Saturday, October 20, 2012

"But you're not an American" and other fun conversations

I confuse a lot of people in Kazakhstan.  

Thanks to a steady diet of Bollywood movies, and a warm relationship between the USSR and India during the Cold War, the average Kazakhstani is far better at differentiating Indians from other "brown" peoples than the average American will ever be.  There's no chance of anyone here ever thinking that I'm Mexican, for example, or an Arab.  However, they're still confused when I tell them I'm an American -- and that's when every ordinary conversation turns into a mini discussion about ethnicity, nation and citizenship.  (Grad school Poli Sci friends, I feel like it's Fall 2011 again!).  

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped by the little store in the dormitory to pick up some butter.  As I was counting out change to pay the cashier, he quipped, "what's your nationality?" (Not a bizarre question in these parts, by any means).  Without thinking about the intent of the question, I answered "Oh, I'm an American. I'm teaching here."  "But you're Indian."  "Well, yes, my family is from India and I was born there."  "So, you are Indian."  "Well, I think of myself as an American."  Perhaps he sensed my irritation/confusion at that point, so he smiled and said: "OK, so you're American of previous Indian origin."  "OK, I can agree with that."  

In the United States, we -- and I include myself in this -- talk around a person's ethnic or national origins by asking vague questions such as "where are you originally from" or "what is your heritage."  I'm not sure whether this stems from a fear of being politically incorrect, or from social norms governing interactions with strangers, but either way, we typically avoid asking directly about someone's ethnicity, especially if that person is a stranger.  

In Kazakhstan, as in Russia and others parts of the former Soviet Union, asking about someone's nationality -- even a stranger -- is not only acceptable, but also part of the getting-to-know-you process.  It is often one of the first few questions lobbed at foreigners, especially, and generally comes from a place of curiosity and goodwill, rather than xenophobia (though, I wager, amid the growing xenophobia in Russia, saying that you are from the Caucasus or Central Asia might not win you any friends).  

The difference is this: if you tell a fellow American that you, too, are an American, despite your different ethnic or national origin, he or she largely buys into the premise, despite any lingering curiosity about your ethnic background. (Of course, the subset of crazy "birthers" out there who still insist that President Obama is a Kenyan might offer a different opinion).  

In some respects, Soviet concepts of nationality -- which, for better or for worse, inextricably linked an institutionalized categorization of ethnicity and national origin -- persist in Kazakhstan.  Starting in 1930s, the Soviet government officially etched "nationality" into internal passports (the infamous "line 5"), connecting ethnic or national origin to a person's official status as a Soviet citizen.  For example, if you were born in the Kazakh SSR to second-generation Ukrainian immigrants, line 5 on your passport would read "Ukrainian," never Kazakh.  Children of mixed-marriages often had to pick one nationality over the other at age 16.  To be clear, this was just one part of the nationality policy (national delimitation of territory was another component), and Soviet nationality policy oscillated between a celebration of diversity and repression of national identity under various leaders, particularly Stalin.  

With this in mind, it's easy to understand the confusion that ensues when Kazakhstanis meet me, though I am understandably less magnanimous when strangers insist I don't know or comprehend my own nationality (My new policy is just going to be to insist back to them "Well, you can't possibly be (insert nationality here)" and see how they like it).  What I find most interesting is that many of my colleagues, even those with decidedly more of the Anglo-Saxon heritage that might be the closest to a stereotype of a "real American," find themselves engaging in similar conversations.  In some ways, I find this comforting, knowing that, at least, that race appears to play a lesser role in determining who is "American" and who is not.  On the other hand, it makes me insatiably curious to find out who exactly "counts" as a real American in the eyes of the average Kazakhstani if, in fact, race (or ethnicity) is not a primary delineating marker.  If a real American is just a nondescript white person with an Anglo-Saxon name, how do Kazakhstanis reconcile that with the fact that the President of the United States is a guy named Barack Obama?  


  1. What a fascinating post! It brings to mind a whole host of related issues about origins, nation, native and the "alien". About what constitutes as the idea of a "true American" I wonder if they have someone like George Bush in mind. At least in 2006 when I was in Grenoble, I got the impression that many foreigners assume Texans to be quintessentially American! So I quickly adapted to saying that I was from India, instead of saying I was from Texas. Of course this got me into a whole heap of other sort of troubles, with questions about le caste system and "Les Dalits". I wanted to counter with "Hey what about your Muslim youths incinerating cars?" but did not go far in my poor French. It usually stopped after the "Alors" (Hey) Outrage in a foreign language is a challenging emotion--especially if you are not too fluent in the language! Here is hoping your Russian and your Kazakh will vastly improve thanks to periodic but regular experiences of outrage :)

    1. My Russian tends to be better when I am angry or demanding, so I usually express my outrage or insistence fairly well :)

      What's interesting is that Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic state -- it was the only Soviet republic that had a larger non-titular population when it gained its independent in 1991. However, I have yet to hear the usage of the word "Kazakhstani" -- ie. a citizen of Kazakhstan -- in either Russian or Kazakh.

  2. I'll answer the question posed by this interesting post with one word - ask. Although I'll bet you're already planning to insert that into the conversation.

    1. I do plan to ask, but I have to learn to get past my very American misgivings about seeming rude or nosy with strangers, first!

  3. This is so complicated in France too. I've met a good number of people who say they are "Ivoirien" or "Senegalese" but I think if I proved further I'd find they were born here. But the American in me doesn't pry---I figure people should identify the way they choose to.