I never stood out where I grew up. I looked just like every other girl that went to my high school and never got stared at in shopping malls. I was never questioned about my ethnicity or nationality… until I moved abroad. And then suddenly… it was the opening for every conversation people would have with me 😐
To give you some background if you’re new here: I grew up in South Africa, in a tropical city called Durban. So nationality-wise, I am South African. Racially- in South Africa- I would tick the box on the form saying “Indian”. Why? Because many generations ago Indians arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers in the 1860s. They were contracted to work on the sugar plantations but later also worked in coalmines, railways, dockyards, and municipal services. After 1917 the majority of the labourers became land owners on Durban’s east coast and diversified into other fields. By the 1940s, the next generation became the backbone of the emerging industrial working class in Durban, which had become home.
So that’s how this panda was born and bred in small corner of Africa with NO ties to any other country. But somehow my nationality, ethnicity and accent never seem to match up for people who have so many questions… and so many comments! Have you ever heard any of these?
1. “Where are you from? Wait let me guess…”
I’ve been offered some strange guesses to this question. Indian, Pakistani & Sri Lankan makes sense based on my ancestry. British comes up often and it seems reasonable to me based on my accent. But when I was in Europe I also got mistaken for Spanish A LOT (no hablo espanõl!), I’ve been asked if I’m Trinidadian (?) and most frequently where I work, I am constantly mistaken for being a local Arab.
Side note: Once someone told me that I looked Mexican and a rude colleague leaned over and said, “She’s not pretty enough to be Mexican!”
2. “No, where are you really from? Like REALLY?”
Wait I already answered this. So, this question implies two things: that I don’t resemble my heritage AND I’m a liar. Awesome.
3. “You don’t look like you’re South African at all. Like, I NEVER would have guessed that. Not in a million years.”
So what you’re saying is that I don’t fit your preconceptions of what certain nationalities look like. You’re making yourself look bad…
4. “Why don’t you speak [insert foreign language that has nothing to do with my background]?”
This just happened to me last week at a hair salon actually…. I spent far too much time explaining to the Argentinian stylists that despite what they thought, “I don’t speak Spanish.” Look- I grew up in a former British colony where our schools are English medium. Why should I feel apologetic that I am not fluent in a language you think I should be fluent in based on your perception of my appearance?
Another famous scenario is when strangers start asking me for help on the street in their native tongues. The most recent incident of this was the Sri Lankan man standing outside the temple in Dubai asking me something in fluent Singhalese.
Do you speak English?
On the other end of the spectrum is this situation-
Me: I will need two tickets please and I would like to join the English tour.
Person behind the counter: Sure. Here’s your change… you want to join the English tour? Do you speak English?
Why would I ask for an English tour if I didn’t speak English?
Also, didn’t we just have a conversation in English?
6. “You’re so EXOTIC”
This compliment is one of the reasons I never date white men. Somehow this compliment always finds its way out of the mouths of people named Dave, Josh, Richard, Tony… you get the picture. Look, I feel strange being classified by an adjective that is usually used to describe captive animals or alien plants. Please don’t think you are complimenting me when you call me ‘exotic”. Also, refrain from pet names that reference food and beverages. Don’t know what I am talking about? Things I’ve been called range from ‘brown sugar”, “milk chocolate”, all the way to a guy who just called me “caramel”.
7. “You’re so smart… for a girl from Africa”
It happened to me on a date.
So I ordered an expensive lobster.
Then I made an excuse, swiftly exited and left him with the hefty bill.
8. “Why are those men wearing turbans? Is that what men wear in your culture?”
Not every person with brown skin is ‘from my culture”. Sikhism- which is a religion by the way- has nothing to do with me. I literally don’t know a single Sikh person in reality. So instead of asking me dumb questions, go open a book Becky.
In the end…
Despite the rampant curiosity and silly questions, I do enjoy the thrill of being hard to place. The countries that I have travelled to where I have been mistaken for a local far outnumber the countries where I’ve been asked if I was a refugee or been perceived as a gypsy. From Egypt to Malaysia, I have been blessed to keep my mouth closed and pay local prices for goods and entrance fees. I will never forget paying 40 rupees to enter the Taj Mahal once and thinking “Wow this is cheap” only to realise that non-locals were paying 1000 rupees!
As people stare at me, trying to place me and figure out ‘what I am’, I smile inwardly… I move from country to country spreading my African magic, glitter and gold so yeah I am going to expect a few broken necks as people try to stare.
So have a good look or take a picture because I am a cultural chameleon both blending in, and standing out wherever I go!
Have you ever been confused for another nationality or ethnicity? Let me know in the comments below!