structure there in terms of the law and police protection. Maybe not for foreigners, depending on where you are, but find out. In some countries it would be pointless to go to the police or local leaders, either because they can't or won't do anything or because they'd never trust your word over the locals. Or they'd need a bribe or whatever. In other places you might get a sympathetic ear and in others they might actually be of use. If nothing has happened to you yet, their options might be limited, but a visit might put you more at ease. Without knowing where you are, what that place is like, and more about your situation, it's hard to give specific advice. But don't sit there alone. Get information and find out what protections might be available. If in a less developed place, is there a local head man you can pay a visit to? Somebody where you are holds power and influence over your neighbors. Figure out who it is.

If safety turns out not to be an issue, you'll still have the cultural issues to deal with. Odds are you will not convert all of these people to being open-minded accepters of foreigners during your stay. But it's possible you could make some inroads with some of them. How much do you know about this culture? Because I guarantee you what you know or think you know is dwarfed by what you don't. And it's fundamental stuff. As a very minor example of confusing foreign neighbor relations, a friend of mine lived abroad for a while and had a hard time for a while. Where she was from, it would be considered rude for neighbors not to invite the new person in the neighborhood over to get acquainted - for dinner, for a party, for tea, whatever. In the new country, she felt so ostracized and thought people did not accept her or like her because nobody ever invited her over. Not until she had been there a while did she stumble into the issue indirectly in a conversation with a local. She learned that they had all thought her very rude because as the new person in the neighborhood, she never paid any of them a visit. Their custom was the inverse of hers. She was violating it without knowing it existed. That's small potatoes, but demonstrates that you never know what offenses you might be making but just walking out your front door. It doesn't sound like your neighbors are eager to have tea with you, and you might simply be offending them by being who and what you are, but if you haven't already - try to learn more about the basics of interaction and home life in that culture. The street talkers sound pretty ignorant and unevolved in terms of exposure to and appreciation of otherness, so it probably won't be just handing them a lasagna that does it. You have to adopt the mindset of a cultural anthropologist on an alien planet. Observe, inquire where possible, and attempt to imitate the local customs and expectations in at least a limited way without over-inserting yourself, adjusting after each experience as needed.

In answer to your last set of questions, you should try to engage the people around you in at least a limited way. You're in another culture and that unique life experience will be wasted if you avoid people and don't interact. I think your attempt to engage the trash talkers on a basic level was a good thing. I don't think I would recommend bringing up the fact that they talk trash on you. Endure that while you work on the positive. You've heard the phrase "kill them with kindness". Maybe you could just try a bit of light bruising and scraping with kindness and see if you can start to change any hearts and minds. Somebody in that country would be sympathetic to you and willing to engage you - hopefully it can be someone close to home. Must... make... friends!
posted by Askr at 1:38 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I expect many of us could provide fine advice, but situations differ greatly by location and circumstance. When I was in America after 9/11, I could point out similar situations I went through.

But without some idea of where you are, as well as some sense of whether this talk has anything to do with you being male / female, whether you're in a rural / urban or impoverished / wealthy neighborhood, to what extent you hav any acquaintances in the neighborhood and the reason you're there . . . it's pure speculation. Generally, there's some good way of dealing with your problem, but it's different from the USA to Bosnia to Japan to wherever. If you could add a little more of this detail, the quality of your responses would undoubtedly be improved.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:56 PM on May 26, 2010

Since you're talking about living in a place long term, I'm going to assume that you have a job and are working where you live. Would it be helpful to invite your coworkers who are from the area to your home for a social event? Perhaps your neighbors, seeing that you are accepted by other people who live nearby will be less suspicious - a protracted and loud welcoming on your doorstep might help; ditto a showy sending off home.

It is World Cup season - can you wear the jersey of the hometeam?
posted by sciencegeek at 2:14 PM on May 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would also move unless you are absolutely unable to. If they desperately want to get rid of you and the comments are escalating, I'd be worried for my safety.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:42 PM on May 26, 2010

i'm also guessing you're in japan due to the garbage comment. if that's the case and you live in the countryside, i think you just happen to be unlucky enough to be around spiteful, gossipy, toxic neighbours. neither me nor any of my friends had trouble being "the foreigner" in their buildings or neighbourhoods. though people in my neighbourhood mostly kept to themselves unless they had kids who played together. i never overheard gossip about my neighbours or myself, just gossip about other kids' mothers from school lol. adding to the voices here that you're possibly just around toxic people and should consider moving somewhere else. you should always be comfortable in your own home!
posted by raw sugar at 2:54 PM on May 26, 2010

I find myself wondering – and I'm trying to frame this as kindly as I can – whether the OP may be having a breakdown possibly stemming from culture shock, and that these voices he hears all the time, even when he's in bed, are not objectively real?
posted by zadcat at 3:21 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I lived in the Middle East in buildings made of concrete and guess what? It's hot and the windows are open all the time and you can hear EVERYTHING outside. I loved when someone would stand outside and have a long converation about where they were going for coffee, and if it was at an inappropriate moment or went on too long I would lean out the window and tell them that I would be meeting them at [coffee house] as soon as I could get away. They would laugh, wave, and move on.

You have to tell us what you are doing in the country and you have to tell us WHICH COUNTRY. Otherwise there are just too many variables. I agree that the biggest issue is that you are missing some big cultural touchstones and you need to get some help from a local, or a more-entrenched expat, on how to engage. Also, if there is any cultural baggage to your particular ethnicity in that country.
posted by micawber at 3:45 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like sciencegeek's suggestion to wear the uniform of the home team, if they're in the World Cup. It might at least become a jumping point to start a conversation with these gossiping neighbors, if they exist. Sounds like an awful situation.
posted by misozaki at 4:01 PM on May 26, 2010

When they are out chatting loudly outside your door, head out and try to join into the conversation, in their language as best as you can. Sure, they're making all sorts of disparaging comments about you, but they'll probably not stop as long as you sit around and grumble about it inside your house.

Going out to talk to them (every time they're outside chatting loudly) seems like it could have 3 main results:
1) They find someplace else to talk, because the SCARY FOREIGNER keeps coming out to bother them whenever they do it near your place. (People are still crap, but at least you don't have to hear it)
2) They end up talking to you and discover that SCARY FOREIGNER isn't actually that scary. (Cultural progress!)
3) They harass you verbally or physically. (People are still crap, and things are now worse for you)

Judging by your comments of them searching for the right English and being generally non-harassing seeming when you do interact with them, 3 seems somewhat unlikely.
posted by that girl at 5:53 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

This might not work depending on where you are, but as a military kid who had to make friends with lots of different types of people I say:

Kill 'em with Kindness.

Put a cooler outside full of snacks and sodas and a note that says "From the Foreigner, Enjoy!" Or go door to door and introduce yourself and pass out homemade treats from your culture. For me it would be chocolate chip cookies. Then when you're at the neighbor's place ask them for some kind of question or small favor. Something like "Where should I go to get [really good local food item]." or "Would you mind watching my house while I'm at work."

If you're home and not doing anything anyway I say join the conversation outside. Tell them you want to practice their language in a real world setting.

The point is to show them that you are a nice guy and they should relax.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:57 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

-"linguistically, culturally and racially homogenous country"
-OP is a "visable minority"
-Locals gossiping about "the foreigner", including talking about you almost in front of your face
-Garbage must be disposed of on the correct day

Ten bucks says you're in South Korea. Make that twenty bucks.

I myself have experienced hints of this, but never to the degree you are dealing with. I've heard of other expats going through it at your level though.

What are the demographics of the people talking smack about you? I think that would reveal a good deal about how cosmopolitan or ignorant they are (sorry, old folks) and what kind of threat they may pose (let's hope they're old). Are they just sitting there all day (unemployed? retired?)? How big is your town? Middle-class? Working folk?

Until you can communicate clearly to them, you will remain a freak in their estimation. That's something you can change. They, however, are unenlightened uncouth rabble that talk sh*t about someone they don't know and have no reason to badmouth, and won't change unless they are dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

To the extent that you appear to embrace local culture, I think that would go far in raising their opinion of you. Eat in the local restaurants. Be visible in the local area, offer a helping hand to people (carrying stuff, holding doors open, sharing umbrella, etc.) and basically show them you're a human doing human stuff. Be playful and cheerful to the local kids. Consider wearing some of the local clothes, or at least make sure that your style of dress is not immodest or wild in their estimation. You are, after all, a guest in their country. Shave regularly. Get a haircut. Go to a local religious service, even if just for show (someone is bound to take an interest in you and welcome you into the service).

But the more you isolate yourself, the more of a curiosity you become, and the more people just fill in the blanks with whatever craziness they want to. I'd say it's imperative you get out into the community more, even if you can't directly play their reindeer games.
posted by holterbarbour at 10:23 PM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Take out the audible comments (which are the most important part, okay, fine) and you are describing my situation two months ago. I moved to a small, somewhat conservative, and very homogeneous town. In hopes that the move is temporary (5 months now and no sign of moving anywhere bigger) I didn't initially try to make friends/meet neighbors much. However, I could clearly see suspicious looks and whisper around the new foreigner. Like you, I can understand the local language pretty well, but can't speak super-fluently.

And, I hear you loud and clear, the casual prejudice everywhere else you go builds a cumulative loss of trust in humanity. Some things I did that helped immensely:

- Started hanging out on the balcony as much possible, nodded at passers by.
- Engaged two most friendly looking neighbors in my very broken (but slowly improving) language, gently helped them finish their English sentences if they tried English with me.
- Stopped my homesick whining, formed questions they could answer for me instead. (For example, instead of "the fog is killing me" I started saying "how long does the fog usually hang around?"
- In a formal setting where English is used, I starting speaking my first English sentence super fast with large words, then repeating slowly with smaller words. You may call this passive aggressive, I call it helping people appreciate that I am interested in communicating.
- Invited guests over for small dinner parties (though I didn't do this to gain my neighbors' approval, that was a nice side benefit).

You can actually educate your neighbors about your own ethnicity and background, and help them be less fearful. The thought that you cannot change what they think of you is quite disheartening, and hopefully not 100% accurate. That does depend on where you are, what culture you are dealing with, etc. though, for sure.

Good luck, and feel free to send me a message if you would like to exchange tips.
posted by copperbleu at 12:55 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

More info would be helpful, so until then some generalities.

It is likely that you can divide the people in the neighborhood into several tiers:

Tier A: Generally distrustful of strangers/foreigners; negative views and feelings towards them

Tier B: Strong hate of foreigners

Tier C: A+B plus wanting to get foreigner/stranger in trouble with authorities/kicked out

Tier D: A+B+C plus wants to actually harm/take action against foreigner/stranger

(of course there are no neat boundary lines between tiers like this - it's more like a continuum. but for the sake of simplicity, imagine it as tiers)

Now, picture this as an inverted pyramid: Tier A is comprises most of the neighborhood population, then B, then C, then D which is probably quite the minority.

What you'll be doing by following most of the advice above (sitting out on the porch, friendly overtures appropriate to the culture) is moving more people from Tier B into Tier A as it applies to you personally. You may even shift a few from C to B (again, only as it applies to you). Forget about moving people in Tier D anywhere.

Your goal is to keep the minority Tier D/C people from riling up the B/A people against you. Don't think any B/A people will come to your defense or trust you to watch their kids or anything, but if you have enough friendly or even just neutral interactions with them they will be more likely to nod along to the rantings of a type C/D but not actually go through the bother of reporting you to the police for putting out your trash receptacle 2 inches farther to the left than you are supposed to.

If, on the other hand, after some experimental interactions you determine you are in a pyramid with Type A at the top and D at the bottom, consider moving.
posted by mikepop at 6:32 AM on May 27, 2010

Mod note: A couple comments removed. Please let the "you are probably hallucinating" thing drop, it's not a great thing to throw out as an armchair driveby without a really, really good reason.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:09 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

My idea: Practice saying, as flawlessly as you can in the native language, and without a trace of sarcasm or rancor, "Excuse me, guys? I'm trying to rest (or sleep, or study, or concentrate, whatever works), so can you please discuss how much you hate me and plot how to get me out of here, somewhere else? Thanks, I appreciate it."

That should shut 'em up.
posted by mreleganza at 5:45 AM on May 28, 2010

If you are in Korea, MeMail me for specific advice from an eight-year US expat in Seoul.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:59 PM on May 28, 2010

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