Guest post by Will McNiece: Why you should be nice to foreigners

Here is the first half of a two-part post by guest writer Will McNiece. He’s describing his experiences growing up in Northern Ireland and South Africa, then living in Germany and Poland, always struggling to understand each country’s prejudices and customs. It’s a fascinating story; the second half will go up tomorrow or Sunday. Please check out his own blog, Bohemian Breakdancer, and say hello.

Part two is here.

Best wishes to you all.

Why you should be nice to foreigners

I am suffering from first-degree culture shock. I just moved countries and the change has hit me hard. Four years ago I left the UK for Germany, and three weeks ago, I left Germany for Poland. I moved to Berlin in Germany to escape the depressing stagnation of my home country, and I moved to Wrocław in Poland to be with a girl. I am originally from Northern Ireland, a country that makes up one-fourth of the United Kingdom, but I spent eight years of my childhood in South Africa.

My father was a civil engineer, and in 1981 he received a job offer to oversee the construction of a power station in South Africa; he took the whole family with him. I was exposed to many exciting and interesting things, such as a dog – my dog – fighting a black mamba in the garden, or a python so large it occupied the entire back of the pickup truck of the man who shot it, or a crocodile farm where the crocodiles watched me from the other side of the fence, willing me to make a wrong move. I saw the arid savannah plains of the Northern Transvaal and the imposing Drakensberg Mountains, the subtropical Valley of a Thousand Hills and the humid surfing capital, Durban. The effects of Apartheid, however, I saw little of – my parents sheltered me from it. Nevertheless, Apartheid was so institutionalised that even a seven-year-old boy was able to see it sometimes.

I remember one incident: I was running down a street ahead of my dad and I wasn’t looking and I ran headlong into a black man. He turned around and apologised to me and to my father before quickly moving away. I was confused. The incident was obviously my fault, so why did he apologise to me? That was my first experience of bigotry. I wasn’t bigoted and neither was he, nor was my father, but it was in the air, in the culture, in the roles we played. My family left South Africa when I was eleven, and while I have many memories of my time there, my world views had not formed fully.

I spent my teenage years in Northern Ireland, where people were divided by their religion. A point to note: although people were divided by their religion, the conflict in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with religion. It was simply a convenient way to categorise people. The conflict was about politics and money – half the country wanted to unite with the Republic of Ireland and the other half wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, while the paramilitary organisations that sprang up to fight for these wishes discovered that they could make enormous sums of money by prolonging the conflict. As a teenager in Northern Ireland, knowing if somebody was Protestant or Catholic was important. I was Protestant and my best friend was Catholic, but he kept it quiet and I never mentioned it, because we lived in a Protestant town.

Even though I had a Catholic best friend and parents who were openly critical of bigotry, I still developed mildly bigoted beliefs. When I was a teenager in Northern Ireland, there were not many foreigners. There were some Chinese people (we called them “Chinkies”) and some Indians (we called them “Pakis”), but there were no black people (although if there had been, we would have called them “Darkies”).

Today in Northern Ireland there are still few foreigners, and in Northern Ireland, the problems of Northern Ireland still overshadow all others. The Euro may be about to collapse, China may be about to start World War III, the world’s oil may be about to run out, but more important than any of that: I need to know if you are a Protestant or a Catholic. You’re a Jew? Fine, but are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?

Without any influence from the outside, a society becomes insular to the point of rejecting the outside. My family was in South Africa to do a job, as were many others, but we rarely socialised outside of the expat circle. We kept ourselves to ourselves, the Afrikaners kept themselves to themselves, and the blacks kept themselves to themselves. My mum told me that on the occasions she tried to associate with Afrikaners, they were “cold and prickly. They were still fighting the Boer Wars,” she said.

She understood their motives, after what the British did to them during the Boer Wars: the Afrikaners sought independence and the British fought back by killing as many of the men as possible. They placed the women and children into concentration camps where many of them died, and burnt their farms to the ground so that the men who survived had nothing to return to, a policy known as “scorched earth.” It seems illogical that my parents should be blamed for an atrocity that happened almost fifty years before they were born, and yet the blame is justified, but only partly.

Despite returning to Northern Ireland before entering my teens, the experience of a different culture remained with me and made me stand out from my peers. I never fully settled in Northern Ireland and from an early age I wanted to leave. For various reasons, I didn’t get away until the age of 26, when I went backpacking around Europe. I changed my nationality to suit – occasionally I was British, but most of the time I was Irish (there are some advantages to coming from a country with border conflicts). I travelled at a time when many former Eastern-block countries were becoming members. It was an exciting time, and people were hopeful for the future.

The most memorable lesson I learnt while travelling was that everybody hates their neighbours. I spent some time with a Hungarian student in Budapest, and had to listen to a series of slandering remarks about the Serbs, whom he despised. When I was in Belgrade in Serbia, I told some Serbs about the angry Hungarian, and they commented that it was typical of a Hungarian – apparently all the Hungarians hate the Serbs, and all the Serbs hate the Hungarians. In Scandinavia, the Finns and the Swedes don’t much like each other, while the Poles and the Germans are the best of enemies. The Germans and the French are barely on speaking terms, and the English can’t stand the French, nor the French the English. Surprisingly, the Germans really like the English, for some reason. They always have, even when they were at war. Happily, everybody was nice to me – everybody seems to love the Irish, and the myth that Irish people can drink endless amounts of alcohol haunted my liver wherever I went.

The more I travelled, the more I discovered that everybody possessed the same low opinion of everybody else, and I didn’t understand why. If the Serbs are all lying cheats who steal everything from the Hungarians, how can the Hungarians simultaneously be lying cheats who steal everything from the Serbs? Who has all the stolen stuff? To my shock, nobody knew a thing about the Northern Ireland conflict, a topic which had dominated my life for fifteen years, and their polite disinterest forced me to sum up the entire conflict in the time it takes to drink three shots of the local spirit, by which point I couldn’t remember what I was talking about.

When I arrived in Berlin, Germany, I found something different. Berlin is a fantastic city. You have to look hard to find somebody who is actually from Berlin. Even the Germans in the city are invariably from another part of Germany. But Berlin too has its problems and its bigotry. It was here that I learnt why foreigners are so important to a society.

Click here for part two.

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