(I wrote this originally on June 17, 2014)
Cheap cigarette smoke and Sky Vodka fumes fill the air. A Spaniard/Galatian mixes wine with Coke for the 20th time. “It’s Spain’s national drink you know,” he says. “Take any shit wine, a one or two Euro wine, combine it with Coke, and you got an awesome drink.” I take one later and agree. I’m more of a beer guy than a wine guy. I really have to struggle through every sip of that red nonsense that my tongue can’t simply understand.
I’ve just arrived at a goodbye party, one last hurrah of intimate friends and associates where booze-driven last words, tear filled testimonies, and emotional spectacles in the form of partying words and kisses on the forehead to friends will be exchanged. We call it a kickback in SoCal.
I wander through the party exchanging general pleasantries and greetings, gauging the make-up of the festivities participants. Party demographics: A lot of Frenchman and a lot of Moroccans, substantive amount of Brazilians from throughout the nation, two Mexicans from Mexico, three silent Americans who left the party early(“Americans always leave early,” say the French) one Franco-Brazilian, one German, one Franco-Dutch-German that speaks five languages (French, Dutch, German, English, and Portuguese), a Brazilian Randyian (he had a shirt that said “Who is John Galt”), a Spaniard/Galatian (He was a wonderful host, incredibly friendly, and hospitable, like most Galatians I’ve met at PUC-Rio), and one American from Southern California with El Salvadoran ancestry – me.
The party is divided into four sectors: kitchen, laundry area, living room area, and smoking cubby.
The kitchen is for more intimate conversations because it’s a tight and narrow space that only four people at max can occupy at one time. I see people connect by exchanging empty pleasantries (“How was your day?”), reconnect after some time of absence – the physical communication evidenced in a hug speaks Tolstoy-like words and phrases of the emotional intensity and intimacy between two people – and flirt (everyone flirts; it’s a French party in Brazil).
The laundry area is alien to me because it’s a bunch of foreign men burning down spliffs, talking about soccer, and bonding over what the rest of the world calls football. Soccer is a sport I know nothing about except that FIFA tries to feed some bullshit statistic to Americans that soccer is “The second most popular sport among youth in America.” Bullshit. I don’t have the license to enter the conversation, or the credentials to remain even if I did enter
The living room area is filled with even more foreign men watching Japan vs. Ivory Coast. I give up before imagining staying there. The smoking cubby is next to the living room area. People are smoking and talking in French. It’s always weird being the one guy that does not smoke or speak the dominant language of the conversation.
I put my money on the kitchen and decide to chill there for a while. I begin to converse with a girl from Mexico:
“Hey! I’m Fernando.”
She interrupts me.
And then it begins:
“I’m from California.”
“I study Political Science and History.”
“…my parents are from El Salvador. That’s why I look the way I do.”
The Three Questions* have been asked:
1. Where are you from?
2. What do you study?
3.But what are you?
Question One: Where are you from?
The most basic question: it helps the person come up with a raw sketch of who you are based on where you’re from. It is also a logistical question because underneath this question is the sub-inquiry of what language are you fluent in, which will help determine what language will be the one of the conversation.
For the most part, Portuguese is the lingua franca of the exchange students when interacting in a large group of diverse nationalities. Fluency in Portuguese, however, is varied among students of all nationalities, so you may find yourself switching back and forth between English, Spanish, and Portuguese in a conversation between Americans, Spaniards/Galatians, Frenchman, Mexicans, and Brazilians, all in the effort to communicate clearly. Nobody speaks French except for the French and the Moroccans.
This question is also important because it will call into being question 3.
Question Two: What do you study?
This is a deeper question that serves as a zoom lens to question number one. “What do you study?,” could possibly mean “How do you view the world vis-à-vis the perspective of the academic paradigm from which you have been ingrained thus far?” It’s also a possible bonding point, for who knows, you and the random stranger you have just met might share the same major? Ah, yes, a possible friendship is at hand due to some larger shared struggle in a mutual academic field. Or it could be that you and the person have completely different majors that you either find curiously interesting or profoundly boring.
Question Three: But what are you?
Or it can also be phrased, “You’re physical appearance does not match my stereotype of what someone from your country looks like – Blond, blue eyes, and white (with a bronze tan because were in Rio). With that in mind, I know you’re American, but where does your ancestry lye?”
The most sensitive question because it calls into being questions surrounding identity. Nobody ever means it too, and I don’t know if this is an issue with people from other nations besides the United States. For a lot of international folk, Brazilians especially, Americans are still white, blond, and blue-eyed. But you have, especially at PUC-Rio, a good deal of non-white Americans, especially from the UC System. I would say that, in fact, at least half of the UC exchange students at PUC-Rio are Latino, Hispanic, or non-white. Admittedly, I have no raw data to support this statement and am simply going off of what I’ve observed first hand. But the idea remains the same: a substantive portion of UC students are non-white Americans.
Why we need to Three New Questions
People conflate national identity with ethnicity a lot. I’m guilty of it myself (I saw a black Frenchman at the party and assumed he was Brazilian; he was a bit shocked and offended, but it blew over as I explained to him what I did to him happens to me quite frequently).How you identify is a deeply profound and personal issue; moreover, it could be a sensitive topic to broach in such a badly designed question as “Where you from?” when you’re really asking “What is your nationality and what is your ethnicity?”
I don’t know if this is an issue with students from other nations, but for American college students of minority backgrounds, this is a sensitive and delicate relationship – what is the relationship between my ethnic background and nationality and how do those two interact to create an identity? Shit just got real, kid.
The Three New Questions
1. What’s your nationality
2. What’s your major and why?
3. What is your ancestry?
Question One: What’s your nationality?
This is a more direct and simple question that won’t lead to people conflating ethnicity/physical appearance with nationality. With the question, “Where are you from?” you may say you’re from California and America, but that response is not what the person was looking for. With this question, people will know that your nationality is separate from your ethnicity.
Question Two: What’s your major and why?
Albeit this is not that much different from “What do you study?” but at least this one has a motivational component. Why do you study what you study? People always want to know as much information about you as they can. Why not share a little bit of why it is that you study what you study? You may find that people may be more willing to open up to you when you open yourself up a little first.
Question Three: What is your ancestry?
A more direct and honest inquiry into a person’s historical and ethnic background based on what you think it might be because of the way they look like. In general, from my experience, most people are curious as to what your ethnic background is. Heck, I’m always interested and I can’t fully explain why.
Why These Questions?
I will be the first to admit some of these questions sound ridiculous because they are not phrased in an everyday vernacular that people use on the street, on the bus, and having some beers at a bar. They sound kind of random, esoteric, and academic, and like they belong more in a Pew Survey about whatever than a chit-chat between international students. But these questions carry a lot of weight and they can evoke certain powerful emotions regarding identity. Perhaps the awkward questions will make us think twice about conflating national identity with ethnicity? Or that identity is a much more complicated thing when you’re a minority?
The Fourth Question —How do you identify?
This might be the easiest question to ask. Instead of asking open ended questions that may give you some of the information you seek, this question gives you more than you even expected: a direct response and a singular definition as to what the person identifies as.
Why did I write this?
I’m a Salvadoran-American who identifies as such. However, from my interactions with my fellow UC cohorts I’ve learned that identity is a complicated issue when you’re a minority. My fellow UC peers may not agree with all my views, or any in fact, but I believe they can at least agree on this: identity is fluid, dynamic, and individual, and surface features cannot account for the totality of what it is you identify as.We have these simple questions that serve as a way of getting to know someone, but they end up having unexpected effects because people don’t get the answers they anticipate.
I believe in political correctness – not as a form to inhibit dialogue or place blame on people for whatever imagined slight, but as a way to promote larger and more in depth conversations that tackle head on questions about identity, instead of skirting them by and running away when the topic has been broached. In general, running away when awkwardness pops up does not make you more ready to deal with it when it happens again. Have that one awkward conversation and it will get easier every time (at least I hope).
Thanks for listening to me rant,
To all my international friends, Thanks for the memories.