Wednesday, 22 August 2007

What Are You?

This question always used to stump me as a kid. I asked my parents again and again, but I always got more than I'd bargained for. My ancestors seemed to have come from every nation in Europe and a few others besides, so it took them ages to finish answering the question. "Lots of stuff," I used to tell people who wanted to know, citing a few of the more interesting examples. I always used to envy the people who could give one answer, like 'Dutch' or 'Pakistani.'

Once I moved to Japan, however, I was American, pure and simple. Never mind the fact that for many Japanese people, American meant Caucasian and all too often Caucasian was another way of saying American; most people didn't even ask me what I was because they felt they already knew. And in case I was ever in danger of forgetting, there was always someone eager to remind me, especially late at night on the trains when people had been drinking more than they should. I found this unsettling. All my life I had felt quite neutral -- as though my nationality or ethnic origin were hardly even there. Now all of a sudden, I couldn't get away from it. It followed me out of bed in the morning, sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear.

In a sea of generally black-haired people, I stood out: a little taller, a little larger, my facial features more pointed, my hair more wavy and far lighter. In the part of Japan where I lived, you could go for months without seeing another obviously non-Japanese person. After a month, catching sight of myself in the station mirrors became a nasty shock. Good God, is that me? No wonder people are staring!

The more I felt myself defined by my outward appearance, the more keenly I began to feel for every ethnic minority in the world. I remembered the Egyptian boy who joined my third grade class and how he used to sit watching the others play, desperate to join in but not knowing quite how to do it. The handful of African-American students who suddenly appeared in our largely white elementary school one year; how annoyed one of the girls got when someone asked her what color her blood was. The three American-born Hispanic kids in an all-white high school biology class, how patiently they smiled when well-meaning people asked them questions about Mexico and pestered them with random phrases they had learned in Spanish. Dark-skinned people in the Midwestern States, Indians in Africa, Africans in Finland -- I couldn't get enough of reading about how they coped as minorities, what their experiences had been, and how they had handled their frustrations, their feelings of alienation and differentness. I was willing to bet that they would hardly feel different at all if the people around them weren't so eager to point it out.

After a little over two years in Japan, I went back to the States and suddenly felt my new identity disappear overnight. I was neutral again; all around me conversations were taking place in English and no one batted an eye when I walked past. No one whispered that I was foreign; no one asked me how they did things in my country, how they said things in my language. No longer was I called upon to be both spokesperson and de facto goodwill ambassador for every sorry Caucasian on the planet. The relief was so great I could have wept.

And yet, here is the weird thing: I felt different. Completely different.

For the next few weeks, I moved around almost as though in a dream, considering from a distance those members of my new/old in-group: Caucasians. Redheads, tow-heads, small and large, tall and short, rednecks and Republicans, hippies, liberals, conservatives and communists, members of the Aryan Nation and tree-huggers. They -- we -- were all as different as chalk and cheese and yet for two years all of us had been lumped into one group! It was mind boggling.

Now I live in a small town in Scotland. We have little ethnic diversity here. There are a handful of ethnic Chinese, most of whom operate restaurants, a Scot of Pakistani origin who lives here with his many brothers, a family from Nepal who run a gardening center, and the odd tourist. I hate the fact that I notice their outward differences. I hate the fact that a lot of people mix up the Nepalese man, who is in his forties, with the vastly younger, thinner, lighter man who runs the Chinese restaurant. I cringe inside whenever I hear people talking in loud, patient tones to the restaurant-owner's children, all of whom were born here and happen to speak with Glaswegian accents.

Because I know how much we all have in common.


Brian said...

Without prejudice.

As I sat on my exercise bike this afternoon, pedalling my bum off, I overcame some of the boredom by noting the stream of people coming to inspect an apartment just down from us which is up for auction.

At a guess I would say that 75% of them were of Asian origin, probably mostly Chinese, (I'm not expert in differentiationg the nationalities) which would fit in with the demographic already pretty well established here.

I have always found the present residents to be pleasant friendly people, ( especially my 89 year old acquaintance Mr Lee! ) who smile back at you , try hard to carry on the conversation even when having difficulties, and even have come to my aid immediately when I had a fall.

From the viewpoint of a family history almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon, long live the racial mix I say !


DaviMack said...

As a child of 13, my parents sent me to school in Argentina. I'm at least outwardly caucasian, and so are the vast majority of Argentines, so I didn't stand out, particularly, and assimilation was relatively easy, considering that I spoke English.

One day, walking along to somewhere on campus, I was struck by the appearance of a man of African descent. I hadn't realized until that moment that - in the several months I'd been in Argentina - I had not seen a single black person!

I stopped and told him so.

He was from Chicago.

Once you have been an alien, is there any going back? Can you ever not identify with the alien, because, in your heart, you know what it is to be on the outside? Do you not still consider yourself to be alien, no matter how well your outward appearance allows you to hide?

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- If you ever get a chance, there is a wonderful site on the Internet called 'All Look Same.' You are given about 20 Asian faces and your task is to try and see how well you can figure out who is Chinese, Korean or Japanese. I am usually brilliant at this, but I only scored 8 out of 20. This is partly because without being able to hear people talk, sniff their breath for kimchee (garlicky pickle beloved of Koreans), or note mannerisms, it is very hard to tell. There are certain features that earmark people as one nationality or another, but by and large, once they have become assimilated in a given culture, Asians lose a lot of their distinguishing features. I once travelled through Korea with three Japanese, and we were all bowled over by all the Koreans we met who looked exactly like people we knew back home in Japan. Japanese Koreans look so Japanese it just isn't true; and the Japanese children who were left as war orphans in China might as well be Chinese.

If the human race manages to survive, we will all end up as one beautiful, golden tribe. But I fear that we will still manage to find things to fight about...

Davimack -- Thirteen children in your family! I am mightily impressed. And here I am complaining about all the laundry I have to do...

During my first year in Japan, I ran into some African-American women as I was going into a building and they were coming out. We were so excited to see each other that we grabbed each other's hands and kept staring at one another. When I moved down to southern Japan, there was a man from Zaire (as it was then) at my university. We used to stop and whine to each other about how tired we were of being followed around and whispered about.

You are so right: I will never get over feeling like an alien. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had, and I am so grateful that I had it.

DaviMack said...

Forgive me for giving the wrong impression, but I was aged 13 at the time. Also, I'd intended to say that assimilation was relatively easy, aside from the fact that I did not speak Spanish. I knew that I'd parsed the sentence poorly ... but it was nearly 5 am, and I was a bit fuzzy.

We were four children, though, and all spaced roughly 2 years apart. Does that count? ;)

TadMack said...

As another brown person entering the sea of pale, the people noticing that I am different is one of the things I'm particularly dreading. Everyone says Glasgow is a modern city, meaning there are all types, but in my city anyone can salsa dance, not just people of Hispanic lineage, everyone can clog, learn a country reel, etc., and no one thinks it odd. I fear being thought of as odd for wanting to join in where I stick out...

"What are you?" is a question that emphasizes otherness. People gush on about what 'beautiful children' they just 'know' every mixed race couple will produce, but they distrust that beauty, and insist on being able to trace things out to some reason. It's bizarre...

Christy said...

Sometimes when people ask me where I am from, I tell them that I am a citizen of the world. That generally gives people pause and gives me a break from a convoluted answer that really isn't any of their business anyway.

I'm an American of Scandinavian, Celtic, and German descent who grew up in Europe on an Army base. I went to high school in a tiny rural town and now live in an urban setting. And none of that really explains who I am.

Mary Witzl said...

Davimack -- It wasn't you, it was me! 'Child of 13' means 'child aged 13,' and shame on me for being addle- brained What can I blame it on? Let's see... very little sleep: how's that for a good excuse? And four kids are still two more than I've got and definitely intermediate parenting as opposed to my first stage advanced beginning.

Tadmack -- Come and help us get beyond our pale! Glasgow and Edinburgh are a lot more ethnically balanced than our little town, and I think you will find people very welcoming. But I agree: 'What are you?' is a question that can put a person on the spot and make them feel different. As for people who gush about mixed race children being beautiful, I had a Korean friend married to a French man who used to bristle at such well- intentioned but rather silly comments. "You mean my husband and I AREN'T beautiful?" she used to ask.

Christy -- I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world too. My favorite thing is filling out those forms where they ask your race. I'm always tempted to make a separate category like 'Very slow in 500-yard dash' or 'Heinz 57.' Or perhaps NOYFB...

And you are right that none of the things you have listed there really describe who you are. I always think we'd be better of answering, say, 'I love chocolate, I'm still afraid of the dark, I'm okay with snakes but scream when I see cockroaches.' That would tell people a lot more about a person than 'Celtic and Hungarian, grew up in Boston, graduated from XYZ University.'

Merry Jelinek said...

Just another reason to love voice. I love unique voice in novels because it allows you to experience the world through another person's eyes. Every nationality and background has it's own strength, struggles, and reasons for pride.

Here, 'What are you?' is a fairly commonplace question. I'm fortunate to live in a city that really has a bit of everything. I'm American - though my answer is Sicilian, as they usually mean what nationality as in hereditarily....

But I was born here and, even though my parents' and grandparents traditions and culture play a big part in my own thinking and life, it is still tempered by this American-ness... if I went to Italy today they would think of me as American.

I think you're so blessed to have had the opportunity to live in countries around the world and experience more of people and places. I wish I had the foresight to travel before I settled down to raise my family, though some day I hope to get the chance to travel extensively and really explore people outside of this country.

Still, if you have to live in one place for your life, Chicago is nice in that I've had close friends of every ethnicity imaginable.

Carolie said...

Wow. Why is it that every time I read your blog posts, I want to laugh, cry, shout "Amen, sister!" or sometimes all three at once? Thank you, Mary, for sharing these beautifully written glimpses into your experiences in such a way that they speak to us all.

I love NOYFB as an answer, but don't think I could use it with a straight face. Here, there are lots of Americans due to the military base. Unfortunately though, as a pink-and-freckle-skinned plump woman with blonde hair, I am identified immediately as "American-from-the-military-base," which holds many negative connotations. Most of the Japanese are astonished that I can feed myself with chopsticks and that I love ika and ume and takoyaki. Though this is only a very small and faint taste of the prejudice so many minorities experience throughout their lives, it's enough to open my eyes a bit more to the plight of those who are "different." How can thousands of Americans come through this area every year, yet still be lumped together as "those who blow their noses in public, can't use hashi and won't touch fish?" Oh, right. The same way tens of thousands of African-Americans can live in the city I recently left and still have so many people judge them all by archaic, derogatory standards.

I pray for tolerance and acceptance for all people as fervently as I pray for peace and an end to hunger in this world.

a. fortis said...

Fascinating post! As someone from a completely mixed background, I definitely sympathize with being asked "what are you?" I remember being a kid and having to ask people if they wanted the short answer or the long answer!

I've been to the All Look Same site and was aghast that I got so few correct. I was sure that I'd do well, since my mother taught ESL for many years when I was a child, and the majority of the students in her program were from different Asian countries. Anyway, everything you said about not being able to consider mannerisms, assimilation into different Asian countries, etc. is completely apt.

Great, thoughtful post!

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- Most of the time 'What are you?' is a perfectly innocent and reasonable question. It can be fun to tell people about your background, where your parents came from, etc, and ethnicity definitely helps to create a distinctive voice. But quite often this question demonstrates that the person addressed is perceived to be different, so I have become a little wary of asking it right away, no matter how curious I am. When I lived in Japan, I used to get so tired of being defined by my nationality and race -- and of having to speak for an entire nation or group of people. It was automatically assumed that I would be interested in meeting other Caucasians, whatever their background or interests, and that I would understand their feelings, opinions, etc. That got old pretty fast.

You are certainly lucky to live in Chicago, and I envy you that! My mother spent a year there and used to tell us such wonderful stories about the various neighborhoods and the great food. I've been to Chicago two times, and I like to go back and visit in Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski detective series.

And when your kids are grown up, you will have plenty of chances to travel abroad, and it will be all the more exciting.

Carolie -- What you wrote is absolutely true, and it used to make me feel so humble: being a foreigner in Japan is only a 'small and very faint taste' of the prejudice many minorities experience. Most people in Japan have an almost inflated opinion of Americans -- particularly of our good looks. I blame foreign models and all of those advertisements that feature impossibly tall and beautiful Americans of all races. They must be bitterly disappointed when they see the real thing walking around their streets.

As for the blowing of noses in public and the congenital inability of all non-Asians to use chopsticks, remind me to send you some teaching materials I had the fun of developing -- sensitizing exercises designed to make people think about the questions they ask long-term residents of Japan, as opposed to tourists and short-term residents. After 17 years in Japan it used to drive me wild when people complimented me on my proficiency at using chopsticks. For pity's sake, how inept did they think I was?

Just remember: even Donald Keene, long-term resident and old Japanese hand, completely fluent in both spoken and written Japanese, is asked if he can use chopsticks and complimented on how well he can speak Japanese.

A Fortis -- Wow, you can write in Welsh!

I spent a year and a half in Wales, mostly in Cardiff and the Rhondda Valley, and I am ashamed to say that all I can manage is a few set phrases. My eldest daughter was born in Wales, and if we had settled there, we would have certainly learned Welsh too. Or so I tell myself.

I'm glad to know that someone else had trouble trying to figure out who was what on AllLookSame!

Brian said...

I feel that a blunt *What are you?* is rather discourteous. I tell people of other nationalities that, as an old ex so-called speech teacher, I am fascinated by their accent, and enquire about that. In 34 years of politely phrasing the question, I have received only one knockback. Most of my enquirees have been eager to expatiate at length on their accents , and often go on to describe their ancestry. They seem flattered!


Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I think it's all in the way you ask. If someone says, 'I'm Polish and Indonesian, what are you?' I don't mind at all; it is just a game of give-and-take. But there is a certain way it can be asked that is most irritating...

One thing I think is fascinating is how easy it is to offend people in the U.K. by asking where they are from! In the States, it is almost rude NOT to ask, but here, I find, it is almost the opposite.

Beloved said...

I can so relate to your experience in Japan. I lived in South Korea for 6 years. I was always and forever a miguk saram (American). The only thing people wanted to know beyond that was whether I was from New York or California. :)

Like you, I also began to forget what I really looked like and how much I stood out after so many years there. When my Korean husband and I first started dating, we were walking together and he commented that people seemed to be staring at us. Then it dawned on him that they were staring at me; he told me he'd forgotten that I wasn't Asian. I loved that.

Kim Ayres said...

"What are you?" - that sounds like such a bizarre and insulting question; the kind that deserves an answer such as "penguin".

"Where are you from?" is one that I'm far more often asked, to which I usually ask in return "Born, raised, or currenlty residing?"

Carole said...

"I'm black."
"You are not, you idiot, your African American."
"Am not"
"Are tell him he's African American."
"I'm black."
"I was watching the news last night and that is what they said. They said we are African American."

Well the fight went on for a bit more, until their mom put a stop to it. This was my two godchildren fighting in the back seat of my car when they came to visit me in Montana. Both were confused about their identity, not because they are interracial but because of everyone trying so hard to be politically correct.

I have three nephews who are Korean, a niece and a nephew who are Chinese and I thought I would do better at the All look Same site but I didn't, which I think is fine, although my ego was a bit wounded. To be perfectly honest, I would like it better if I didn't notice the difference. If the first thing that struck me about a person was his heart, his mind, his personality, instead of his looks.

It is a hard balance I think, to celebrate and cherish our differences and yet expect them not to be noticed.

Mary Witzl said...

Beloved -- I remember thinking that in most Japanese people's eyes, America was Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, with a great gaping nothingness in the middle. I used to get so bored with telling people I was from California.

And what a great story about your boyfriend forgetting you weren't Asian!

Kim -- Whenever the question is asked rudely, I always want to give a dumb answer: "So much carbon and water," or "Homo sapiens." Maybe some day I will...

Carole -- That sounds like a funny dialog!

What I like about the AllLookSame site is that you see how many similarities there are among Asians. A lot of culturally old-fashioned Japanese people feel that Koreans and Chinese are somehow a different race and rather inferior, and her 'test' shows them how silly this attitude is.

One thing that amazed me when I lived in Japan was how often I found Japanese people who looked like black or white acquaintances back in the States. I had a student who looked so much like one uncle of mine it was unreal, and another lady who looked like a Sunday school teacher of mine who was black.

You are so right: it is a tough balance to celebrate our individual beauty without singling out the differences.

Eryl Shields said...

I don't think I've ever been asked what I am. I would have been completely thrown by such a question. I am often asked where I'm from. My racial mix is so enormous I often answer 'everywhere!'

Once in a lecture the lecturer as he performed kept staring at me then after about twenty minutes he suddenly stopped, looked straight at me and said 'I'm sorry but where are you from?' All the possible answers vied for position in my mind: London, Kent, Moffat, Burma, Goa, Portugal, France, Armenia...' 'My mother was from Burma, sort of, if that helps.' I eventually answered.

The possible answers to 'what are you?' would probably strike me dumb for at least an hour: 'tidier of messes; cooker of suppers; lover of green; reader of...; procrastinator; failed tomatoe grower...'

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I knew what you were when I first saw you! "I'll bet she's a failed tomato grower too," I said to myself, and I was right!

Mine have weird spots all over the leaves and some of the flowers have not set fruit at all. Plus, the one branch I had that was lousy with tomatoes toppled over yesterday and snapped in half. But -- fingers crossed -- I did surgery on it (with packing tape) and the leaves haven't withered yet, so there is hope. I'll show you next time you come over.

We failed tomato growers have to stick together.

Kanani said...

I've gone over this before....

more times than I like to think.

I hate that question.... What are you?"
Mainly because it's a nonsequitur. It has often come up when I'm talking about something non-racial, non-cultural. I'm rattling along and instead of listening to what I am saying, the person has to get my racial categorization straight in their head.

So they bypass all comment about what I've said or my particular interests/expertise/authority/opinion
and go straight to "What are you?".

And so often this comes from Asians, Filipinos, people who (I think) are trying to find a bond but have no knowledge of history of immigration and miscegenation in the USA.

So then I just say, "I'm a mix of many things, just like everything else."

But perhaps where it backfires the most is expectation.

Only in the USA do they expect anyone with an Asian surname to only write ethnic fiction/non-fiction. Only here do they hold up Amy Tan the "Chinese" experience. Only here does PEN have a fellowship for "ethnic" writing --for works they think are underrepresented. Only here, could Kazuo Ishiguro not be allowed to write "Remains of The Day."

Excuse me ---I went to MacDonald's as often as I went to eat Chinese-American food. I didn't speak Chinese because quite frankly, they had no ESL, and besides, my father and his father both spoke English, were proud of it.

So yeah, that question is pretty loaded.
I guess I could say, "I'm sorry, I don't understand your question."

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- If I can find it, I'll send you an interview Gish Jen did with someone about her writing. For too long she kept getting rejection letters telling her to 'make it more ethnic.' This pissed her off of course, and she wondered why she should have to modify her work to suit readers' expectations. She continued to write the way she wanted to write, and finally she got published. Good for her. I love Amy Tan, but why should everyone of Chinese ancestry think they have to write like her? Moreover, why should readers expect that when they see a Chinese name on the book cover?

No one looks at my name and says 'Put in more schnitzel. Put in some polka.' I'd like to see them try.