A few days ago, I was talking with an acquaintance who remarked that she had once been asked if she was British. Her voice is distinctly American with a broad Midwestern tone, and she, naturally, was confused by the question. A mystery, indeed. But this set me to thinking about my own experiences with “mistaken identity.”
When I was quite a bit younger, my family moved to Alabama for a few months (that’s a much longer story for another time). We lived in a brick townhome complex hedged by holly bushes and found ways to beat the heat. My sister and I didn’t meet many kids our age, but the first time we did, the group of girls stood nearly on the opposite side of the room and whispered to each other. “Are they Mexican?” was one of the whispers that I caught. Mexican? I had never thought about what I looked like before. Couldn’t they tell that my mom’s darker skin was from an Italian heritage? I had often wished that I had inherited that trait, like my older brother did, instead of the stark, toast-in-the-sun white complexion of my dad, but it never occurred to me that it made them look different. I’d grown up my whole life with mixed shades.
My first real job was working at a writing center at my undergraduate college as a tutor. Often, fellow students from my classes would come in for help on papers, and sometimes they would remember that we did, in fact, share a class. One time, I helped a middle-aged gentleman from an American literature course with a paper. We discussed his rough draft and possible avenues of exploration on Sylvia Plath and generally had a nice conversation. After I wished him luck on the paper and a nice afternoon, he stopped me with a question: “Just out of curiosity, are you Jewish?” To this day, I’m still not sure why he asked that.
A few years ago, I was given the wonderful chance to go to Japan. With some puzzlement and amusement, I realized what it’s like to not blend into a crowd. Right away, people could look at me and know that I didn’t belong, a definite gaijin. But on the other hand, my roommate would often complain that she would lose track of me in the rush of people. Blond and fond of wearing bright colors, she was easily found, but with dark hair, a mostly earth tone wardrobe, and the average height of a Japanese, I had some unintentional camouflage. Later that summer when we were walking through Kyoto, my sister’s roommate told me that I could pass for half.
“Half?” I asked.
“Half-Japanese. Dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin. And you have a Japanese soul.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what that meant, but it felt a very high compliment.
When my sister and I studied abroad at Oxford, we took a cab to what would be our house for a few months. Our flight had arrived the day before, and we were seriously jetlagged, but perky enough to give some directions and get our bags where they needed to go. We’re both fairly quiet by nature, especially around strangers, so we sat contentedly looking out the windows as we drove through town. The cabbie spoke up after we’d been driving for a few minutes. He glanced over his shoulder for a moment and asked in a thick Middle-Eastern accent, “Are you Spanish?”
We blinked a few times, processing. “Sorry?”
“Are you from Spain, then?”
We smiled and told him, no, we’re from the United States. He shrugged, looking a little befuddled. He went on to explain that we were too quiet to be Americans.
“Americans, they always talk so much, very loud,” he said. “Want to talk, talk, talk, about everything.”
So, to this day, I’m still not sure what I “look like,” but it reminds me that people are complex creations, and though you can often judge a book by its cover, you can never know a person only by theirs. I’d like to think that everywhere a person goes, traveling by airplane or book, she picks up pieces that become a part of her without knowing it. Some of these pieces are more visible, like the British word pronunciations that one of my good friends who studied in Oxford acquired or the Japanese apologetic hand gestures that she teases me for using sometimes, but many are more subtle, the ones that quietly resonate and shape us. How often are we looking for easy ways to categorize each other when it is so much more heartening to find that other people are like you, a wonderful chaos of experience and appearance?