If we take George Mikes’s title literally and add to it the fact that each of us is a rather solitary figure in this world, then each of us is an alien. Either an Englishman in New York, or a Russian in Manchester, we depend on ourselves and always get back to ourselves as a point of reference.
Then another George comes to mind – that’s Orwell with his “some animals more equal than other animals”. By extension, some aliens are more equal than other aliens, provided they constitute the majority – of population, religion, sexual orientation etc.
At this carrefour originates a seeming necessity to be less alien than other aliens, and this necessity sometimes can yield unexpected results.
It was probably in 2010 that I went into a Tesco Express, one of many in Manchester city centre. The girl who was working at the till belonged to the Afro-Caribbean community and was absolutely lovely – except a typically Caribbean accent. She was trying to give me change and asked for a two pence coin. I was distracted so I didn’t hear her at first. She repeated, and I genuinely couldn’t understand. Again she said it, this time I made it out and gave the coin. She laughed:
– You’re foreign, that’s why you don’t understand my accent.
– No, – I replied, – I’m British.
I didn’t mean to be nasty, and I wasn’t really offended. After all, I was foreign in Manchester once. I suppose the whole conversation was a matter of fact, at least as far as I was concerned. It was strange and funny yet that we – both actually foreign in one way or another – engaged in guessing the “degree” of alienness, one of us ultimately losing.
Now, on my recent visit to Edinburgh I went into one of many souvenir shops . An owner with a recognisable European accent was selling ladies’ kilts to a group of Italian donne interpreted by an 11-year-old girl. “I can tell you, ladies”, he was confidently telling them in a high voice, “almost all souvenir shops here are taken by the Indians, there are only 5 or 6 authentic shops”. His was evidently one of the authentic shops.
I was attended to next. I think for the best of his business I shall omit the reference to the exact country of his origin. The point, however, is that he was as much alien to Scotland as the Indians (or Pakistani). And yet – be it due to skin colour or merely parroting what he might hear in pubs and from other vendors – he considers himself superior to people who at any rate have been associated with the UK for longer than his country of origin.
The stories are quite similar, as you can see. People assume superiority over their neighbour by assuming that the neighbour is alien. Greeks did the same when they called the rest of the world barbarians. They couldn’t understand that rather imperfect language, but it was the barbarians’ fault anyway. And as if the realisation of one’s solitary existence and loneliness in this world was not enough, there comes, sooner or later, the understanding that there are aliens who are more equal.