Posted from Dubai
“Where are you from?” This was the question asked of me by my Pakistani taxi driver late last night, while scrutinizing me in the review mirror. It’s an interesting question posed to a Westerner, especially a woman traveling alone in the Middle East—albeit Dubai. When traveling in Muslim countries, Americans confess that they often lie to avoid hassle, claiming that they come from Canada. It’s easy enough to get by on that; we share the same continent, language, and look alike.
I’ve marveled at the question for many years, especially after it caught me off guard in Italy decades ago at a flea market. I was 19. Sei Americana? It was curious because, unlike so many others who pegged me for Senegalese, Ghanaian, or generally from Africa, the tomato seller recognized the American in me. But, it was a bit discombobulating too, because I had to pause a moment to think about it. And that pause, triggered something troubling—a recall of experiences at home in the United States that unmoored me at least in childhood. I’ll spare the details of race retaliation that included the theft of my gloves when I was six years old in Minnesota and the frostbite of my left hand that occurred as a result.
Like my father, I was an integration baby. His experience was that of the wunderkind, graduating from high school by 15, after his mother finally acquiesced to allow him to graduate early. His high-school qualifications were completed by age 13 and his teachers marveled at him as something other than from “his race.” My youth was peppered with being bullied and experiences of being told to get out, go home to “where you came from,” and anger at my acceleration. Where he was treated as the superhero of “his race,” I felt—and certainly not always so—despised for it. Our experiences were separated by the culmination of the civil rights movement, riots, and the war in Vietnam. Strangely enough, perhaps there was race fatigue by the time I showed up as the only student of color throughout much of my elementary-school experience and usually as the only one or two in the advanced middle- and high-school classes.
My response to the Pakistani driver was unhesitating and knowing, “from the United States” as I slumped into the backseat after a day of meetings, a lecture, and work on a book. He scowled and drove. I stared back in the review mirror and hoped that the ride would be without incident. But the thought of lying about where I’m from was not an option—it would have been offensive. I realize families claim “otherness” to avoid harm and to have a bit of peace while on vacation and businessmen and women do so as well. I also realize that for those Americans embarrassed by some U.S. policies abroad, including the invasion and war in Iraq (and the civilian deaths resulting from those policies), the bitterness and sometimes outright hatred experienced while traveling abroad makes identifying themselves as Americans not only a risky business, but one that involves shame.
For me, being from the United States is as much about recognizing my forbears’ investment in the country as my own identity. My identity and that of so many Americans is rooted in our nation’s complicated history. In my case, the Irish great great grandfather and his counterpart from England, one who tried to marry the black mother of his children, but could not by law, and the other who raped his slave and who sought redemption in raising the son born from that encounter; the uncles and grandfathers who served in the air force, and more inspiring for me, the remarkable women who raised their children and those of others or stood up to injustice when so much of it plagued our nation, during its Jim Crow era. I’m willing to own the good and bad of this legacy. These complicated footnotes in my history are not unlike that of so many. These are the experiences or “roots” we spring from and live with as Americans.
I thought about this during my taxi ride back to the hotel, and particularly so as Veteran’s Day is approaching. Identity and our image abroad are among the many complications our young veterans live with abroad. Only they, who cannot escape their uniforms, are not given the privilege to lie about their nation of origin.