What is it like to be a perpetual foreigner?

“One of the things that as a person of color, as a minority, that we experience is this sense of sometimes we are invisible,” explains Prasanta. “Sometimes we feel like we are not being seen, we don't have representation. Our voices are not included in conversations, or we're not being heard. So there's that sense of invisibility.”

“But where are you really from?”

“So what are you?”

What might seem like harmless questions rooted in genuine curiosity about someone’s background can imply that they don’t truly belong, even if they were born and raised in the U.S. 

When individuals, particularly those who are racially or ethnically distinct from the majority, face repeated questions about their origin, it reinforces the notion that they are perpetual outsiders or foreigners. This label suggests that they are never fully accepted as members of society and are continuously seen as “other,” regardless of how long they or their families have lived in a country or their level of assimilation.

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34

To better understand what it means to live with this label and the impact it has on individuals, families, and communities, we sat down with Prasanta Verma, author of Beyond Ethnic Loneliness: The Pain of Marginalization and the Path to Belonging. Growing up as an Indian American immigrant in the deep South, Prasanta knows firsthand the weight of being “othered” and the yearning for a place of true belonging.

“What does it feel like to be a perpetual foreigner? It is this sense that we consistently are not sure whether we belong or whether we are perceived as being part of society,” explains Prasanta. “There is that feeling that our belonging is uncertain, or it’s up for negotiation. There’s this sense that you’re going to walk into a space and people are going to look at you and say, ‘Oh, she’s a foreigner. Where’s she from?’”

Perpetual foreigners are frequently excluded from the national identity and are not seen as “real” citizens. This exclusion can be explicit, through legal and policy discrimination, or implicit, through social and cultural attitudes.

One of the stories Prasanta shares in her book recounts an incident from her childhood growing up in Alabama. She remembers being on the playground during recess when a girl turned to her and said, “Go back to Indiana, or wherever it is you came from.” “What she meant was India, of course, but I never forgot that,” Prasanta explains. “You never forget when somebody tells you something like that.”

A similar incident happened not too long ago in Chicago. Ironically, she was there to record the audiobook for Beyond Ethnic Loneliness. On her first morning in the city, while walking downtown to the recording studio, someone looked at her and said, “Go back to where you came from. We don’t want you here.” Prasanta was shocked by this encounter, especially in such a diverse city as Chicago.

Majority white American culture has historically marginalized and alienated immigrants and people of color, who at times feel invisible when their contributions and presence are overlooked and at other times hypervisible when they are singled out due to their differences, making them targets for scrutiny and public discrimination. This reality leads to a particular kind of aloneness: ethnic and racial loneliness.

“One of the things that as a person of color, as a minority, that we experience is this sense of sometimes we are invisible,” explains Prasanta. “Sometimes we feel like we are not being seen, we don’t have representation. Our voices are not included in conversations, or we’re not being heard. So there’s that sense of invisibility.”

However, this invisibility can quickly shift to hypervisibility as it did for Prasanta in Chicago. “It can happen when topics in the news like immigration highlight certain ethnic and racial groups,” Prasanta notes. “For example, during the pandemic, it was the Asian population, and all of a sudden Chinese Americans and Asians were thrust into the spotlight and were targeted. All of a sudden you’re being recognized, but not in a positive way. You’re being targeted negatively.”

The perpetual foreigner status can take a significant toll on mental health, leading to stress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of belonging. We asked Prasanta how, as a community of women committed to showing Christ-like welcome and genuinely loving our neighbors, we can engage in conversations and ask questions that make people feel accepted and valued as true members of the community.

She advises, “Number one, start learning. Start reading books, start listening to podcasts. There are lots of great memoirs written from the perspective of individuals sharing their own experiences. Learn what it was like for them. I think that was huge for me because I don’t know or understand what it is like for so many people, but that helped me immensely, and it just grew my appreciation, understanding, and empathy for so many people who have amazing stories and come from so many different backgrounds.”

Prasanta suggests that being curious and friendly is key. “Reading and listening to stories is one excellent way. Being curious and just being a friend is another. People can ask the question, ‘But where are you really from?’ in a different way. Perhaps they could say, ‘How long have you lived in the Houston area? How long have you lived in the Atlanta area?’ If you’re at the playground with your kids or in the school line waiting to pick them up, there are ways to ask questions without singling out the person because they look different from you.”

Lastly, Prasanta emphasizes the importance of inclusion in conversations. “We need to ask ourselves this question when we are in a space, a room, or wherever we might be: whose voice is missing from this room? Whose voice is missing from this conversation? What voice should be here? That could be in your workplace, your school, or your church. Just asking ourselves and reminding ourselves: who’s missing? Are we having this conversation without this voice?”

Want to know more about Prasanta’s history and how her family immigrated to the U.S., check out our first blog post and interview with Prasanta in this series. Also, stay tuned because in Part Three of our interview with Prasanta, we will dive into the Church’s role in bringing healing to racial and ethnic loneliness.

Grab your copy of Beyond Ethnic Loneliness today