Tuesday, March 27, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: blending in

When I was last exiting Turkmenistan 11 days ago, the immigration officer asked me if I was American. Well, the passport and name would make most people think so, but he said I looked Turkmen. That's interesting because believe it or not, I have met many Turkmens and I don't think I look especially Turkmen. Now, the origins of the Turkmen people is quite mixed so to say someone looks Turkmen or not really means they look like they are from one of the main, historical Turkmen tribes. Still, I don't think I look proto-typically like someone from one of those regions, but que sera sera. On the other hand, a Kazakh colleague has told me I look exactly like her brother. What's more, I apparently talk and act like him as well. She finds it quite funny. She is also not alone in this opinion as another expat colleague told me that when he saw us at lunch, he did a double-take because of how similar we looked.

The point of all this is that, despite what I might think, I can blend in to Turkmenistan as long as I keep my mouth shut. My inability to speak Russian nor Turkmen is typically a quick giveaway to people that I am not local. However, one intern we had when he first heard me speak thought I was Turkmen with just really good English skills. Good enough. I occasionally walk around Balkanabat a bit just to see some of the city but mostly to get out of the confines of the camp and no one gives me a second look. Same goes in Ashgabat. I can walk around and simply not draw any attention to myself. It's fun. It makes me feel like I have become some low-budget master of disguise. (No Mike, I am not Burn Notice and I am not a spy and I am not a Chinese guy from Kazakhstan pretending to be American but secretly working for the Russians, but actually planning to triple-cross all of them like a James Bond super-villain. That would be silly since I don't even own an island fortress.)

This blending in makes me feel more comfortable while I am there. When I was in Hungary, I was very aware that I did not blend in. I don't look anything Hungarian and I was in a city where most everyone was Hungarian. Outside of Budapest, there are not many foreigners around the country. Congo and Gabon had the same issue, though in both places there were somewhat large numbers of expats around town. Still, you were always aware that there was this divide between locals and expats and there was no way to ever just walk around without being noticed. Even when I was in Texas and New Mexico, it's not that I couldn't walk around, but that something always felt a bit amiss in those places. I had no real issues living there and being around town, but I never felt all that comfortable there.

Back here in the Bay Area, I can blend in. Arguably, anyone can blend in. This is one of the things I really like about this place is that it feels comfortable. I feel like just another person and would never draw a second glance on the street, which I like. I like the feeling that anonymity on the street provides where I can just walk around and go about my business and watch everyone else go by and not be watched myself. What's somewhat odd is that I get that feeling even though I think very few people look anything like me and that despite all my doppelgangers people have met, I have yet to meet one myself. I blend in not because I look like everyone, but because for the most part no one looks like anyone. The diversity here is that great blanket of anonymity that allows anyone to blend in.

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