"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?
Koh Lanta, Thailand