Tuesday, July 19, 2011

five weeks in - origins I - a matter of context

Where are you from?

It is a standard question asked to and amongst the expatriate employees here (and other locations I have worked). My standard answer is simply, "The U.S." which usually leads to the follow-up question of which state I am from. Lately, my answer to that last one has been getting a lot of Schwarzenegger comments and then I must explain that he is no longer the Governator. It also gets a lot of other follow-up questions since I am, well, me. And me being me, aside from being awesome, is also puzzling or at least interesting to some people until they ask a few more questions.

Perhaps it's the concept that people from the US are supposed to look like some sort of "typical" American, as if there were such a thing. I suppose there is a theoretical median American or average American, but with the variety that exists from one person to the next, the concept of "typical" does not really hold much use. Nonetheless, my accent has outed me as an American very quickly to many of my better-traveled colleagues. Some have even said they knew I was from California the moment I spoke. One Polish-American guy here, who was born and raised in Poland and went to high school and university in the U.S. told me I had a "very strong" California accent. Of course, I jokingly countered that that means I have no accent and that I speak standard television and news broadcaster English. A different guy told me I spoke just like a Malaysian guy he used to work with. Or, more accurately, that guy had an American accent. And, since many people in Malaysian are ethnic Chinese, he thought I might have been from there as well. That's one more for the list of places I could be from!

As for being ethnic Chinese, well, that's half right. Whether people can figure that out is highly context dependent. As I rather expected, many people here have remarked that I look Kazakh and a few have said possibly even Turkmen, but that latter one is rather interesting and I promise to come back to that. Here, there are a handful of Kazakh expats plus it is next door so the idea that someone might be Kazakh is very reasonable. In the U.S., I have never been, and would never expect to be, asked if I was Kazakh. Instead, what people might assume or guess about my ancestry often depends on who I am with.

Context matters. Let’s say I’m with a group of white people. In that context, I do not appear to be white, or at least not entirely so. Amongst a group of Asian people, the same basic thing occurs. With that contrast, most people who have been around plenty of Asian people will know I’m not entirely Asian either. However, it is interesting to note that in the context of being around all Asian people, I have been told both things. Some people have thought I was entirely white and others have thought I was entirely Asian. So in addition to context, personal experience also matters. Where am I? What am I wearing? What am I doing? What am I saying? People will seek to reach a conclusion with the information available even if they do not mean to reach a particularly firm one. Your mind wants to conclude something so it can use that as a starting point for something else.

Two weeks ago, when I was at a well site, my non-Turkmen and non-Russian speaking self was clearly not local to others on location. However, my origins were apparently up for debate amongst non-colleagues (as my colleagues have already asked me these questions). After the job was done, I was speaking with an older Serbian guy who had worked all over, but had settled down and spent the last 14 years in Turkmenistan. He knew enough English to be understood and I knew how to smile and nod in agreement. We talked about where I was from and my stock replies about the U.S. and California were of little help to the apparent debate amongst the people on location. He asked further and as soon as I said my mother is Chinese, it was a big “ah-ha!” moment for him and he seemed quite jubilant as he had told everyone else that he was convinced I was half something Asian. Regrettably, there are no cash prizes for guessing correctly.


Anonymous said...

You should keep them guessing!

Mike said...

I met a girl from Kazakhstan once, she looked pretty half-asian. I could definitely see where they're coming from.

mère said...

No one really cared where I was from while attending college in NC. We had quite a large group of Chinese students there. There were from Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, Vietnam, Japan, HK, Taiwan and many more countries. There was a kid from Iran whose father was a Chinese ambassador during the Shah regime. He could speak Farsi and Mandarin.

When I first worked at Rehoboth Beach in the 60's, that's when I was asked "where are you from?" No one quite figured out. They thought I was from Hawaii or Korea. I told them I am Chinese. They said I don't speak English like the Chinese. Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwanese or Taiwan Chinese and Mainland Chinese all speak English with a different accent. When I told them I am from Thailand, they said I don't look Thai. I told them I had lived in a few Asian countries. They said no wonder they couldn't figure out my accent.

Do we understand each other!!!