Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Citizen Of The World

I did a double take the first time someone spoke to me in Turkish. I was sitting in the teachers' room at the school where I teach and a kid walked up to me and began what sounded like an anxious pitch. I caught one word -- someone's name -- but that was it.

"Sorry," I spluttered, interrupting him mid-flow, "I don't speak Turkish."

The kid took a step back and stared at me, as though taking in my foreignness for the first time. I don't feel Turkish either, I felt like saying. How could I look Turkish when I don't feel Turkish?

On one of my last trips back to California, my sister and I had lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place in our hometown. I haven't lived in California for ages, but this restaurant was one that my family used to patronize frequently. When we were finished, I asked if I could pay with traveler's checks. The waitress asked me for I.D. and I handed her my passport. She looked at it with great suspicion.

"Where are you from?"


"No, I mean, where are you from?" she repeated meaningfully. "Your place of origin."

I stared at her. "Right here! California."

She tilted her head. "Really?"

"Really! I went to North!"

She narrowed her eyes. "So where were you born?"


But she wasn't going to give up. "And you've lived here all your life?"

Ah, now there she had me. "I've been away for a while," I admitted.

"How long?"

"Well -- a long time." But I'm still American.

In fact, my father and the previous owners of this restaurant had known each other professionally, and the last meal my father ever ate had been in this very restaurant. I can't open my mouth around a British stranger without seeing American dawn in his eyes, and yet to this woman, I did not sound like an American. How could I seem like a foreigner to her when I still felt American?

My sister claimed that I still sounded like an American to her, so whatever acquired foreignness I had was an elusive, hard-to-pinpoint thing. My accent hasn't really changed. I'm not one of those Americans who actively seeks to sound like something else; I persist in using my own dialect and pride myself on spelling 'check' without a Q and 'color' without a U. I still say 'gas', 'hood' and 'trunk' when I'm talking about cars, and a parking lot will never be a car park for me. But this same experience was repeated throughout my stay in America. No doubt about it: I've changed.

In Japan, very few strangers ever initiated conversations with me in Japanese. For several decades, I studied Japanese, both formally and informally; I worked for a Japanese company, attended a Japanese university, got married in a Japanese ward office, ate Japanese food, had Japanese friends, gave birth in a Japanese hospital, and raised Japanese-speaking kids. I've been told that my Japanese accent is close to native; on the phone, people often assume I'm a long-term Korean resident. But I could still go into a store, ask for something in Japanese, and get back Sorry -- I don't speak English. It's not really my accent, I just don't look the part.

After seventeen years in Japan, I never really felt Japanese -- but I have come pretty close. Whenever I hear criticism of Japan and the Japanese -- however well deserved -- I instinctively flinch -- I can't help myself. Once, while doing a part-time job in Scotland, I saw Japanese scrawled on a box of computer parts and I almost burst into tears, it was so nostalgic.

My first week in the Netherlands, I caught myself tensing as I walked down the street. All around me people were speaking a language I could not understand. I felt as though my foreignness was radiating out of me like it had in Japan; I imagined that the people who looked my way were thinking foreigner, just as everywhere I went in Japan, people saw me and thought gaijin. When I caught sight of myself in a shop window, I realized the truth: that I looked just like most of the people around me. People spoke to me in Dutch and laughed when I told them I could not speak the language. "American?" one woman trilled, highly amused. "Really? I would never have guessed."

"Tee-cha," one of my students told me today, "I think you understand Turkish."

This amazed me. "Why?"

"Because sometimes you look at us when we are speaking Turkish and you look like you know."

I burst out laughing: I couldn't help myself. I can barely count to thirty in Turkish. I still get 'excuse me' and 'have a nice meal' mixed up.

"I think you know what we are saying," he insisted.

Later I told one of my Turkish colleagues this. "Apparently I look like I understand Turkish," I said. "And people have spoken to me in Turkish. Who knows -- maybe they think I could be Turkish."

She laughed. "The first time I saw you, I knew right away that you were American."


"You just look like one."

Sometimes I really do wonder what I am.


Kim Ayres said...

It's funny how these can even occur on a regional level. I was born in Cornwall, SW England, but moved from there when I was 2 years old. Consequently, where ever I've lived since, I've always been an "incomer" which is as close as you can get to being a foreigner in your own country :)

Christy said...

You're a person, that's what you are!

I find your title funny because I used to call myself a citizen of the world. I was born in Germany and lived my childhood there, yet I'm not German. My family is from the upper Midwest but at the time, the Midwest was foreign to me. I lived in a small town that I had no desire to claim as a hometown but I couldn't really name any other place as home either. I've discovered there are a lot more nomads in the world than I ever imagined.

Charles Gramlich said...

"You just look like one," is a too simple way of saying a very complex thing. How you hold your body, your hair, your eyes, your mannerisms, and yes, your language. Humans make so many snap judgements.

Very interesting food for thought.

Anonymous said...

As often happens when I read your blog, I'm nodding in recognition as I read.

Charlie said...

How you hold your body, your hair, your eyes, your mannerisms . . .

Having never had experiences like yours, Mary, I think Charles is on to something.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Yes, you are definitely experiencing the same thing in the U.K., and you could argue that there are almost different languages there too! I well remember how different we felt from everyone else in Wales and Scotland. We could easily have spent the next thirty years in our town in Scotland, and we would still not have belonged.

Christy -- My kids know how you feel, and they tend to make friends with other nomads like themselves. My youngest has a friend who is Filipina and Spanish; she can speak Hebrew, Tagalog, and English. She has another friend from Israel who can write Arabic, an Iranian friend who speaks German and Farsi, and several Cypriot friends who sound exactly like Londoners. Nomads may feel displaced, but they're a whole lot of fun.

Charles -- You're right: we can say that someone looks a certain nationality, but there are a lot of complex clues we read in order to make our judgments.

I think I've still got all the American mannerisms: the one thing that screams 'American' to me is a certain confidence and the tendency to occupy one's space with nonchalant pride -- it's hard to describe it, but I know it when I see it.

Planetnomad -- You've been there too, haven't you? Living in a lot of different places is confusing, but it is fun. And it does give you a broad world view: you learn that borders aren't so important.

Charlie -- Yes, he does. After 17 years in Japan, I've got Japanese body language down to a T: sit demurely, legs together, eyes cast down; don't sprawl or take up too much room; don't make too much eye contact, etc. I've got to learn some Turkish body language.

Kanani said...

Well, you paid using a traveler's check and showed her your passport. These two things piqued her interest, had you just paid in cash she probably wouldn't have said anything.

If you'd paid in Pesos, she'd of tossed you out.

Robin said...

I think it's because you look so chic and sophisticated that people think you couldn't possibly be a doofussy American (like me - no one take offense!), and you have a knowing and intelligent look in your eye, so it seems like you understand all languages! How flattering!

People usually ask me what planet I'm from.

Carole said...

I laughed out loud at Robin's comment. Perhaps because I always want to outdo you because you have the best experiences and verbalize them so well. And sadly I can't even be less athletic than you.

Gaining Back My Life said...

You are you, and from everything I know about you, your identity has nothing to do with your current country; it has to do with where your heart lies.

I <3 your blog, Mary.

marshymallow said...

Personally, i think cheque is prettier than check (q is such a neglected and underused letter), and i like all those bizzare -re's and superfluos u's.

Americans seem to have a much stronger sense of personal space than most Europeans - more outgoing and at the same time, more reserved. But that definately happens regionally as well - those little Midwestern towns...

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- You're probably right. It just seemed so weird, though -- the fact that I could remember dozens of meals in that restaurant, but she thought I was an alien. She was sure I was hiding some sort of weird nationality.

Actually, it was the sort of place where you felt you ought to be paying in pesos; to this day, I remember their wonderful salsa with all the jalapeno seeds in it.

Robin -- Chic and sophisticated? Knowing and intelligent? From your mouth to God's ear, as they say, and here I am wearing my husband's tracksuit bottoms and an old grey sweater! But I'm so thrilled you imagine me to be stylish, I think I'll put on make-up tomorrow and wear my sort-of high heels for a change. (But what I really want is a long hot bath with lots of emollients and other toiletries...)

Carole -- Oh, how I WISH I had the best experiences! Tomorrow I'm going to work in a nasty old Renault rent-a-car; I'll be shouting at rather smelly teenagers all morning, then working late with the likes of Tanol. (Are those good experiences?) But you are so sweet to say that I verbalize them well, and yes, when it comes to being bad at sports, I reign supreme.

I laughed at Robin's comment too!

GBML -- In fact, I know that I am not defined by what others think I am, but it seems strange that I could be perceived as a citizen of countries I know nothing about, but a stranger in the two countries I know well. And thank you so much for your kind words.

MM -- I like the way 'cheque' looks too, but 'colour' and 'honour' just look odd. Anyway, I have to stand up for American spellings in my family: I am outnumbered.

I have as much of a horror of being one of those Americans who prefers something just because it is European as I do of being one of those flag-waving 'my country is number one' types.

Kara said...

those kids are talking about naughty things. you go ahead and let them think you hear and understand everything. maybe you'll find out where the gold his buried.

i seem to have forgotten what i was talking about.

Lily Cate said...

Sigh. I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the same state I was born in.
My husband has been everywhere though. He spent five years in Japan when his father was in the Navy. But from my in-laws stories, they spent a lot of time on the base, where everything was very Americanized.
I admit I am one of those Americans with an intesnse curiosity about all things foreign. I can't help it. We don't get much of that around here.

(z-cat from Verla's)

Anne Spollen said...

It's all weird, isn't it, the way we separate ourselves by region? I was always called a "narrowback" by my Irish relatives; it sounded so bad when I was little, I never asked. I guess it means only one of your parents was born in Ireland, and the other, while still Irish, was born in the US. But I didn't find that out until I was about 25.

Just tell people you're a writer, and they'll never ask about anything else since that's so interesting.

Patois said...

This was fascinating to read. I'm afraid I'm an American who would never be mistaken for anything but...except, for some reason, when I'm in England with my British husband. There, they think I'm Irish. Until I speak.

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- They're talking about me all right. Maybe I'm paranoid, but you won't catch me wearing my blue trousers to that class again, and I'll be VERY careful when I pick a pen up from the floor.

Lily -- My mother's family all lived in the same neck of the woods in Kentucky up until WWII; many of them are there still. There's a lot to be said for staying in the same place: you establish deep roots, extensive networks, and a real sense of community. My husband and I enjoy living like gypsies, but we also feel rather wistful and envious when we meet people like you: you will always be able to travel, but it is too late for my husband and me to establish the sort of network you have.

Anne -- I've never heard of narrowbacks -- that would have stumped me too. The Irish in my family all came to America way back when, and the only thing they remembered about being Irish was that the English were not their friends.

Yeah, when I tell people I'm a writer, they just fall all over themselves wanting to know about my glamorous life!

Patois -- You know what that is like, then! In the U.K. and Holland, I too was just one of the crowd until I started to speak. Wish I had a dime for every time I've heard that hush -- that lull in the conversation when someone's piped up in awed tones, "You're an American, aren't you?"

Juniper said...

Really enjoyed reading your post, and boy can I relate, having grown up in the midwest but lived for some years in Norway, a year in Nepal, seven years in England and now 2 years in Malta (where we will be settled for some time.... my husband is Maltese). I do feel on some days a strong wave of nostalgia for other 'homes' ....the home in Brighton, UK the home (where I studied and had two of my children)... or for Scandinavia...for although I lived in Norway for only a few years knowing teh language and being accepted in by some friends ... and sometimes the home in the states...
the constant readjusting to another country...another language and another judgement of.... óh your an American....'

-Juniper of

Eryl Shields said...

When people ask me where I'm from I never know what to answer: do they mean where do I live now? Or where I was born, educated, or last lived? Or where my parents were from: those 'origins' which are even more complicated? I'm always tempted to copy Shelley and say 'Hell,'(he said it in answer to where he was going rather than from), but I usually try and second guess them and hope.

Don't lose hope of ever putting down roots though, some plants grow much faster than others.

Ello said...

I love what Charles said. I think it is worthy of a post all on its own. As a Korean American, Korean Koreans tell me they know I'm American just by the way I walk, hold my head, chew my gum and laugh out loud. I don't laugh by raising a few fingers in front of my mouth and tilting my head away. I might slap a hand over my mouth if I'm guffawing too hard but that's about the extent of my decorum. I wonder if it is more these mannerisms that have changed for you that people are picking up on?

Robin said...

Mary, groovy blog award waiting for you, and you don't even have to do stupid shit to get it.

Mary Witzl said...

Juniper -- What an interesting bunch of countries you've lived in, and what a contrast too -- Norway, Nepal and Malta especially.

It is interesting, isn't it, just how many times you have to identify yourself as an American while living abroad. After a while, it becomes part of your identity whether you like it or not -- as though saying, "Yes, I'm American," for the 50th time stamps it willy-nilly in your consciousness. In the States I never gave it a second thought; here my face is rubbed in it every other day.

Eryl -- That is exactly how I feel: what do they want to know, and how can I deliver it without irritating with too much information? I never really know what to say because I'm never really sure what the question implies, but usually all anyone wants is an account of how an American ended up where she is. You feel like printing up cards sometimes, don't you? That would make it so much easier.

As for my roots, yes, they are everywhere and most of the time this does not bother me a bit. Maybe one day I'll root for good!

Ello -- Poor you -- you get that too! Every time one of my women friends came to Japan from the States, I cringed to see how people judged her for the way she laughed freely, or the way she neglected to cover her mouth while eating. But after a while, I changed too; going back to the States was a huge reverse culture shock for me -- all those rude people laughing with wide-open mouths!

A few months ago, I met a Turkish man in town who lived in Japan for some years and speaks Japanese. No sooner did I start speaking Japanese to him than I found myself covering my mouth when I laughed; I'm sure I cleaned up my posture, too, and sat more demurely. If you spent 17 years in Korea, believe me, you'd do the same!

Robin -- Yay, thank you! I love awards and there's not a German Shepherd in sight! I've already been over to your blog to admire it, and I'll post it on my blog just as soon as I've badgered one of my kids to show me how to do it.

Barbara Martin said...

I agree with Charles on the mannerisms. The two years I worked in England changed me without my knowing it immediately, until someone I saw infrequently mentioned I had changed. The hand gestures, body position, words like 'brilliant' and 'aren't you clever' are used frequently in London, but not in Toronto. A person picks up mannerisms and speech like osmosis, an inherent ability of being able to fit in.

Hannah said...

I feel so foreign where I live right now. I hate it!
But wow, hopefully you can persuade your students that you really can understand Turkish.
Oh, and you should reveal your age on the last day - their reaction would be priceless! :P