Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On my "Slavic features"

In my time here, I’ve more or less become accustomed to Europe’s quirks and conventions. Yet there is one particular habit that continues to take me aback. It normally begins with the question, “where are you from?” This alone is not so odd. Rather, it is the pervasive follow up, “So what is your heritage?” that is indicative of a mindset completely foreign to my thinking about national identity.

Now, the technical answer to this question is: predominantly German, secondarily French and English, with the French having a Belgian influence and the English having a Scottish influence. In reality, however, the adoption of my paternal great-grandfather and the unconfirmed possibility of a Jewish great great-grandmother mean there’s a lot up in the air when it comes to that question.

Heritage aside, I seem to blend in almost anywhere. Eating dinner in Dubrovnik last summer, an English woman craned over and asked if I was English. When I detail my heritage to Germans, they normally nod their heads and say something to the effect of, “Yes, that makes sense…you look German.” Hungarians have mentioned I blend in very easily here…yesterday, a Georgian told me I look Georgian.

Just a few minutes ago, I was moved to begin writing when a woman knowingly looked at me, gulped down the last of her coffee, gave a single crisp nod, stood and decisively walked across the café towards me. Afraid I’d somehow offended her, it was my surprise when she asked if I’m Russian. Not deterred by my answer in the negative, she mused, “hmm…you have Slavic features.”

Perhaps the most amusing part of these anecdotes is that the nationality people project onto me always seems to be their own. It’s like I’m some kind of mirror.

As an American, this obsession with heritage borders on the bizarre. I’m accustomed to the follow-up to “where are you from” having to do with a sports team. Outside of family gatherings, heritage hasn’t been a topic of discussion since a first grade unit on familial histories. In the States, if there isn’t something to mark you as an “immigrant” (darker skin, accent), you’re considered American. There is, of course, a great deal of hypocrisy and irony in this particular construction, but leaving such tensions aside, the point is that in general, once you loose the accent, heritage doesn’t play a huge role in the U.S.

National identities have been a core theme of my class on Central Asian politics. Some of my colleagues from the region consistently defend a primordial view of what it means to by Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, etc. To them, their nationality runs back hundreds of years, rooted in a stable and essential conception of identity. Our professor consistently disagrees, instead arguing that the identities have repeatedly shifted in response to pressures from the outside world and the efforts of elites to define their peoples.

As an American, I’m predisposed to the position of my professor. In the States, we live in a society where identities are constantly changing. Of course, given our history this is not surprising. Indeed, part of the beauty of being American is that the requirements don’t run in your blood, but in a common set of values. While Gov. Palin has sought to define this set of values rather, shall we say, narrowly in the past week, mainly equating American values with Republican values, I believe truly patriotic individuals (who come from both sides of the aisle) reject this conflation.

When people look at me and see Slav, Georgian, Hungarian, English, etc., they do so based on some essential conception of what that group is supposed to look like. But by miscategorizing me, they prove the fluid construction of their own identity. Generally, I bite my tongue and refrain from pointing out this irony. People are so concerned with defining their own culture, a process inherently wrapped up with marking off the differences of other cultures, that they loose the ability to see the similarities. Every time I hear about my Slavic features, I become even more convinced that there can be no such thing.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I'm so glad you posted! I appreciate your insight. It is very much in line with much that I think about... perhaps that is why we are friends.