My Secret Identity… Who Am I?

Nationality: Who Are You? Taxi Rear View Mirror photo

Who Are You?

I could see him looking at me in the rear view mirror. The way his brows knit together told me a question was forming somewhere in his mind. I thought about what I had said, where I asked him to take me. I couldn’t see what might be unclear, but he continued looking at me as though there was something wrong.

Finally, in Russian he said, “Vwe Polachka?” I answered “Nyet… pachimoo Polachka?” (No… why Polish?) He shrugged and drove on.

A few moments later, the same quiz, “Are you Canadian?” Curious now, I asked him “Why would you think I am Canadian? No…what does a Canadian look like?” (Not that there is anything wrong with being Canadian, but I was interested in what distinguishes a Canadian from others.)

It became a game because I had not told him what he really wanted to know: “Who are you? What nationality are you? Where are you from?”

In Paris at Christmas, returning from the US to Baku, I had time between my connecting flights. Leaving Charles De Gaulle Airport, I headed into town to search out some things Duty Free didn’t carry. I found a Chanel store and walked in. The sales clerk approached and asked in perky French, “Bonjour! Que cherchez-vous?” (Good day, what are you looking to find?). I shook my head and held my hand up as if to say no thank you.

ExPat Living: Is identity based on lineage, loyalty, or location?

How Do You Identify Nationality?

The eager clerk went around to intercept me at the end of the aisle I was walking down. Standing in front of me and speaking more slowly, she tried again, the same query, this time in Russian. “что я могу помочь вам найти?” (Shto ya magu pamoch vam naiitsy).

I responded to the clerk in Russian, wondering why she had selected that language for her second approach. Puzzled, she inquired, “Are you not Russian?”

First Polish, then Canadian, and now Russian? I didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered… What gives? Apparently, “American” is a secret identity. (Ok, to be fair, it could be that I was dressed for winter in black leather boots, a black leather trench coat, black leather gloves and a black leather handbag- as low-key behind my dark glasses as a cold war spy. Perhaps…)

Laughingly I replied in French, “Mais non, mademoiselle. Je suis Américain.”

Now she was totally confused.

(No doubt she also subscribed to the joke that someone who speaks multiple languages is a polyglot; one who speaks two languages is bi-lingual; and a person who only speaks one language… that would be an American!)

I’m curious about how we form our identity. What distinguishes a person born in England but brought up elsewhere, for example, from one newly naturalized to the U.K.? Who is the “Englishman”? Both? Neither? And what about being English versus being British?

A barrister friend of mine being introduced at a society ball was asked where he was from, the enquirer assuming he was an immigrant. He replied that he was British, born in Sheffield- his parents had emigrated from Pakistan as college students. The lady’s retort as she moved away said it all, “You may be British, but you’ll never be English.”

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else, a different nationality, I mean?

From where or what do you derive your identity? Is it lineage, loyalty or location that defines us? One response on this question noted the challenge, “As an “ethnic” Persian whose nationality is Australian and as someone who constantly gets asked “But, where are you really from?”…THANK YOU!”

Worldette, Amy McPherson, born in Taiwan was sent to live abroad as a child. Challenged at 26 to go back to reconnect with the Taiwan of her birth, she enjoyed it, but in the end, she found it alien and stated that she now identifies with Australia. How does she introduce herself? How would she answer my taxi driver’s questions? Is she now “Australian”?

Ex-Pat Skills: Language, Culture and Nationality

Where Do I Belong?

Where is the tipping point for identity? When is an expat no longer considered an expat? If I had decided to permanently make my life in Baku, Azerbaijan, at what point would I cease to be an “expat”? What are you when you’re not an expat but not a local either?

Most expats have seen friends who have retired or quit work and have “gone native” perhaps even marrying a local or other international partner.

In my case, regardless of how much I was enjoying my time abroad, my citizenship was never negotiable. But, I have known expats who have given up their passport to be with (or just be) someone new. They decided they liked who they were in the new country better and renounced one identity and adopted another. A very tough decision to be sure.

Thinking of my own heritage and that of my new-ish husband, we have some interesting discussions. Joe’s identity, to all who know him, is that of an Irish Catholic cop- and he indulges the total stereotype of raising a pint with the boys. My family, on the other hand, the Stewarts, have always identified ourselves as Scots Protestants (yeah, how’d we ever negotiate a marriage with that baggage, eh?).

ExPat Identity: Scotland Map, A Key to Myself

A Key to Myself

Ex-Pat identity: provinces-ireland-map- How'd We Get Here? And, Where Are We Going?

Which Identity Is Mine?

In digging into our two families’ histories, I found my great-grandfather Omar, born in Dublin. Portions of my family migrated during Scotland’s Highland clearings to Ireland’s Ulster province, to County Antrim, centuries ago. For Joe, as it turns out, his family emigrated to Calvert, Maryland from England, not Ireland.

So what does this mean? Should this change how we see ourselves? Do we change how we identify ourselves to others? Is it lineage, loyalty, or location that tells us who we are? (Joe was quite jarred by this news, I can tell you!) Sometimes family histories are a blend of history and folklore. Sometimes facts are forgotten. He still feels his Irish kinship as strongly as always, and I will always identify with the Scots history as opposed to other parts of the UK. My family heritage tradition, my affinity, lies with Scotland even as roots are discovered moving westward in the eventual journey to becoming “American”. Who knows, the migration journey may not be over yet.

The Life Lesson I get from this is that people react to you based on what they see and their past experience with similar impressions. The sales clerk in Paris may have seen any number of new Russians and assumed I was one of them, based on nothing more than my black fashion attire (which ironically, was all Turkish!).

My taxi driver may have helped a delegation from eastern Europe in town and assumed I was one of them. Maybe my fluency in Russian (or, a bad accent?) confused him as more former Soviet bloc countries speak Russian than Americans. But why Canadian instead of American, I haven’t a clue. That amused me too!

So for now, I guess when I am abroad, I will keep my secret identity and continue to blend in with all you Canadians. (After all, I do like hockey and cold weather, eh? And I particularly like O Canada…)

Here are some interesting posts for more on this subject:

http://theindepthgenealogist.com/the-fluid-nature-of-self-identity-dna-and-ethnicity/

http://www.dauntlessjaunter.com/2012/03/26/ethnicity-nationality-race-heritage-culture/

6 thoughts on “My Secret Identity… Who Am I?

  1. I remember having a discussion with a Baku taxi driver about my nationality. He said I couldn’t be Canadian. Unfortunately my Russian wasn’t good enough to pursue his reasoning but I did follow up with the Azeri students in my English conversation group. They too agreed that I couldn’t be Canadian because all Canadians are immigrants (they completely overlooked our native peoples). Their deciding question was “Where was your father born?” The fact that he was English apparently defined my nationality in their eyes.

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  2. I’m glad you posted this reply! Actually I was wondering about you as I was writing, knowing that you had two choices. So when did you choose to be Canadian as opposed to carrying the English “label”?

    This is so interesting to me! I never heard that myth that all Canadians were immigrants; I guess Americans don’t exist either by that logic? Aren’t you glad your driver cleared that up for you? 😉

    I still identify myself as a Texan, though I was born on an Air Force Base in California. The Texans gave me a hard time when we moved back because of my CA birth, and the Californians gave me a hard time for being from Texas (Based on my father’s family history of 4 generations in Texas). I base my identity on his family longevity in one place rather than my mother’s because her family moved every generation from Virginia to Nebraska to California where she met my father. Interesting to see how we decide who we are!

    Thanks for sharing that, Judy!

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  3. Very interesting article. Living in Europe, I see lots of different nationalities, especially during the summer holiday season in Nice. I often guess at their origins (but I do it silently). Sometimes it is easy to tell, either by physical characteristics, actions, or by clothing. Clothing is a big hint. Germans don’t dress like Italians…French hairstyles are different than British ones….
    As for me, I feel both British and American and sometimes even a bit French. I was just in Cyprus and one of the hotel staff who spoke perfect English with everyone else, spoke only French to me. I have also been addressed in Russian, but unlike you, I could not reply in the same language so the blank stare gave me away.

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    • Margo- You’re absolutely right about the subtle differences in national identities. I enjoy similar people watching here in DC where they also have an infinite variety of travellers. To me, as an observer of cultures, it is fascinating how we pick up subtle cues that inform our approach or response without even being aware of how we know. That you are spoken to in French must have a lot to do with how you carry yourself- kudos to you for that! Thanks for sharing your interesting observations, as always!

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