On Being Foreign

by Jeff Oaks


I could have taken the familiar path, but this morning, taking Sven Birkerts’ lead in his book of personal essays about walking, The Other Walk, I turned left instead of right. I had an interest in finding the path down to the canal where I’d seen a canal boat cruising on our first day here. It was also, I said to myself as if I needed any further justification, a quicker way for me to get to the dorms where our students were staying. It was filled with moored canal boats, each painted in bright colors, with mysterious names. I wonder if I may have lived on one in of my other lives I may have lived on one I have such an attraction. A couple were out sitting, drinking coffee, on the deck of their canal when I walked by; I wanted to stop and ask them questions but chickened out. The day was blue above us, the water soothing, and I didn’t want to interrupt their peace. I imagine they must have to fend off jealous land lubbers’ questions all the time.


I was joking in class that suddenly yesterday, while I was walking around, I was seized by a confusion: where do my hands go when I walk here? It didn’t feel right in my pockets or did it feel natural to just let them swing free as I walked. I started looking around to see what men in this culture do. I also realized that at home, I never do this, never look at where the hands go. It’s these kinds of shocks that we can make use of as starting points for inquiry, I told the students. I read them Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shock of Teapots”. We talked about light, doorknobs, coins, and many other things. 


We wrote lists our first class. I started with Kimiko Hahn’s piece “Firsts in No Particular Order,” and made our own lists of first times, which could be anything: first words, first disillusionments, and even first sexual experiences and how Hahn implies rather than bares everything. Only the word “rug burn” gives it away. Something about finesse, the way a word or face or flash of lightning can deepen everything you thought you knew.


The young man who took my order at Starbucks, where I sit now, is outside waiting off the tables, which are black and already growing hot in the sunlight. He sprays them and then wipes quickly. Immediately, steam rises off of them. No one else notices it, but I do. Would I have noticed such a thing at home? Would I have stared at it until it disappeared, been so surprised at first and, then, more deeply, fascinated?