America is a nation of cultural variety, but what does it mean to "look like" an American? Many people around the world have preconceived ideas about the answer to this question. But what about travelers who are born in the USA but who do not necessarily fit the physical image of an American? The topic of ethnicity and nationality can be a sensitive subject to balance in any country, but for some of us, this topic of conversation is something that we have to deal with on a regular basis.
“Hello, Miiisterrrr...,” I look up, just as a moped with two young Taiwanese guys zooms by us. The kid in the back has his neck craned, and his smiling face turned in our direction. He follows us with his eyes as they disappear out of our line of sight, then points at us just as they turn the corner. Again, I hear his fading voice calling out, “Hellooooo, Misterrr!”
I can't help but laugh. I've always read online and in travel forums about the stares and the pointing, the laughs behind hands or calls from the street. But to be honest, I rarely ever experience this myself.
Of course, this isn't because I haven't traveled before. I have my fair share of stamps and visas in my soon to be expired passport. But this young man's call of curiosity from the back of a passing moped was not actually meant for me. In fact, it was really directed toward my friend Ryan.
You see, Ryan is 6'2" tall, with stereotypical American features; blonde hair, blue eyes and relatively fair skin according to Taiwanese standards. I am 5'7" short, with stereotypical Southeast Asian features; black hair, brown eyes and brown skin compared to many Taiwanese. But Ryan speaks both English and Mandarin while I can only speak English. Ryan is Australian, I am American. And yet, he always gets mistaken for an American. And me? Well, I don't even get mistaken for a native English speaker.
But please don't get me wrong, I don't mind this at all. I actually enjoy being able to blend in with the people around me. And I still can't get enough of the double takes and the stares of shock or confusion when, after sitting right across from me for half the duration of the train ride, the other person who previously paid me no attention suddenly hears me speak out in perfect American English. It's an amazing thing to me, this ability to go from invisible to visible with just one word.
And this common case of mistaken identity doesn't just happen to me in Taiwan. It seems like almost everywhere I go, I am mistaken for someone else other than an American. In Mexico I was Chinese, in Laos I was Thai, in Thailand I was Malaysian, in Malaysia I was Filipino, and in Cambodia my sister and I were Japanese. Here in Taiwan, many people mistake me for an aboriginal Taiwanese, Amis or Paiwan. Even in my own country I am commonly mistaken for being Mexican.
I guess the answer to this phenomena lies in my mixed heritage.
When my true nationality is revealed here, many of the Taiwanese are curious and will actually question me further about this confusing juxtaposition.
“But you don't look like an American. How can you speak such good American English if you look like Asian people?” They'll ask. No, really...they do.
I've come into the habit of just smiling, and then I try to explain to them in depth about the mixing-pot that is Hawaii.
“I am American,” I'll say reassuringly. “But I am from Hawaii, and the majority of Hawaiians my age are of at least 2, if not 4 or more, different ethnicities. Most of our parents have mixed heritage, too. Everyone from the plantations, in the 1800's and early 1900's, intermarried and blended cultures.”
“Oh, really?” They'll say, with looks of wonderment on their faces. “So what is your background?”
“My father is Filipino and Chinese,” I'll say. “And my mother is Native Hawaiian and Portuguese.” There is, of course, a few more in there, but I find it's best to keep the explanation as simple as possible to avoid further confusion.
I even had a man sit next to me during a meeting. He had just found out from someone else about my background. I looked over at him and gave him a nod. He leaned towards me and whispered, “You mean to say, your mother's mother and your mother's father are from two different peoples?”
“Yes,” I whispered back, trying to be polite towards the speaker at the podium.
“Oh, okay,” he said in fascination. He stared back at me. I could see his eyes studying my face, my eyes, my nose and skin. His mind wrapped around the implications of that truth. “Well, my name is Mr. Hsu,” he smiled, handing me a business card. “Here's my number. Give me a call. I want to talk to you more about the social studies of Hawaii and Taiwan.” And then he left.
And so what does it mean to "look like" an American? Well, the answer really depends on who it is you ask that to. As for me? I just smile whenever someone is surprised that I am American. Like I said, It's an amazing thing to me, this ability to go from invisible to visible with just one word.
And now we'd like to ask you: Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to break down preconceived ideas tactfully? How did you deal with that?
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...