Walk Like an American: the Israeli/Indian Connection

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Previously here, with subsequent links. Now, a range of experiences.

>>I'm an Indian-American who just got back from an extended stay in Israel. During my first few days there, I was struck by the fact that everyone who struck up a conversation with me spoke Hebrew, despite the fact that I hadn't seen a single Israeli who looked like me. "This must be how they help immigrants assimilate," I thought. But that theory quickly developed holes: Chabadniks on the street asked me to lay tefillin, canvassers with clipboards asked me if I'd heard of some politician, and when I asked various people told me straight out that they thought I was Israeli. Of course, after a few sentences my accent and grammatical mistakes outed me as a non-native and they'd ask me where I was from -- but even then, nobody guessed "American." (Latin America was the most popular hypothesis.)

Taking a walk one night in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, I was stopped by a guard and had the following interesting conversation:

Guard: Mi eifo ata? (Where are you from?)
Me: meArtzot haBrit. (The U.S.)
Guard (quizzically): Artzot haBrit?
Me: Ken, hahorim sheli higru lesham miHodu. (Yeah, my parents immigrated there from India.)
Guard: Ah, Hodu. Ata yehudi? (Ah, India. Are you Jewish?)
Me: Lo. (No.)
Guard (in English): Are you Jewish?
Me: Lo, ani lo dati bikhlal. (No, I'm not at all religious.)
Guard: Ah, ata lo ma'amin. (Ah, you don't believe.)

Implying, I think, that he thought I was a secular Jewish person.

When I asked people about this, they usually pointed out the fact that there are Indian Jews in Israel. Well, yes, but not that many -- and I don't look like a lot of them, either. My working hypothesis right now is that despite the relatively small size of the Indian Jewish population in Israel, it's still large in comparison to the number of Indian or Indian-American tourists. But I'd love to find a more plausible reason. (Maybe it was just my Shoresh sandals.)

Interestingly, the Palestinian shopkeepers in the Old City and East Jerusalem all guessed that I was Indian.<<

Also involving Israel:

>>I lived and traveled around Israel and some of its neighbors for about a year in 2008-2009. Though I am Jewish, I have a very strong German background (about half my family) - I am blond and fair-skinned, with small features. My other half is the more typical "Ashkenazi" mix of Russian/Polish/Latvian ancestry. In Israel I stuck out a bit, as you can imagine.

Whenever I found myself in a crowded public space, such as a market or the crowded passageways in the Old City, old Russian women - not just any Russians, but specifically old Russian women - would constantly approach me and begin speaking in Russian. I would always politely apologize in Hebrew and English and try to explain that I spoke no Russian, but they rarely spoke any other languages themselves.

I'm not aware of carrying myself "like" a Russian, if such a thing can be said to happen. And clearly these women were keying in on something that was not apparent to native-born Israelis, or other immigrants. (Everyone else identified me as American immediately, including the Palestinians I met in Ramallah, who were highly amused to learn that I had voted for Barack Obama despite my skin color.)

Anyway, fast forward a year. I now live in DC, in Columbia Heights. But once in awhile I'll find myself on the Metro in Dupont Circle, which has by my rough guess the densest Jewish population. Whenever I'm there, I scan the crowd in my train car and on the platform, and I can always - I mean always - spot the Israelis. They don't have to say anything, or wear any clothing or accessories that identify them as Jews, and they can be of any racial background. I always know.

This new sixth sense I've somehow acquired has really amused me, not least because I've always thought of Israeli "national character" as distinguishing itself far more on Israeli conceptions of privacy, politeness, and public discourse - not body language or ways of carrying oneself. Your series has confirmed my feeling that this kind of national identification probably does exist, but it's still not clear to me how it can give us such sure impressions - right or wrong - so quickly.<<

After the jump, more from the Middle East, and Australia.

___
From the same part of the world:

>>I thought I'd share an anecdote which surprised me very pleasantly when I first visited the Middle East.

While my Arabic vocabulary, especially the useful part of it (i.e., colloquial) was pretty minimal at the time, my pronunciation had thankfully always been spot on from extensive study at school and on my own.  When I went to Egypt in 2005, profoundly embarrassed at our foreign policy and wondering what kind of reactions I would get as a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, nearly blonde-haired foreigner, I was pleased to hear so many locals ask me whether I was from Syria whenever I spoke with them in Arabic.  I have never heard anyone outside of this context remark on any resemblance, and I'm sure I don't have much of one if any, as an American with Scottish and Lithuanian grandparents.  I had heard once that Syrians have Arabic speakers with much lighter skin, but for people to mistake me for one while wearing my usual wardrobe, walking with the same gait, and butchering grammar with a carelessness usually reserved for toddlers, made me feel very welcome.  

Incidentally, whenever I had interactions with people who managed to ask me where I was before I'd had a chance to open my mouth, the first guesses were usually California or Texas.  At which point I would usually speak, prompting the usual question: "Oh, so you're from Syria."<<

And, finally for today, from a young woman in Australia:

>>I lived in the US as a young teenager, for about 3 years.  When I returned, I was repeatedly told I "looked American", which baffled me- I'd not been subjected to American orthodontic work, and my truly formative years were spend in Australia.

But then I read an article, which I can't for the life of me find now, about the way different accents develop different facial muscles and can lead to subtly different facial shapes. So, as I began to speak with a more American accent, my face began to look more American.

I'm not sure if this research has been long since debunked- it was a long time ago, and my face has long-since regained its Australia form. But it made a lot of sense to me, and I'm generally fairly good at picking which country native-English speakers are from based solely on their appearance.<<

More to come, including a number of mainland China / Taiwan / Japan / Hong Kong / and Asian-American accounts. Plus, eventually, the Unified Field Theory of this topic. Thanks to all.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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