Sunday, July 29, 2012

What ethnicity am I?

As we deplane in Amsterdam, the flight attendant bids each traveler farewell: "Goodbye, goodbye, thanks for flying with KLM."  But to me: "Adios, muchas gracias."  Then back to English.  Apparently I look Spanish to the Dutch.

To Americans, too: on the flight from New York to Madrid at the beginning of this trip I sat by an American kid who, when he asked me where I was from, was surprised (and a little disappointed) to learn that I was born and raised in America. He had thought I was going home to Spain.

I didn't look Spanish to the Moroccans, but they didn't buy the American bit either. When we first met our guide in the desert, he gave me a quizzical look when I said I was American. Midway through a multi-hour drive the next day, he turned around and just had to know: Was I born in America? Were my parents really American? Both of them? Because if I hadn't said otherwise, he'd have sworn I was Arab. "From Rabat or Casablanca. Listen on the street, I'll bet people say hello to you in Arabic." (I paid more attention after that: Some people did; I had no idea how to respond.)

Said wasn't the only Moroccan to wonder. A shopkeeper in Fez was similarly skeptical. He asked my origin, my genealogy, was clearly dissatisfied with my responses (American and predominantly British, respectively). So I asked what he would have guessed: South American. Or maybe even Moroccan.
(By way of contrast, there was never any question as to Amanda's nationality.)

This is one of my favorite parts about traveling, finding out how I appear to other people. Spanish isn't new or particularly surprising. Nor is South American. As far as I know, though, this is the first time I've been taken for Arab (although I did get lots of unwanted attention from American airport security guards when I returned, very tan, from a trip to Martinique in 2003). In other travels people have asked whether (or just assumed that) I was from Israel, China (or Asia, more generally), La Reunion, various countries in South America (usually Argentina or Venezuela), and western Europe (generally France, Spain, Italy and England; never Scandinavia). Once, in France, a friend's father saw a photograph of me and asked, "Who is this African?"

Where this comes from, I do not know; all I see is the face in the mirror and the names on the family tree.  But I do enjoy this ethnic ambiguity -- as much for what it reveals about the assumptions people make about the appearance of race as for the chameleon-like feeling of being able to play with my identity, at being "from" someplace else. (Part of me wonders whether I should have gone into espionage or some other supposedly glamorous field that could capitalize on this...)


Ashley said...

Just start telling people you're albino African and see how they react...

Anonymous said...

China? And no, you never look Scandinavian. Lady