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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I’d heard this phrase, and variations about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes before you judge them, plenty of times before going away on my year abroad. And indeed, I had always assumed I adhered to it and refrained from applying labels to other people. However I think being judgemental can perhaps be something that we are all guilty of without even realising it. My thoughts towards this surfaced when I lived in Spain for my Erasmus Year Abroad. Since arriving I had heard the word ‘guiri’ thrown around fairly frequently and decided to ask a friend what it meant. She (He?) informed me that it is used to refer to foreigners, but not just the more obvious tourists with their admittedly somewhat comical appearance (you know the type, with the I LOVE <insert generic place name here> t-shirt, map in hand and perhaps sporting a bum bag). Instead, it’s used to denote any obvious outsider, usually of Occidental European origin with blonde hair and blue eyes, which is a far cry from the typical look of the natives of Cadiz. I had been told by others that it wasn’t necessarily a derogatory word, however when you get called out for looking different – a thing you can’t change – it is not a pleasant feeling and it can be quite difficult not to take it personally. Moving abroad is stressful as it is, and full of ups and downs, and living as a student in a foreign town for nine months is quite different from being a tourist there. After a while, I considered myself a resident (albeit a temporary one) but I was still being called ‘guiri’ when I walked down the street – something that made me feel decidedly like an outsider, an intruder even.
So, I got to thinking. I like to think that in the UK we try our utmost to be tolerant, being a widely diverse country, but I would argue we are all still guilty of judging people on appearances and ascribing labels. I considered my own past behaviour, and whilst I hadn’t ever really applied such a label to others, neither had I been particularly active in making people feel welcome. Pre-emptively judging people is a dangerous thing; as the quotes remind us, you haven’t walked in their shoes. Having been abroad and been ‘the other,’ I feel a duty to make sure foreign students here don’t feel like outsiders. Anybody who moves out of their home country deserves the utmost respect; it’s a whole other level than moving away from home within the same country. You are removed from your family, your friends and your culture. Imagine- if you haven’t already experienced it- being amongst new surroundings, new customs, and a new life completely, and perhaps you will go further than to simply reserve judgment but will actively make foreign students (or whoever it may be) feel welcome. It’ll make a huge difference to them, I can guarantee that. Whilst I now know that being a so-called ‘Guiri’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the snap judgment of my appearance was a little damaging to my confidence. Remember, you don’t know this person; and if you did you might discover that they’re just like you! The Guiri life isn’t chosen, it chooses you!
Written by Claire Pouton
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham