Reflections on Being a Stranger in a Foreign Land

Reflections on Being a Stranger in a Foreign Land

By Todd L. Sandel, Ph.D.

In 1944 the scholar, Alfred Schütz, known for his writings in sociology and phenomenology, published an essay, “The stranger: An essay in social psychology.” He claimed that while most people operate according to the “cultural pattern” of a standardized scheme, with common sense “recipes” for how to act and how to interpret others’ actions, the stranger experiences the world differently. Such a person has moved from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and thus experiences a “crisis”: the stranger “has to place in question nearly everything that seems to be unquestionable to the members of the approached group” (p. 502). What is seen by “in-group” members as an objective, standardized way of navigating the world, to the stranger is experienced as a “subjective chance” that depends more on “personal circumstances and faculties” than an objective, impersonal system open to all.

It is not difficult to see how Schütz’s essay was motivated and informed by his personal experience. A Jew and native of Austria, facing the threat of Hitler’s rise in Germany, in 1939 Schütz moved to the United States and joined the faculty of The New School. When he wrote “The stranger” he had lived in the U. S. three years, and was experiencing life as a stranger. (The manuscript was completed the end of 1942, see Grathoff, 1989.) In an America where anti-Semitism was widespread, and impacted both public policy and private actions, he too was affected. He followed news of the war in Europe, seeing that the outcome was uncertain and unknowable, and that the chance of him returning to Austria, the country where he had lived most of his life, was lessening. He was the stranger in America—an exile and refugee—seeing the cultural patterning of life there from the perspective of the questioning outsider. And he must have felt the “doubtful loyalty of the stranger” both due to the prejudice of the inside group, and his own unwillingness to blindly and unquestioningly adopt the cultural pattern of the host.

Schütz’s concept of the stranger provides a lens for understanding my own experience in Macao (Special Administrative Region of China), both personally and professionally. His work points to an understanding of the stranger as both a person: who crosses from one context to another, and a perspective: someone who does not understand the unwritten and unquestioned rules and patterns of the in-group, and must learn and adapt. This piece is my attempt to describe the opportunities, challenges, and rewards associated with serving as a Communication scholar and professor overseas, outside the United States. In Schütz’s essay I find resonances—both personally and professionally—in what he wrote many decades ago.

As a stranger I perceive that the cultural patterning of life that other in-group members may unquestioningly accept is something that I find novel at best, problematic at worst. I could give many examples to illustrate, most quotidian. For instance, when greeting people in the morning, most people (who are Chinese or “Asian” looking), see my face and don’t say anything. They are not sure if I could understand what they say, just as I am not sure if I should acknowledge their presence, by saying “good morning” in English, Mandarin, or Cantonese. Many times we just ignore each other.

Less quotidian examples involve encounters with Macao’s complex bureaucracy. One challenge that I faced soon after arriving was to receive permission for my spouse to join me. Macao requires proof of a spousal relationship not only via a wedding certificate, but also official documentation that a spousal relationship still exists. (Macao’s land area is very small, and while it is open to millions of tourist visitors, it strictly limits the number who can live and work within its borders.) Since my spouse and I were married in Taiwan and not the U.S., we had to make a trip to Taiwan, visit a government office with a record of our marriage more than 20 years ago, and ask the clerk to produce a document stating that we were still married, and that our names, listed in Chinese on the wedding certificate, were the same as the English names on our U.S. passports. With the document in hand we returned to Macao, uncertain if this would work. Our anxious experience—albeit far more benign—echoed the “passology of exile” that Schütz and others faced when trying to secure visas to remain in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s.

Another example comes from my role as chair of the University of Macau’s Ethics Panel (this university’s IRB). As a place administered by the Portuguese for over 400 years, and only since 1999 administered by China, Macao has developed laws and bureaucratic procedures based upon both systems. When I was working with colleagues to write a template for an Informed Consent Document, it was pointed out by a colleague from the Faculty of Law that the language I used to describe a minor as “a person under the age of 18” was incorrect. Following Portuguese law, Macao considers persons age 14 to 17 to be “consenting minors.” Therefore, such persons are legally able to grant consent. However, other nearby administrative regions where many scholars conduct research (e.g., China, Taiwan, Hong Kong), do not have this category of consenting minor. How could we write a document that simply states what is the age of consent? I have yet to find a simple solution.

Just as Schütz said the stranger’s loyalties may be seen as suspect, so too do I sometimes experience this in my position. While there are other “foreign” scholars who play important administrative roles at this university, such as department head or associate dean, there is an unstated preference for appointing Chinese scholars to leadership positions. Despite my efforts to adapt and learn local cultural ways, I can never be accepted as a full-fledged member of the in-group. I am a foreigner here—albeit a privileged and well paid one. It is necessary at times to exercise self-censorship, and not discuss or explore certain “political” topics, cognizant of the fact that during the height of the “Occupy Central” protests in Hong Kong, one colleague who encouraged students to observe closely, lost his position. Thus, when asked to comment or vote on a proposal that has come down from “upper management,” I do not protest too loudly. I have adopted the attitude, as expressed to me by a colleague who is also a stranger to Macau: “This is not my country.”

Yet despite these and other challenges, I do not regret my decision to leave the U.S. As a young university (established in 1981), located in a dynamic and growing economy, this institution is expanding, innovating, and attracting scholars from across the globe. For example, in the Department of Communication, with 22 full-time academic instructors, my colleagues hold passports and/or identities from many nations and regions: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, UK, and US. Their terminal degrees were obtained from universities across the globe: US, UK, China, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Macao. My department is not unique, as the University of Macau receives the highest score for the internationalization of its faculty from global ranking services. I am not the only stranger here.

The diversity in the department and across the university means that a hybrid system has emerged. On one hand, we follow elements of the British system of higher education, as the university is led by a Rector and academic units are divided into faculties (colleges in the U.S.). On the other, most of the leadership of this university received their degrees and established careers in the U.S. This hybrid structure can be seen in how some programs (spelled “programmes”) are structured. For example, Ph.D. students must take and complete courses their first year of study, following an American pattern. But following the British system, Ph.D. students are admitted not to a department or program, but admitted by and assigned to a supervisor. From day one a Ph.D. student works with an individual professor, and it is difficult for a student to change this relationship. Furthermore, professors who work with doctoral students bring to bear different styles of supervision, as some employ a more “hands on” approach with students, while others let students work on their own, and see them infrequently. Therefore, the cultural patterning of the University of Macau system may be called “American” by those familiar with a British system, and “British” by those more familiar with an American one.

When considering the practices of universities across this region, we can see that other institutions have recruited faculty members internationally. Based upon my own incomplete survey of nearby institutions, I have found many have recruited scholars from the U.S. and other countries outside Greater China. (Greater China refers to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.) Hong Kong Baptist University’s Departments of Communication and Journalism have four such scholars; the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism has three; and the two best known programs in Singapore, National University Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, have 10 and 21 such scholars respectively. It should be pointed out, however, that while there are U.S. and other “non-native” scholars working at institutions across East Asia (e.g., China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, and Korea) they are proportionally fewer in number. This is most likely due to issues of language and remuneration. That is, at these other institutions the language of instruction in communication programs is generally not in English, and the compensation is not as high. Thus, foreign scholars are more likely to be found at institutions where English is the language of instruction, and the salary is better.

While working in a department where colleagues come from across the globe is a draw, a more important concern, however, is the resources available for scholarly work. Unfortunately, across the U.S. many state governments are underfunding higher education, and adversely impacting the quality and quantity of resources available for scholars. The situation at my institution, and at many other institutions across Asia, however, is different. I may apply for internal grants to cover the expense of attending conferences, and travel for research. The latter is important to me as I am a scholar who believes that communication is situated in a context, necessitating field trips to gather and interpret data. I am also at an institution with a well-funded library that purchases subscriptions to the databases that I need. (It should be noted that unlike China, internet access in Macao is not censored.) The library has an extensive and expanding collection of books and work in communication, and purchases almost every new title that I recommend. Hence, I have found that when looking for recent books in communication and related subjects, the University of Macau library has more volumes than my former institution, the University of Oklahoma. And it must be noted that the internet has made a tremendous difference in terms of access to journals and other scholarly information.

Another area of concern for the scholar abroad is the quality of teaching and interaction with students. As can be expected, my experience here at the University of Macau is qualitatively different. English is the language of instruction for all the courses I teach. However, as most students were educated either in Macao or China, for many English is their second (or third) language. Thus, I may modify my teaching style and speak more slowly; sometimes when lecturing—usually to a year one class—I may break the unwritten rule of “English only” in the classroom and explain concepts by speaking alternately in English and Chinese. I also tend to assign less reading, and spend more time helping students edit and improve their writing. These are all challenges.

Yet there are benefits to teaching in this environment. One is to assign students to read my work, which comes primarily from Chinese contexts, and hear and read their responses. Students will often point me in new directions, showing what and where to conduct future research. I also find it interesting that when I assign readings from “standard” American textbooks—used selectively—I must explain and discuss cultural biases evident in such work. The cultural frame of reference is shifted when teaching in Macao, and I find it interesting to present and critically examine work that is published by U.S. scholars who do not realize their own cultural biases.  Thus, I find the teaching experience creates what Bakhtin might call a “surplus of vision,” meaning that I can see and understand more when using scholarship produced in the U.S., than I would if I were presenting these same materials to students in the U.S. 

A related personal benefit for teaching in this context is the opportunity to work with graduate students, at both the MA and Ph.D. level, who develop interesting and innovative research topics. Over the past five years I have supervised and completed 11 MA theses, and am currently supervising four Ph.D. students. Each has developed an interesting research project. For example, one MA thesis was a study of the romantic relationships between Westerners and Chinese living in Macao, another studied the impact of social media on the experiences of Mainland students in Macao, a third studied the acculturation and identity of Macao’s “new immigrants,” a fourth studied how young people mixed Cantonese and Standard Chinese in messages posted on WeChat, a fifth was an in-depth ethnographic study of Chinese immigrants to Sevilla, Spain, and a sixth studied the concept of the “Leftover Women” of China. Each student offers the possibility to study a topic few outside this context know even exists.

In sum, just as is true of any position, there are advantages and disadvantages to working here. But as I write this recent events in the U.S. have brought me even closer to understanding Alfred Schütz’s perspective when he wrote his essay in 1942. Just as from afar—a place of relative safety—he watched his land of birth torn asunder by the horrors of war, I sadly watch from afar—a place of relative safety—my land of birth disrupted by the rancor and policies of the Trump Presidency. The twentieth century was the “American century” when many prominent and budding scholars, from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, left their homes to take up positions and establish careers in institutions across the U.S. Now, at what may be the end of the American century, will we see a reversal? Will there be a wave of scholars who leave the U.S. for opportunities elsewhere? No one can know for certain; each decision to remain or leave is fundamentally personal. Yet I imagine that more American scholars will reassess their situation, and embark on a career as a stranger abroad, following a path Schütz described many years ago.


Grathoff, R. (Ed.). (1989). Philosophers in exile: The correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch. (J. C. Evans, Trans.) Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Schuetz, A. (1944). The stranger: An essay in social psychology. American Journal of Sociology, 49(6), 499-507. Retrieved from

Todd Lyle Sandel is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Macau. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, associate editor of The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, and author of Brides on Sale: Taiwanese Cross Border Marriages in a Globalizing Asia, for which he received the 2016 Outstanding Book Award from the International & Intercultural Division of the National Communication Association. His research has appeared in Language in Society, Research on Language & Social Interaction, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Journal of Contemporary China, China Media Research, and elsewhere.


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