Guest Post — The Inside Outsider: No way to fit in when you stand out

Filtered Prague, by Zuzu Arbus

This piece was originally published at expat+HAREM, February 2010.

Long-term expats are different than tourists. Here in Prague, where the ministry of tourism has tried to change negative Czech attitudes toward foreign visitors, I do my best to be as Czech as I can.

Czech people tend not to cross the street until the green walking man signal appears. Even if there’s no traffic, you’ll see people waiting for permission. So I do this, even when I see my tram passing.

Waiting for the light is a small but public action I feel aligns me with my host country.

In four years I haven’t taken any photos of my city unless a friend was visiting. Hordes of tourists — 1.6 million in a city of 1.2 million — click away, blocking sidewalks, not buying tram tickets. To me, they’re a sign of transiency, not the permanency I’ve fostered.

Then last November I joined a group photo-a-day project.

The first few weeks caused a great deal of anxiety. I suddenly found myself appearing to be a tourist with my little Canon Powershot documenting my neighborhood, the silent-as-a-library tram rides, and typical attractions like Old Town Prague. Whenever a Czech person would catch me taking a snap, I’d cringe inside.

I’ve gained respect for tourists in Prague. They give me the space to capture the perfect moment, waiting patiently until I am done, unlike the locals whose shoulders and backs have ruined many a lovely shot.

I will always be a tourist to Czech people, a visitor in this formerly Communist land. Ethnically and culturally I am separate from them. Accepting my place as an outsider on the inside has taught me I can choose when to be like a Czech or when to revel in my otherness.

How do you negotiate your inside outsider position within your host country?

©2010 Sezin Koehler, Photo by Zuzu Arbus

Thoughts?