Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Questions of American Identity

As much as we'd rather not admit it, we judge people. Everyone does. You can tell the criteria of that judgement by comments and questions both. Here in the U.S. it is first one's profession. The question is, "What do you do?" And even if you don't think less of a person necessarily for their job, you do form your ideas about what that person likes, dislikes, and is good at from what you've learned from their answer.

Even when not asked this question, Americans answer it because it is the standard. Sit in a room of strangers and tell each one to tell a little about himself. You'll get several things most often, where he is from, what he does for work, his marital status (he'll mention it if he's married), and, of course, his name. (And if you live in the South, you'll get both first and last name.)

Perhaps in Iraq these things are similar, although if you asked them where they were from they'd all give the same answer. But for me, being a blond, white, American female, it was these most obvious characteristics that shaped what people asked me about and how they perceived me. My profession occasionally came up, my marital status was responded to with shock and confusion, and where I was from was guessed at wrongly about half the time. (Do I look German to you all?) But those questions always came later. First things first, after all.

First was always, "How do you like Kurdistan?" Or for the less linguistically capable, "Hello, Goodbye, I love you!" Then came surprise and laughter at my Kurdish speaking. Lots of laughter and smiles. I would smile too if it were a woman, nod, chuckle a little, and then they would tell my I was beautiful and so white. Then the women would ask me what color of hair dye I used (sorry, ladies) and where I got it. Then they would tell me I was fat, which was a compliment to them (it took a while to get used to that one).

Then eventually we'd get to all the normal questions, but they would be passed over quickly to get to topics like picnics, the weather, beautiful places around Kurdistan, Presidents Bush or Obama, whether or not I liked Yaprax, tea with lots of sugar, and lots and lots of rice. I never felt isolated or separated by Kurdish families for my differences, for being single, for not having a prestigious job. To them, I was a foreigner first, and that meant a chance to show off the wonders of their world and inquire into the oddities of mine. It was good.

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