Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
“De donde eres?” the taxi driver asked.
I had to think about it for a second, do the laborious conversion of words from Spanish to English that precedes any kind of real understanding, the rote memorization of the early stages of language learning.
Oh! Where are we from?
“America,” I said confidently, pleased with myself for having plucked meaning, a question, from the foreign-sounding words, and for knowing how to answer in a way he’d understand.
He glanced at me in the rear view mirror, a look hovering somewhere between sly and reproving.
“And where is America, exactly?” he asked in perfect English, with only a slight Peruvian accent.
It happened again, in a cooking class. And in another taxi.
I can’t tell you how many times in the last four years, particularly in Asia, I’ve answered that question with either US or USA or United States, and been met with a blank look. It took me a long time to retrain my brain, and learn to answer America. It’s just the simplest word.
Except when it’s not.
In Latin America, everyone is American. Some of us are from the US, some of us are from Mexico, some of us are from Peru, or Bolivia, or Ecuador, or Argentina. And some of us are from Canada.
Yes, I know we are using the word America as shorthand—it’s short for United States of America. Of course. But leaving aside the heavily (oh so heavily) loaded inflections it carries within our borders, what does it say when we travel beyond those borders? It is, after all, an entire continent. Two, really. That’s the piece that I failed to think about, before we arrived in Peru.
It turns out the rest of Latin America identifies just as strongly with that word, America, and I don’t get to own it. It took my brain a few weeks to unlearn the response (damn it—I was so pleased four years ago, in Vietnam, when I finally figured out how to answer the taxi drivers in a way they understood—I was getting somewhere! I was having actual communication with actual local people!). For basically all of this past July, whenever someone asked me where I was from, I would just sort of stammer and make weird noises, usually followed quickly by a hot flash. Quite a few kind souls jumped into the breach and offered the appropriate answer, which I still have difficulty pronouncing smoothly: Estados Unidos.
In all our travels, all the places we’ve been, I haven’t been called out that bluntly on any other faux pas I’ve made, and there have been many.
It’s kind of interesting: I don’t know of any place in the world, other than the US, where people identify themselves with a label that is so inaccurately broad. I’ve never met anyone from another country who claimed their continent first, rather than their country. When the question is ‘Where are you from?,’ the answer generally starts with the country, then maybe drills down to a more local level, depending on who is asking.
It turns out that figuring out how to identify myself requires more, sometimes, than just figuring how to communicate in a way that makes me understood. There are subtleties and contexts that I, with my generally-oblivious-to-human-subtext observation skills, often fail to pick up on.
‘Western’ is another word I struggle with, as in western-style hotel. This is a phrase I use a lot, usually when I’m cranky and sniping at my spouse, as in “Why can’t we stay in a normal, western-style hotel??”
When those words popped out of my mouth in Bolivia, I had to stop and think. The vocabulary dilemma was almost (not quite, but almost) enough to distract me from my rant about our hotel. Bolivia is solidly in ‘the west’ (although, come to think of it, west is a relative term. West from where?). But there was nothing about that hotel that resembled a quaint boutique B&B in a charming French village, or even a Holiday Inn.
So what word was I looking for? There was a time, in the early days of social media, when lots of people used the phrase ‘first world problem.’ It’s cute—to those of us in the ‘first’ world. I wonder how people in the ‘second’ world felt about it? Or the ‘third’ world? Turns out they have Twitter too.
Developing world? I know there are official definitions of developed vs developing. I’m not quite sure what the parameters are. Germany is clearly developed. The Gambia clearly is not. There’s an incredibly wide range in between those two, though. I certainly don’t know or understand the issues.
Lee uses ‘organized.’ By our loose guidelines, if there are no sidewalks, it’s definitely not organized. If there are sidewalks, but motorcycles drive on them, it’s somewhat organized. If motorcycles stay on the road and stop at traffic lights, it’s more organized. I’m not sure if this is truly any less judgmental, but we mostly only use it between ourselves, so hopefully no one will take offense.
I’ve heard quite a few tour guides, leaders, taxi drivers, instructors, etc. just call it what it is: poor. ‘We are a very poor country.’ ‘Your country is very rich.’
Well, yes, but that’s the kind of thing that I was raised never to comment on.
Context is everything, so if my goal in life is to be kind, which it is, perhaps it would be better if I refrain from categorizing or labeling when attempting to communicate over a language barrier. Stay in my own lane (which, obviously, is a figure of speech that works only in ‘organized’ countries).
All of which brings me back to my response to the taxi driver in Cusco, when I cheerily proclaimed my American-ness: context is everything.
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