foreign student, and a woman

It’s the end of my first year as a foreign student. During the whole year I found it hard to “fit in”. The issue is that I’ve had the feeling that to be part of the community of my department was difficult: everybody was polite, but there was always this feeling of distance. After my first weeks, I realized that my only friends were foreigners too. We talked about this issue and they had the same experience: You are welcome but not integrated. I assumed it was due to the fact that we were foreigners: different cultures, different ways to interact prevented us from understanding the “non written rules of the community”. Interesting enough, every time I would meet someone from a different department the first question was: how is the atmosphere in your department? I realized it was not only me but that in general the perception other’s had of my department was that it is hard to fit in and interact with the community.  After a few months things had changed: some of my friends had been integrated in the community, some didn’t. I was too busy to think of it, until I had a revealing experience two days ago: the department organized an event to which most of the students of the department attended. After the event, a group decided to go for a drink. I was sitting with some of my foreign friends and someone came to invite us to join them for drinks.  When the group left for drinks I realized it was only integrated by white men. And suddenly I realized: the invitation to drinks was not addressed to all of us, but just to a few of the people I was siting with: men. I couldn’t help but to comment it with my friends, and their answer was astonishing: oh, you haven’t noticed yet that our department is completely male dominated?  Indeed, I realized that the only ones of my foreign friends who were  invited to parties, to join extra academic events or that had been welcome to be more involved in department activities were in fact white men.  I have to confess, I did not notice any of this till my friends mentioned it. I was so convinced the problem was being a foreigner that I had not realized what the real issue is: the problem is being a woman. Honestly, I’m still in shock. Not only because of the reality but because it’s taken me a year to see it!

“nobody speaks English in Spain”

I am originally from Spain, and I speak English with an accent. During my PhD in philosophy, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant at a Canadian university. I was very excited about that. As I was going to the first class, I kept remembering a recent episode with someone I met at my arrival to Canada. This person told me how disappointed she was during her trip to Spain when she realized that nobody there spoke English, so she had a hard time getting around. At the time of the event I didn’t take it seriously (who would take that silly comment seriously? Who would let that silly person, surprised to discover that people in Spain speak Spanish instead of English, stay in their minds for more than the few seconds the episode lasted?). But on my way to the classroom, her “nobody speaks English in Spain” kept resonating and I started panicking, anticipating that students wouldn’t be able to understand my accented English. Maybe the notion of stereotype threat could help describe what happened to me. It is perhaps an old trauma of many spaniards of my generation that we don’t speak English, or we do so with strong accent; that day I felt my confidence, and my English proficiency, were dropping with each step I took towards the classroom.

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logic skills, german language, and being jewish

I come from Israel. I studied Philosophy in Berlin, Germany. After successfully completing the obligatory Logic course, a Student came to me and told me in the presence of other students that I had a good note simply because I do not speak native German. He maintained that it was somehow easier to me. After I told him I think it has nothing to do with it, he told me that it is because I am Jewish.

invisible behind stereotypes

I have plenty of anecdotes to share concerning stereotypes related to my homeland and the way in which they were tactlessly brought up by colleagues in informal and formal contexts alike: a colleague imitating my accent in the attempt to be funny; a director telling me “be sure not to do that [some procedure] the way people usually do in your country”; improvised “trials” in which I was supposed to explain the behaviour of this or that politician; a senior colleague explaining to me and two more locals how corrupt academia is in my homeland;  and even the patronizing tone in which I was often told, with a smile, how nice a place my homeland is for a holiday, after all.

My homeland DOES have many shortcomings (for instance it did not give me a job!) and I am a very self-ironic person but, especially from colleagues who are supposed to be “intellectuals,” one would expect to be just treated as a peer and not as the representative of some (more or less stereotypical) national traits.

“British jobs are for british people”

Since the day I started my PhD coming from Mexico into the UK I had a number of interesting comments from staff and colleagues that were amusing at the beginning  but  rather unpleasant in the long run… I explain myself: I remember the day I arrived I was told straight away that I will be very happy in such a “friendly and open” department and that I will take a great experience back when I return to my country… Indeed, there was always this (ungrounded) assumption that I was only temporarily in the UK and that I should return to my country and speak about the bounties of Brit education back there, treasuring it while it lasted… In order to challenge what started to be an unneeded trend in every advice related with careers I kept expressing that I wished to stay in the UK and apply for jobs here: couldn’t be more surprised to notice that the intensity of the discouraging comments of the career advisors from my discipline went into downright persuasion to avoid my purpose because of the dire situation of the job market and sadly, even quite xenophobic expressions that “British jobs are for british people” and the like  … This made me take the whole thing as a challenge so much that i became quite determined to stay in English academia… This is not the place to report everything that happened in the process but eventually got the job and  I am working in another UK university now…  When I listen here and there publicity from the UK universities recruiting people and saying how friendly and welcoming their institutions are I tend to take it with a pinch of salt since…

“We’re so surprised! You are also competent in this field!”

Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of  how the phenomena of implicit bias/stereotype threat affect me more professionally because of my nationality (I’m not from an English speaking country) than any other identity. I never felt discriminated against in my own country when I was a graduate student there, nor  did I feel insecure or threatened in any way for the years I was back as a post-doc. But I’ve had very awkward experiences mostly with North-American academics.
– I was once at a workshop in my home country where most speakers were invited North-American academics, mostly from a prestigious American university. There were also academics from other universities, but their names were indicated by the main Professor of the prestigious university attending the workshop. All their expenses were paid by the local organizers. This was a common practice up to the recent austerity policies adopted in most of Europe. There was a French Canadian speaker giving a talk. I corrected the speaker’s English once, when the person made a very blatant mistake. The speaker said: “I can’t believe I’m being corrected by a …[my nationality was mentioned]”.
– on that same occasion, another very lively speaker tried to show his gratitude for the invitation, but ended up saying: “We just thought we were going to come here (such a nice place in the world to visit), see each other and give our talks, but we’re so surprised! You are also competent in this field!” Speaker did not realize awkwardness.     Continue reading

Being a foreigner in your own country

I am half Turkish-Dutch and born and raised in the Netherlands, so I never really had problems with the Dutch language nor its culture. Once I worked as a Junior-lecturer at an University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Once I arrived in the department, I did my work just like anyone else. I was being paid part-time, but I was basically working full-time. So one day I wanted to address it to my boss. However, she felt so annoyed that she said: ” I don’t know how they do it in the Turkish culture, but in Holland we do it like this”.  I felt very humiliated. One day we had a party at her house, and she kept referring me to everyone as [Name] from Turkey. Everyone started speaking in English to me, and I had to explain everyone that I was Dutch actually. I asked her to stop introducing me as [Name] from Turkey. She didn’t listen and even continued doing it. Then, one day, I was scheduled to leave to Vietnam with some Master students and my boss asked me to come to her office. When I was in her office, she asked me for a personal request. She said that her daughter had a clothing store on the internet, and whether or not I wanted to buy some fabrics for her daughter in Vietnam, since “all Turks know about fabrics so well”. Just because Turkish people are successful in the garment industry, doesn’t mean that….. I guess you catch my drift. Once I got another offer from another university, you can imagine, how happy I must have felt….. Being a foreigner in your own country.

“your accent would be an issue on the job market”

I would like to share a story which is not my own. However, it has had a profound effect on my life and has taken on new meaning now that I find myself in academia. My father is Italian and received a Masters (in Literature) and a Phd in Philosophy in Italy. He had recently begun his academic career in Italy but made the daring decision to move to California to be with my mother (a Californian), to continue his academic career, and to pursue his aspirations to be a writer. Upon arriving and being accepted into a prestigious Californian University he was informed that his Italian degrees would not be recognized and so completed (at an accelerated place) a second PhD. Given his level of experience he was offered the opportunity to design and instruct new courses for the department. However, soon after building up what became a popular undergraduate course, he was told that because of his accent it would be preferable that the course be turned over to a local (American) graduate student (who was far less qualified). Despite strong student evaluations, and a very strong command of the English language, constant pejorative references to his accent remained a constant justification for limiting his opportunities (a phenomena that persisted beyond the walls of the academic institution). Advised by “mentors” that his accent would be an issue on the job market, finding only language courses open to him (limiting income and employment options), and with a newborn baby on the way, the thought of relocating to different parts of a country he was just beginning to navigate was overwhelming. He eventually felt compelled to accept a (stable) employment offer outside of academia. While this career has enabled him to provide for and support a family, it has not been fulfilling. He is an inspiring and natural educator, and I have been so fortunate to benefit from this. But I have come to recognize that his departure from academia remains an ever-present hardship for him.

being outed as a foreigner

I am a philosopher working in the United States. It often happens that I am at an academic event and, in the middle of a conversation about philosophy, someone asks me, intrigued I guess by my strong accent, “where are you from?”, as if it was somehow relevant in that context. I feel uncomfortable when this happens, even though I know that my interlocutor is just trying to be nice. I never know how to answer. When I reveal my country of origin, the conversation usually shifts to reports about vacations trips or remote relatives who are somehow remotely related to my country of origin. Or even worse: I am forced to talk about my country, as if I am an authority in its culinary customs or have any wisdom about the political scene in there. When I am discussing philosophy I don’t want to be reminded of my country of origin. It is not that I feel ashamed of my origin; it is rather that I prefer to choose when I want to talk about that country and about the fact that I am a foreigner. In academic events, I would rather be a philosopher, not a foreigner.

it’s a shame you don’t do Chinese philosophy

I am an Asian-American philosopher born in Asia but received my secondary and onward education in the States.
When I was a graduate student, I was offered a TA-position for a broad first-year world civilization course. I was a bit surprised by the offer since more senior and more qualified candidates were passed over. I asked the instructors why I was chosen and they said, “Your background, you know.” [some hand-waving in my general direction] “You mean growing up in a small East Coast town in the States?”
I have also been told repeatedly when I went on the market that it was a shame that I didn’t do Chinese philosophy.

“Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

I am English, with an unexceptional English accent, and a PhD from a UK university. I teach in the US. Students here are mostly very decent about accent/cultural differences, and I have been lucky enough to find many supportive and welcoming colleagues. But there is some entrenched xenophobia still out there, and when it appears, it is nasty. Here are some examples:

–A provost at a liberal arts college on-campus interview: “What do you know about the liberal arts? You don’t even have them in your country.”

–A student, on hearing about us potentially hiring a faculty member from a non-US country: “Great, yet another accent I have to get used to.”

–Another student: “You don’t speak English. Well okay, I suppose you do, but not proper English.”

–A colleague: “You know, sometimes I just don’t hear you. It’s your accent.”

–Another colleague, in a meeting, in front of other faculty: “Over the summer, I was reflecting on the difficulties I’ve had in working with you on this project. I decided the problems come down to you being from a different country.”

–During hiring negotiations: “Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”