My Secret Identity… Who Am I?
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.
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”?
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?).
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: