I believe, without undue modesty, that I have certain qualifications to write on “how to be an alien.” I am an alien myself. What is more, I have been an alien all my life. Only during the first twenty-six years of my life I was not aware of this plain fact. I was living in my own country, a country full of aliens, and I noticed nothing particular or irregular about myself; then I came to England, and you can imagine my painful surprise.
Like all great and important discoveries it was a matter of a few seconds. You probably all know from your school-days how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation. An apple fell on his head. This incident set him thinking for a minute or two, then he exclaimed joyfully: “Of course! The gravitation constant is the acceleration per second that a mass of one gram causes at a distance of one centimetre.” You were also taught that James Watt one day went into the kitchen where cabbage was cooking and saw the lid of the saucepan rise and fall. “Now let me think,” he murmured – “let me think.” Then he struck his forehead and the steam engine was discovered. It was the same with me, although circumstances were rather different.
It was like this. Some years ago I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me – to my great surprise – whether I would marry her. “No,” I replied, “I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.” She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, and retorted: “I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.” I did not give in. “In Budapest, too?” I asked her. “Everywhere,” she declared with determination. “Truth does not depend on geography. What is true in England is also true in Hungary and in North Borneo and Venezuela
I saw that this theory was as irrefutable as it was simple. I was startled and upset. Mainly because of my mother whom I loved and respected. Now, I suddenly learned what she really was.
It was a shame and bad taste to be an alien, and it is no use pretending otherwise. There is no way out of it. A criminal may improve and become a decent member of society. A foreigner cannot improve. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner. There is no way out for him. He may become British; he can never become English.
So it is better to reconcile yourself to the sorrowful reality. There are some noble English people who might forgive you. There are some magnanimous souls who realise that it is not your fault, only your misfortune. They will treat you with condescension, understanding and sympathy. They will invite you to their homes. Just as they keep lap-dogs and other pets, they are quite prepared to keep a few foreigners.
The title of this book, How to be an Alien, consequently expresses more than it should. How to be an alien? One should not be an alien at all. There are certain rules, however, which have to be followed if you want to make yourself as acceptable and civilised as you possibly can.
Study these rules, and imitate the English. There can be only one result: if you don’t succeed in imitating them you become ridiculous; if you do, you become even more ridiculous.
I. HOW TO BE A GENERAL ALIEN
A WARNING TO BEGINNERS
In England * everything is the other way round.