Yes, it’s a question I’ve received in every country so far. It seems people have a hard time believing I’m really “American,” whatever that means.
I won’t dive into the whole “American” controversy, where many in Latin America dislike that people from the U.S. call them selves Americans when everyone in the Western Hemisphere is technically American.
But staying in Latin America, I received this question the most there. Sometimes it came in strange ways, such as Colombian ladies looking surprised when I say I’m from the U.S. and them responding with “But you’re not a monkey.” Yes, the word mono in Spanish means monkey, but in Colombia they use that word to denote someone who is blond haired and blue eyed.
Apart from the fact that blue eyes are rapidly disappearing in the U.S., with only about 17% of the population today being born with them, and only 18% percent of Americans are naturally blond, it persists as a myth in many Latin American countries that Americans are tall, with blond hair and blue eyes.
It’s difficult for me not to get sarcastic when answering this question. In the end, the only original Americans are the Native Americans. Ironically I look more like them than I look like Lars from Norway, who fits the stereotype American mentioned before.
So, sometimes I answer saying as much, that no, I’m not a Native American. Sometimes I answer by saying “I’m as American as Obama,” whose mom was white and born and raised in the U.S. and his dad was from outside the U.S. This is my story too, only my dad immigrated to the U.S. permanently, didn’t abandon my family, and is from Pakistan instead of Kenya.
When I give either of these responses, I guess it is like throwing a wrench into their engine. Maybe people take it as a subtle scolding of their ignorance, as they see the ignorance in their question but wish I just would have played along and answered why I’m not white, not black, and surprisingly not Latino.
A small side note that I find quite sad is how little I actually know about the Native Americans in the U.S. What we learn in school is a very sanitized version of the truth. I learned a ton from reading the book 1491, but still. I find it unfortunate that I have spent more time with indigenous people in Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and The Philippines, but never with the indigenous Native Americans in the U.S. But hopefully in time that will change.
And there is plenty of ignorance in my own country, throwing the word Latino around as if it actually described the ethnicity of people from Northern Mexico to the tip of South America. I was shocked to find an aisle of “Spanish food” at a local grocery store. Spanish food comes from Spain. They were selling Latin American food, and mostly Mexican food at that. Fabulous ignorance, unless of course people in the U.S. are actually eating English food since that’s the language we speak.
One of my favorite examples of busting the myth of what it is to be Latin is this wonderful music video. Though filmed just in Peru, it shows the many shades of color on people’s skin, the many faces of Latin America, and the varieties of landscapes and lifestyles. So yes, there is plenty of ignorance everywhere.
I digress. Part of being a nomad is being an ambassador to the places you visit from the places you’ve been before. I’ve squashed tons of stereotypes about the Arab world after living there. As I’ve traveled I’ve met people with all kinds of strange notions about that part of the world. And I have no problem doing that, perhaps because I too had to learn a lot once I arrived in the Middle East. One of my passions is teaching and I’m happy to impart what I’ve learned. Traveling is a fantastic teacher. Every traveler is a bridge between where he or she has been and where he or she is going. I think I just need a bit more patience :).