"Where are you from?"
Americans in a post September 11th World

After extensive worldwide research I have ascertained that there are two universal laws of souvenir retailing applicable to shops catering to tourists anywhere in the world. Those of you who have been to uptown Sedona will almost inevitably be familiar with the first.

Law 1.Strike up a rapport by asking the potential buyer where they are from.

From Honolulu to Hanoi and Shanghai to Sedona, to cross the threshold of an establishment selling T-shirts, Buddha statues, scorpion paperweights or Batik sarongs is to invite the question "where you from?" (they speak better English uptown). Julie and I had never given much thought to this good natured question, often asking it ourselves when we worked uptown. That was before we began this trip and before September 11th. In those nervous weeks following the attack we regarded the 'where you from?' (that's not a typo) as a potentially hazardous question, for while there was little doubt where the vast majority of Asian's sympathy lay, it was clear that some people in the world didn't much like Americans. The bombing of Afghanistan muddied the waters further as the poor countries we were traveling in were uncomfortable seeing the world's superpower bombing another poor country.

We began to wonder whether it would be wiser to lie about our origin and soon discovered that we were not the only people feeling this way. A couple from the East coast on their first day in China were telling non-Americans they were from Canada. A California couple said they had spent a month in Indonesia claiming a different nationality every day. This may seem ignominious or cowardly but at that time, caution seemed the best option. It was difficult for Julie, as it was for many Americans, to lie about where they were from. Although we saw little alternative to actions the Bush administration was taking and supported that least worst option, we weren't about to scuffle with some Osama-Bin-Ladin-t-shirt-wearing disaffected youth to make that point. I must confess that having two nationalities meant I was spared the feeling of treachery that must come with fully disclaiming one's heritage. I could say I was Swiss or British and not be lying when I didn't tell them that having lived almost half my life in the USA had probably made me just as American as the next joe-six-pack.

Shop keepers, restaurateurs and bar owners everywhere complained that business was down as tourists the world over put their plans on hold, or canceled them entirely. To the world's retailers asking 'where you from?' it must have seemed that Americans had utterly vanished from the tourist trails. Which was not far from the truth.

Law 2. No matter where that person says they are from, find something nice to say about it.

In Sedona it's "Oh, from Maine! Lovely leaves in the fall!" or "Boise is it? Why just last night I had a wonderful Idaho baked potato with my dinner!" In Asia we answered simply with Switzerland or England (the two passports I hold) and found that Law 2 still applies. After several weeks of happily taking credit for the quality of Swiss watches and the skill of English soccer players I even tried to have some fun with the inevitable 'Where you from?'. It soon wore thin though. Telling them I was from Latvia or Burkina Faso simply silenced anyone that asked and I felt mean.

As time wore on we began to feel more comfortable in strange lands and the violence in Afghanistan calmed and looked as though it was yielding positive results. Julie began to feel less nervous about telling people she was American and finally doing so made us wonder why we had hesitated. Only once, in China when a woman shot at us with an imaginary gun, did we regret saying we were American (though we think even she might have been joking, the smile was one of jest, not malicious pleasure - some joke!). Instead of angry reprisals most people would simply repeat it America back with what sounded like admiration, excitement or possibly even affection in their voices, "aah, Amelika!" We waited for Law 2 to kick in, "wonderful system of interstate highways!" or "Ah-ha, the best spaceships." But we got nothing, not even an "oh I just love Coca-Cola!". We thought it might be that America is too big a presence in the world to single out one thing synonymous with it, like England and Manchester United or Switzerland and chocolate. Perhaps they just didn't have anything nice to say.

We assume that everything our government does in our interests is noble and just but when you are alone and vulnerable in a strange land of different values, you begin to wonder. Perhaps that seems even more ignominious, but just as we were beginning to relax and no longer think twice when asked where we were from, we received an email from the US State Department warning Americans of possible dangers like the recent grenade attack on the church in Islamabad. It referred to us a possible "soft targets" and advised that we take all precautions necessary to ensure our safety. At times it seems as though the whole world is saturated with things American but it remains confused about America. Love, hate, envy, admiration, fear - all can be felt simultaneously by a single person. As Americans at large in that world since September 11th, we too find it confusing. The next time we get a 'where are you from,' Is one of the necessary precautions to ask ourselves, to be American or not to be American?

~ Nigel
Koh Lanta, Thailand
03.20.02

   

 

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