Monday, January 12, 2009

But you don't look like an American....

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this in the past 12 years living outside of the US, I would have saved a tidy little sum by now.

In Kenya, I had people calling me "Mzungu" most of the time - such people don't really care where you are from - you are just a "white" person - they lump us all together.

When I would walk to one of the kiosks on the main road where they sell eggs, butter, coke, bread, and Cadbury eclairs and Big G Gum by the piece, it was inevitable that some random person loitering by lamp post or against a wall, usually an African male or a child of either sex, would look at me and say, "Mzungu" (White person). (Gee thanks for telling me, I might have forgotten and acted like I was green today). They did not want to talk to me; they had nothing else to say; they just felt the need to point out that there was indeed a white person walking by - similar to the way you might exclaim "Camel" or "Elephant" if you saw one stroll by, but with a less enthusiastic voice. Sometimes I was trailed by street children softly chanting "Mzungu, mzungu, nipe shilingi" (White person, white person, give me shillings/money)

But, if anyone did bother to ask what particular kind of Mzungu person I was, then I was almost always answered with "But you don't look like an American." The second most common response to that was "I have a (relative) in (New York/ Chicago/ California/ or Texas)" and then look at me as if I am supposed to react and perhaps say "Oh yes, I know him/her." What ensued was usually a rather lame conversation, where I feigned interest in the fact that their relative (whom they often had not seen or communicated with since he/she moved) lived in a city that I have never visited and/or is at least 300 miles from my home town; and in which they would ask me a few strange or uncomfortable questions including, but not limited to, "you have a sister in USA?" (if it was a guy asking me this) um yes but I wont be introducing her to complete strangers in case you were wondering that; "if I go there I can find someone to marry?" (again usually a guy) how (the hell) should I know?, or statements like "Americans are fat" (even though I was a size two at the time) Ok......(awkward silence); and "I like Ford car."great.... (awkwad silence) "Too much crime in USA?" not as much as Nairobi. These conversations usually trailed off and concluded with them saying "USA" over and over again under their breath and chuckling to themselves as if they find the whole notion of an American incredible or ridiculous. I wonder how that conversation would go now. I am certain that Obama would be mentioned, and I can imagine I would be asked if I know him - yeah, sure buddy, all Americans live in the same neighborhood within walking distance of each other and get together for Sunday dinner.

Here in the UAE, instead of asking me where I am from in general, or stating the obvious (that I am "white"). They like to assume they know. Often they start talking to me in Arabic, because they assume I am Lebanese, and then when the blank stare gives away the fact I don't understand a word of what they are saying, they switch into English but still ask "are you Lebanese? Um, yeah, but from the English speaking quarter?" - duh??? Actually, I just say no if they are not someone I can or should ignore in the first place. (I used to talk to people more until I realized how many creeps there are here.) The other most commonly guessed nationalities are "Iranian" and "French" once I went to three different shops in one hour's time and was asked if I was different nationality by each shop keeper.

Some of them are satisfied with a "no" and don't ask anything else but others want to know. When I say I am American, I get "you don't look like you are American", followed by "where are you really from", which is often asked in an accusing voice, as if I am some impostor trying to pass myself off as an American in an Arab country (because that is such a wise thing to do?). I have realized that this is because there are many Lebanese and Palestinians who move to the US / Canada, get the passport and then come back to the Middle East calling themselves American / Canadian. In the eyes of these other people, they are not and never will be "REAL" Americans.

Of course to me this is a weird notion since the beauty of North America is that anyone can become a Citizen of America or Canada. But, for some reason, to people here, only those of Northern European descent can claim to be REAL - especially if they are claiming to be Americans. And on top of that all "REAL" Americans are apparently supposed to look a certain way, though I am not sure what that is. In spite of my attempts to try to get an answer to this, I still am not clear on what they think a "REAL" American should look like.

The first time I had such a conversation was back when my husband and I had first moved to Dubai and had joined a gym. One of the regular members, who exercised at the same time I did, and whom I had noticed stared at me quite a bit, approached me and cornered me between the water cooler and the calf machine (don't know what it is called).
"You are Lebanese" he half asked half stated.
"No I am from the US" I said.
"OK, but not originally" he stated impatiently, as if it was a fact of which he was certain.
" Pardon me?"
"I mean, you aren't a REAL American are you?"
.......... this was followed long pause while I blushed (because being interrogated by a stranger made me feel shy and awkward) and tried to figure out what he meant by that. Finally I answered
"well... if you mean am I a native of North America, as in being from one of the indigenous tribes of the region, then no... but if you mean am I a descendant of Northern European Settlers / Colonists, then yes I am."

The guy raised one of his more than ample eyebrows and looked at me sceptically
"but not completely" he again stated as if he was certain of a fact.


He sighed impatiently, "I mean you are half Lebanese, correct?"

"No, actually, I don't have any Lebanese blood in me, as far as I know I am of completely Northern European origins"

He then proceeded to ask me about other Arab / Middle Eastern nationalities, one by one. "Jordanian?" "Palestinian?"

Each time I became more amused and bemused and told him the same thing, "No, really I am Northern European on both sides of my family"

He moved on to the Mediterranean region and Southern Europe... and when we had finally established that I was not Arab, Italian, Greek, Jewish, French or Iranian, and I told him once again "No, I am an American of Northern European origin, my Ancestors were on the Mayflower and fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War, I don't know what else to tell you, except that I think I would know better than you what my family's history is."

He shrugged his shoulders stubbornly and told me "but it can't be, you don't look like an American - you don't look hard enough - you look soft"

And then he walked away, leaving me to study my flushed face and look at myself in my over sized T-shirt and sweat pants in the mirrored gym wall and wonder
Soft? what does that mean? Soft? What does he think we are supposed to look like? Too soft?

And then a paranoid thought entered my mind, Is he trying to tell me I look fat?


Umm Travis said...


very interesting post! Thanx for sharing :)

Empress Anisa said...

Monsoon... it takes ALL kinds- people and their invasive, silly moronic questions! And after they get the answer, are they EVER satisfied?

You know what... when they ask where you're from, tell them Mars... and you????? LOL

Susie of Arabia said...

I guess if people haven't ever visited America, they may not realize that Americans come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds - and they are all full-blooded American.

I am always asked here if I am British or Turkish - I guess I look more like a Brit or a Turk than I do American! I'm always surprised because usually they have heard me speak English. It's all very curious...

ekantona said...


err..i couldn't help laughing out loud reading the last sentences ! heeh he :)
I really enjoyed reading this entry,a nice one.
btw, i am a malaysian, living in Khartoum, sudan. And it makes our live easier that the locals thought that we are one of them (especially 2 of my 3 children), until they heard me speak! :D

desertmonsoon said...

Umm Travis, ekantona, thanks - glad you enjoyed :)

Anisa, :) there are a lot of strange people in this world, and add cultural differences make them seem even stranger sometimes

Susie, yes well with the Africans I understood it better as most of them had not been to the US before or even outside of Kenya, but the strange thing about this guy at my gym was that he had been to the US, he later informed me that he had family living in California - Beverly Hills to be exact - come to think of it maybe that is why he thought I don't look like an American - I am not blonde with a spray on tan who eats only one piece of lettuce a day and gets spray on tans....

al-Ghariba said...

Salams. Big lol sister this article made me literally laugh out loud. I know exactly how it feels.
I have been told a few times that I speak English well. They think I am Lebanese or Palestinian or Syrian or Turkish. THey never guess where I am really from.

DJ Hams said...

Welcome to my world! In the states, I am called Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, a dot Head, a taliban etc. But then when they see my portuguese sounding name, a Mexican.

I guess it is just human nature to assume.