Passports

Dispatches from Abroad

Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 9:26 a.m.

Updates from Elise, studying in Amman

Photo courtesy of Elise Chen.

This post was written by Elise Chen, who is studying abroad in Amman, Jordan.

The third rule of studying abroad in Jordan: Know your roots. Its seems like everyone outside the U.S. places a higher premium on knowing your background than they do on knowing anything else about you. When I first got to Jordan, I was told  because of the tribal society and small population of Jordan, a Jordanian could tell a Jordanian stranger his or her family name and that stranger would instantly know everything they needed to know about the first person’s background.

As a member of an individualistic society, this tends to bother me—not least because we’re taught that it’s rude to inquire directly about a person’s ethnic heritage. But in a collectivist society, where individuality is often seen as destructive to the group, it’s not weird at all. Apparently. Because it’s a question I get all the time. From taxi drivers, my host family’s guests, professors. The conversation tends to go like this:

Jordanian: Where are you from?
Me: From America! I’m American.
Jordanian: Ah, okay… but where are you from?
Me: Um…
Jordanian: Where is your family from?
Me: Oh. Um…

Because how does the average American person answer that? Take your standard white person in the U.S. It’s unlikely that his or her family all hails from one western European country. If he or she were to answer the family question honestly, it’d probably be something like “Well, mostly England with a bit of Ireland on my mom’s side, but on my dad’s side Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.” The hypothetical Jordanian stranger would look at you like you were some sort of Frankenstein’s monster slash orphan slash possibly displaced person. But this average white person can probably just get away with saying “Germany” and just leaving it at that.

Yep, I am what Dwight from The Office would term “some kind of halfsie.” That means that the conversation above would continue something like this:

Me: Chinese and Ir—
Jordanian: Chinese?!
Me: And Ir—
Jordanian: You don’t look Chinese!
Me: Well I’m also a bit Irish too.
Jordanian: Irish…? And Chinese.
Me: Yeah. So anyway, I’m American.

The average Jordanian is surprised! He or she studies my face.  He or she makes a tentative judgment call.

Jordanian: But…you look like an Arab. You’re not Chinese!
Me: Well, I am. Half. The other half is not.
Jordanian: Hm…

Keep in mind that this conversation is being conducted entirely in Arabic, a language I am far from beginning to think of attempting to master, since I still fail at English, my first language, on the regular. Pretend as well that at the end of this conversation your acquaintance attempts to convince you that you are in fact an Arab (a compliment, by the way) and you can see what kind of comic gold goes unmined in the realm of study abroad.

And, at the end of the day, that’s what I often miss about the U.S., as much as I love it here in Jordan. That it doesn’t really matter where your family came from. That it’s not weird for you to be of multiple ethnicities. I mean, for all the talk about how Barack Obama is the first black president, he’s actually the first biracial president.

But in America we don’t have conversations like these:

Jordanian: How can you be Chinese and European? Is one of your parents from China?
Me: No, actually.
Jordanian: Does he speak English? How does he get around in America?
Me: What? No, of course he speaks English. It’s… you know what? I’m going to go get falafel.