People often rely on stereotypes and preconceived notions to judge and classify people. Labeling people makes this complicated world easier. Maybe it’s partly biological, a survival mechanism left over from hunter-gatherer days.
Below is a conversation I have had hundreds of times on my trip.
New person: “Where are you from?”
Me: “The U.S.”
New person: “What part of the U.S.?”
New person: “But you look different. Are you originally American?”
Me: “Original Americans are the Native Americans. No, I’m not Native American.”
At this point my sarcasm probably indicates that it’s a “sensitive” subject for me. It’s not sensitive. It’s just annoying having to slay the stereotype that all Americans are all tall and blond, as if we all descend from Norway and Sweden.
What’s especially ironic is that the U.S.’s 50+ million Latin inhabitants would make it the third biggest Latin country in the world behind Brazil and Mexico. Translation, there are more people who look like you (the Latin person I have this conversation with) in the U.S. than there are in your whole country.
New person: “What are your ethnic roots?”
Me: “My dad is from Pakistan and…”
New person: “Oh, ok. That’s it. That’s why you look Arabic/Middle Eastern!”
Me: “Pakistan is not in the Middle East.”
New person: “It is for me! That’s why you look Arabic.”
Me: “Ok.” I give up at this point.
New person: “Just a second. I want to introduce you to my friend.”… “Hey, this is Adam, my new Pakistani friend.”
Being from Pakistan is something different and a novelty since, due to visas, it’s almost impossible for them to do what I’m doing and backpack around the world. Despite my protests and the information I provide otherwise, people often stick me into this Pakistani box.
It’s not a Latin American phenomenon either. When I lived in the Middle East similar things happened, the U.S. and Europe as well.
In reality, I’ve only been to Pakistan a couple times, I don’t speak any of the languages there, and barely have family connections there either as my grandparents have passed away and most of my aunts and uncles live in other countries.
I bring this up not to complain about constantly being labeled Pakistani here in Latin America. I bring it up because it’s very representative of human nature. Our brains are wired to take shortcuts when presented with lots of information. It’s a survival mechanism.
The more different your story is, the harder it is for people to put you in a box that in any way represents you. With the life I’ve lived and the background I have, I really don’t fit into any boxes anymore.
If you decide to live a different kind of life, one of non-conformity and unconventionality, be prepared for people to “figure you out” and slap you with a label – regardless of whether it fits.
My advice: just accept it. Resistance is futile. Embrace it. And realize you probably do the same thing, perhaps to a lesser extent, but we’re all guilty of doing this.
In my case, what’s the worst that happens?
The people here meet a “Pakistani” guy traveling the world, volunteering, and trying to do good in their communities. Given the reputation Pakistan has, I’m happy to help change minds and opinions regardless of whether it fits or not. It’s a great counterbalance since the real Pakistan is nothing like what the media portrays. Balance achieved, in some small way.