This column first appeared in Malta Today
Language is a very fascinating tool and our use of certain words can take on new connotations all the time.
For example, I often try to think of a way to describe someone who is not Maltese by avoiding the word ‘foreigner’ ..and the best I can come up with is, literally, ‘non Maltese’.
The reason I find myself doing this more and more lately is because I have noticed that all over social media, when people use the term ’foreigner’ it is usually in a negative context.
When there is a crime the immediate question is – “were they foreigners?”
When there is a landlord/tenant dispute the immediate conclusion is – “I bet you it’s the tenants’ fault, you can’t trust these foreigners!”
Whenever people are served by someone who speaks to them in English – “why can’t foreigners learn Maltese?”
Whether it is the overflowing, uncollected rubbish, the abandoned scooters, apartments packed with people renting beds, the increase in cars and the general perception that we are ‘becoming strangers in our own land’ – the supposed culprits are always the same.
The irritation and exasperation keeps growing on one side, while on the other, those who are not Maltese are (understandably) offended and take umbrage at the hostile undertones. It is not as if they are unaware of what a large chunk of the nation thinks of them, since a lot of Maltese people write about them openly on FB in English, using very disparaging terms. There’s nothing subtle or discreet about the rudeness and resentment – it’s there in your face and is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to read. (If it’s any consolation, many Maltese people are not even remotely tactful with each other either and can be blunt to a fault).
Having said all this, let us examine the word ‘foreigner’ itself which is defined as “a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own”. In itself, it should not really offend anyone per se because, stripped to its bare essence, it is just stating a matter of fact. After all, the global Maltese diaspora means that we are all foreigners the minute we go to live in a different country. But obviously, the tone and the intention behind its use is also very important. Due to the underlying cauldron of emotions which are bubbling underneath the surface, the word now carries a lot of subtext which is often scathing; it is used to mean that one is dismissed, shunned, rejected, unwanted, unwelcome, go back to your country etc. I find it all very mean-spirited and unfair.
Perhaps I have a soft spot for those who have uprooted themselves to come live here because my family was in that same situation not once but twice. The first time was when we emigrated to the States in the 60s and then again when we came back here in the 70s. Each time was like an icy cold shower, a culture shock, a quick lesson in how to get along in a strange country where you do not know the customs, traditions and language. I first had to learn English at a time when the US was far from politically correct, and having a foreign accent was mocked and mercilessly ridiculed in the cruel environment of the school yard. You had to either sink or swim. Culturally, I recall the overwhelming feeling of everything just being so different, but young children are surprisingly resilient and adapt quickly when they are transplanted from one country to another.
When we moved back to the island, the adjustment was much harder. The prejudice was in reverse and this time I had to learn Maltese as well as grapple with the culture at the time. It was 1976 Malta when anyone speaking English was sneered at for being a “snob” and barely tolerated at all outside of Sliema and the sheltered church schools. Looking back, even some of the teachers at my state school were intolerant, trying to make me change my American vowels to a British accent, which was virtually impossible by that point.
Learning the Maltese language was a bigger challenge, but despite countless gaffes and hilarious mistakes, and thanks to being around those who only spoke Maltese, I eventually mastered it. In fact, in retrospect, the language proved less difficult than coming to terms with the country itself, what people take for granted which was all new to me and the many, many times I was put in my place for questioning things. If you think being in Malta now is like stepping back in time, you have absolutely no idea what it was like over 45 years ago.
All these many years later, I can still relate and look at Malta from the lens of a foreigner, so I can understand how things must look to them. I am endlessly in awe of those who come here, not knowing a word of English (let alone Maltese!) who are doing their best to get along. They are very brave and when I read their posts asking about how or why things are done in a certain way, I get it – it’s not easy to uproot yourself and go live somewhere which seems so alien. It’s also true that some foreigners need to be less high-handed and condescending in the way they ask their questions, and I still cannot fathom how you can come here without doing absolutely no research (complaining about fireworks? church bells? Village feasts? Are people seriously still not aware, despite social media, that these are part of the Malta package?)
Putting ourselves in the shoes of others should not really be that much of a stretch. Even if you have not experienced it yourself, I would hazard a guess that every single Maltese family has a relative who is an emigrant…from the early emigrants of the 50s and 60s who left because there were no jobs, to the ones who left in the 80s because of the political tensions, to the new wave of emigrants who left after 2004 when we joined the EU and they grabbed the opportunity to leave. Ask them how it feels to adjust to a new country and whether they were made to feel welcome or whether they are still considered in the category of “those bloody foreigners”. Ask the considerable Australian emigrants, now into their third generation of Maltese descendants, why they felt the need to stick together and create communities of ‘little Maltas’ just so they could support each other, speak their own language and feel some connection to home. In short, why do we expect other countries to be accommodating to us when we emigrate, but we won’t extend the same courtesy to other nationalities?
The banging on about the language issue is also mystifying to me (and takes me back with a whoosh to the past). How can we point fingers at foreigners who don’t pick up the language immediately when we have Maltese people who don’t speak it either, through choice, misguided snobbery or stubbornness, or because they got by without it all their lives and never had to learn it. This Maltese language panic is unfounded and unnecessary. When every Maltese person (and their children) speaks fluent Maltese then we can begin to point our finger at ex-pats who speak in English. The over-the-top nationalism is getting on my nerves. I even saw one suggestion that Maltese should be our only official language, rather than both Maltese and English. Yes, that makes a lot of sense for a country which relies on tourism and which has always prided itself on having the advantage over other destinations because English is spoken everywhere. It’s also a great way to slam the door and make us even more provincial.
My one wish to avoid this country from becoming more narrow-minded and to stop all this navel-gazing, is for everyone over the age of 18 to go and live abroad for a year. Living elsewhere opens your mind, teaches you to accept different customs and traditions and makes you realise that yes, you can adapt to new situations. It tends to make bigotry and bias fade away especially when you are the “odd one out”. There is a big, wide world out there….I believe it would do the nation a lot of good if more people would explore it and become foreigners themselves for a while .