James Fallows

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.

James Fallows: Walk like an american

  • Walk Like an American: The Finale (Part 2)

    Last week I posted an assortment of reports on the "Walk Like an American" question -- whether you could tell peoples' nationality by their clothes, stride,  head shape, etc. It all started with the "Chinese Professor" ad. After the jump, another big assortment. As before, if you're not interested in this theme, read no further! But if you're interested in various Chinese, South American, Indian, etc angles, you'll find more there.


    To kick it off, a suggestion from a Yank that maybe people are just being polite:

    >>I've been following the Walk Like an American series with some interest, but there's one aspect I don't think has been brought up enough. Given Americans', ahem, reputation, it might be common that when not exactly sure where someone is from, tell them you thought they were from somewhere else. Americans won't mind, but other nationalities might be offended to be mistaken for us. I've had a friend tell me that when I think an accent is Argentinean, ask them if they are from Uruguay because an Argentinean will think this is amusing and well intentioned while a Uruguayan wouldn't be as happy about being mistaken from an Argentinean.

    Now, in my experience people wouldn't really care that much either way, but I can see the logic about going out of your way to avoid assuming someone is an "undesirable" nationality.<<

    More below.

    A harder question:

    >>I was going to let this go, as you've had a lot of discussion here, but let me just post the contra question: if it is so easy to identify Americans, why is it myself (and countless other Americans of Asian decent) have to constantly explain that we are actually born and raised in the United States?<<

    Even the birds know:

    >>About six or seven years ago, I was walking through one of the back-streets -- now demolished -- around Dazhalan in Beijing with my girlfriend when we passed a mynah bird whose owner had set it out in a cage. When she walked past, it said ni hao -- and when I walked past a second later, it said hello. I think this was the point at which I decided that it was utterly pointless to get upset by standing out as alaowai in China and all of the things that come with it.<<

    Clothes don't matter:

    >>I have the conceit that I am very good at recognizing people by how the move, a skill made necessary by working in a "clean room" where everyone was dressed head-to-toe in white.

    I grew up in the US and have been living in Canada for five years. I would agree that the US mainstream culture has been profoundly influenced by African-American culture. (It is one of the things that I, a white woman, miss most.)

    I thus feel like a reasonably good authority when I say that I do not think that Canadians walk differently than Americans, despite being significantly less influenced by African-American culture. I believe that the way North Americans walk is much more likely to be from having a very low population density for a significant fraction of our countries' history.

    (Example of how well you learn to "read" bodies: I came around a cornering the cleanroom and saw someone seated, of course dressed all in white (including a hood) hunched over a microscope, back towards me, and my immediate -IMMEDIATE - thought was, "Funny, what's Chung doing in the fab? I've never seen him in here before." And I didn't even know Chung that well!

    How did I know it was Chung? Dammed if I know. It's a right-brain phenomenon and that damn right brain is resolutely non-lingual.)<<

    Fitting in, in India:

    >>I lived in New Delhi, India for six months, where I worked and began learning Hindi and Urdu. I am a white American with fair skin and light brown hair (thus, I do not look Indian in the absolute slightest). For the first few months, people approached me only in English. Even people that had no ability to speak the language (other than perhaps saying the word "photo" and holding out a camera), approached me only with whatever English skills they had. However, after a few months (around the time my Hindi became sharp enough to actually communicate with people on the streets), people suddenly began approaching me in Hindi. It became night and day. People came up and asked for directions in Hindi, autorickshaw drivers started quoting fares in Hindi, and people stopped acting totally shocked when I spoke to them in Hindi. This happened throughout the city, so I'm certain that these weren't all cases of being recognized locally. What's really, really strange is that once I left Delhi to travel (thus, switching into tourist mode), the Hindi/English approach began to skew much more to English again (in the South, where Hindi is hardly spoken, I was never approached in anything but English).

    I'm not entirely sure what was going on, though I suspect part of it has to do with a visible comfort level within the city that would probably be very difficult without some basic language skills. Once I left that comfortable environment (and once I entered places that tended to be a little more touristy), that visible affectation disappeared. I do want to emphasize, though, that this happened quite suddenly. It went from only-English to mostly-Hindi over the course of a single week that happened to coincide with a major "A-HA!" leap forward in my language listening and speaking skills<<

    Looking as if you fit in:

    >>I lived in Germany for three years as an Army officer and became fairly conversant in German and generally comfortable there (to the extent I had a period of culture shock when I returned to the US). Although I don't look stereotypically German (despite some German ancestry), I was very frequently approached on the street by both Germans and Americans and addressed in German. This despite a fairly regulation Army haircut and clothes purchased at the PX. I don't know why people often assumed I was German, but to your thesis, there is something that tells you that a person "belongs" in a particular environment. In Washington, NYC, or any other big city, you can spot tourists a block away. There must be some cue that gives you away.

    To your main point, I agree that Asians (and other ethnic groups) who grow up in the States have a different "look" than their parents. I always assumed that better nutrition, dentistry, etc. was the reason for that. But as you suggest, it may be in part the result of some intangible American quality.<<

    From an Aussie:

    >>My observation is that while overseas, I've noticed that foreign touts (particularly in Asia) are able to pick me as an Australian (rather than an American or a Pom) without even needing to speak to me. For instance, when I was in Beijing earlier this year, three separate 'Art tour' touts in Tiananmen Square approached me smiling and asking 'Australian'? I've had a similar experience in India too. On the flip side, I generally feel that I can spot another Australian in a hostel (there are always a few) from across the room. Until your posts I'd never really thought hard about why that is though.

    Given the relative economic equality of Australians and Americans/Europeans, physical/health related cues aren't helpful - teeth and weight won't separate Australians from Americans and Englishmen. However, the cultural cues are clear to anyone with experience observing them (as the touts have in spades). For instance, Australian travellers are much more likely to wear shorts and thongs (ie flip-flops) and to be generally more casually dressed and groomed (ironing while travelling seems bizarre to me). I'm sure there are more obvious differentiators that I'm not consciously aware of.

    These are also traits that are shared by the Vietnamese-Australian and Chinese-Australians that I've travelled with. It takes ten seconds for the Hong Kong locals to pick my wife as an Australian even though she spent the first ten years of her life in HK.

    I guess my general point is a pretty obvious one - when trying to distinguish people from different countries, culture matters. I got the same feeling that you did from the Chinese Professor video, but I think that was cued by cultural cues more than physical ones (eg the way the students and the prof interacted).<<

    OK, you had to mention the weight issue:

    >>I studied abroad in the Prague in 2004 and when I first got there, I didn't understand how the Czechs always knew to speak English to me and my friends. After I was there about two months, I realized the two biggest differences between the Americans and natives.

    1. Americans were fatter and wore much more baggy clothing.

    2. Americans were louder and noticed the world less around them. We didn't see people getting on and off the tram as quickly and move out of their way. We didn't see pile of dog crap on the sidewalk that everyone else knew to avoid.

    Now, at first, I didn't get this. I was blown away. But I was there for five months, so after about 3 months, it became really obvious. I could easily spot an American even if I couldn't hear what language they were speaking. One of the things I was most proud about my time in Prague was that in the last month, when numerous Czechs who didn't live in the city were visiting for Holidays, they needed to ask strangers for directions. They would ask me in Czech, and I would reply as best I could in Czech. And then afterward, they would say, in english "wait, where are you from?" It felt very good to have learned how to blend in. All it took was forgetting to shave occasionally and buying some tighter jeans (And walking miles and miles to the metro everyday to lose some weight).

    My weirdest story was being on the metro, and I stood up to get off the train. An older lady stands up just after me and starts talking in Czech to me and pointing to her bags and then at me and I just stare blandly because I have no clue. I didn't speak Czech very well, and she was talking very fast. Then everyone else in that side of the car starts pointing at me and talking as well, all in Czech. I get that I'm supposed to carry her bags from the grocery store. So, I pickup as many as I could, and follow her to her apartment building. I'm really confused and don't have a clue what I'm doing, so while she's fiddling in her purse for her key, I set them down and walk off. She turns from opening the door and starts yelling at me. I say "I don't speak Czech" in czech. and she quits yelling and just kind of stares awkwardly at me.

    One other thing is that you can notice differences in walking gait and dress styles between Brits, Germans, Spaniards, and Eastern Europeans (my time in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, all the non business people dressed the same, or I didn't notice a distinction within those cultures). I'm mainly talking about the non-suit wearing crowd. If they were business people, anyone could be from anywhere.

    I also lived in Southern India. Some generalizations
    Men in suits had spent a lot of time in Europe/America.
    Engineers who wore slacks/pants had spent time in the Middle East
    Engineers who wore the Mundu had probably never left Kerala & Tamil Nadu.
    Women in Sari's could be engineers or could be housewives who were scared to death of talking to white people.<<

    Not fitting in, in India:

    >>I'm an American of Indian descent. I walked into a Himalaya bath products store in Bangalore this past August and started looking for stuff for my lady. Now, keep in mind, I think I looked very authentic. I was wearing my half-sleeve guayabera pocketed shirt and chapals/sandals. Tom Friedman would've enthusiastically approached me for an interview and a set of tennis.

    I immediately got a sales pitch from the lady at the counter - in English. When I gently rebuffed her in Kannada, she replied, with a surprised smile: 'You are one of us?' My walk, of course. I walked in like an American. I walked in like I owned the joint.<<

    Or in China:

    >>A few years ago, we took our America-born teenagers to visit China. Invisibly hidden in the crowd at Tienanmen Square, our youngest son relished the moment by saying: "Finally, I look exactly like everybody else here." I told him not so fast. "People can tell right away you are not from here." I said. He was mad with me for poking a hole in his "homecoming" reverie. "People know right away you are not from here by the way you move your body." I added. "No way they can tell." he looked around with self satisfaction, "there is no way they can tell." He walked on, mincing his steps a bit now, until a woman came to him and asked with pretty broken English: "Want lady massage?" Right then and there, he was totally crushed.<<

    The language factor:

    >>I am a born-and-raised United States citizen, and Caucasian of mostly European descent. A comment -

    On the flipside of it all, I've lived and worked in Latin America a lot. While I am of course aware that native Latin Americans can spot us (Norteamericanos) from a mile away, I was surprised when I discovered that I was very good myself at distinguishing Caucasian North Americans from Caucasian Europeans. From a mile away.

    Especially the young "backpacker" set. Obvious things like the brand-names of backpacking gear, shoes and clothing. But more subtle things help too - little style differences like placement of colors or stripes. And Europeans are much, much tidier and dress slightly more formally.

    And, of course, if you walk into a social gathering at a hostel, if someone is speaking more than two languages it is most likely NOT a Norteamericano (except if s/he is speaking French, it might be a Quebecois who speaks French, English and Spanish).

    I speak Spanish well enough, but I was always jealous of the Europeans. They could speak to virtually anyone.<<

    So butch!:

    >>Many years ago, in a conversation with a Canadian girlfriend about differences, she laughed and said, "Oh, come on, you can always spot an American woman. Even just the way they walk - they're always so butch!" That really stuck with me....<<

    The brown corduroy suit didn't do the job:

    >>When I was in the USSR as a young man (1985), I thought I had cleverly disguised myself. In a storefront shop on the lower east side, I found a Romanian (!) brown (!!) corduroy (!!!) three-piece suit. Since I was going to be in Moscow in January, I thought it a good, warm choice, even though it was the ugliest thing I've ever owned.

    My Russian contacts all told me that they could identify me as an American from a kilometer off. "How?" I asked. "Everything I'm wearing I've seen other people wear on the street."

    "It's the way you walk," they said. "You walk as if you had the right to go wherever you wish. A Russian walks as if someone will, at any moment, tell him 'It is forbidden to walk here.'"

    Perhaps this has something to do with the negative rights enshrined in our Constitution versus the positive rights in nearly everyone else's. The concept "Congress shall make no law" simply doesn't travel well.<<

    The obnoxious idiot factor:

    >>Having extensively traveled traveled across Europe and Latin America for the last twenty years, I can't help myself from reacting to your readers' comments about "Identifying Americans" in a crowd, because they sound like a pile of worn out clichés that have much more to do with what we, as a people, want others to think of us (the ambitious, fearless and self-confident doers) rather than the truth (we are no better at all these things than most people in the world).

    Some differences may be immediately apparent in Asia where restraint is part of the culture. But in Europe and Latin America you wouldn't recognize an American if it wasn't for his or her attire. For example anyone who has ever been to Italy will tell you Italians have plenty of self-confidence in their attitude.

    As for the "looking in the eye" thing, not all Americans (and by far) do it and I haven't noticed any major difference between New Yorkers and Parisians in that respect for example. There is more diversity in behavior within the US and within other countries than between them.

    A cliché that is sadly true is that if you see and hear some obnoxious idiot in tasteless attire making a nuisance of himself anywhere in the world, there is a large probability he or she is an American. Which doesn't mean we all do of course.<<

    All is vanity, from a reader in Sweden:

    >>Your blog series on identifying nationality by body language has been a very good read, but there's one thing I feel some commenters appear to be missing -- namely awareness of their own cultural context.

    One writes, of his experience in Eastern Europe, that visiting Americans ...

    ... walked with their head up, shoulders back and didn't try to avoid looking people in the eye - as opposed to the locals who looked at the ground and walked with their shoulders hunched over as if trying not to be noticed.

    Another, that ...

    ... most of it is how you carry yourself. Frankly it's confidence--upright posture, and a confident walk. Additionally, Americans are one of the only people in the world who look strangers in the eye when passing them in the streets (perhaps that is also part of the confidence thing).

    The implicit assumption here is that walking head up and looking people in the eyes is a universally accepted way of displaying "confidence". But, of course, it is not, since what signals confidence varies according to the cultural context.

    Imagine you could switch sides for a second. Where "normal" is to not look people in the eye and to physically act in a self-effacing manner, how will the visiting American who breaks these rules appear to locals? Probably, s/he will be met with the reverse assumption. As the locals see it, this American insists on impolitely staring people in the eyes, s/he acts as if trying to be noticed, and s/he signalsover-confidence and intrusiveness rather than the more positive trait of "normal" confidence (which would locally be displayed in another way). It's no less a faulty assumption, of course. But one should realize that a cultural trait cannot have any intrinsic meaning valid for all cultures -- the first rule of communication is that the message sent isn't always the message received. Even though the act itself is exactly the same, one person's "friendly eye-contact" will inevitably be a "rude stare" to some others.

    Now, compare all this to the common stereotype of the "ugly American": loud, arrogant, superficial, self-centered, and so on. This is obviously not a true picture, yet it's an amazingly common prejudice. The idea here is that this unkind global gut reaction to Americans may be rooted, at least to some extent, in differing body language in the USA vs. most of the rest of the world. Obviously other things matter more (politics, history, economic ties), but if for most people in the world the "American walk" is by their own cultural standard an arrogant swagger, then small wonder that this is how Americans are often unfairly characterized. It's the flip side of how the American commenter quoted above perceived those Eastern Europeans as shy, evasive and "trying not to be noticed" -- when for them, it was just walking home from work.

    That is it .... almost.

    More »

  • Walk Like an American: The Finale (Part 1)

    How do I pick out the Dutch people? And the Koreans? And the Hassidim?

    Thanks to many readers from around the world who wrote in with accounts stimulated ages ago by the "Chinese Professor" ad, with ensuing discussion about whether you could tell someone's nationality from haircut, dress, stride.

    After the jump, a whole slew of messages from people with varying experiences on this score. I don't need any more! There are about this many more still left in the queue. But to me there are some interesting recurring themes, plus some odd eccentric experiences. If you're not interested, read no further. But if you are interested, there's a lot on the other side.

    On body language in Asia:

    >>I've been living in Tokyo since 1991. I wanted to comment on the thing about Americans looking people in the eye on the street. I think we do it partly to communicate our path.

    When I was first in Japan I kept having real trouble walking through crowds. Like, I'd walk out of Shibuya Station into Hachiko Square on a Sunday afternoon and I'd run head first into one person after another, and we'd do that little dance trying to negotiate who goes where. I noticed my Japanese friends were not having the same trouble. They'd just melt through crowds. I started paying attention and I noticed that Japanese people just look where they're going. When they're coming up on someone head on in a crowd, they indicate with an impassive glance past the person where they intend to go.

    Americans look each other in the eye and I believe there's a little click-click communication that goes on in the millisecond that eyes meet. "I'm going left. How about if you go right?" "Works for me." And we pass each other smoothly. The trouble is, while I was unconsciously trying to meet Japanese eyes to figure out where they were going, they were reading my glance as an indication that I was going to walk right through them, so they'd jump aside. With a 50% chance of blocking my path. After I figured this out, I adopted the habit of NOT looking people in the eye and very little trouble since then.<<

    An American who fits in:

    >>In 1974, at age 17, I made my first trip to Europe, travelling with about 60 high school students and teachers for a 6 week tour. I was born and have lived my entire life in Georgia, and except for a short trip across the border in Mexico had never been out of the country before. Our first stop was London. Wherever I went, it seemed, people would pick me to stop and ask for directions, even if I was in a group of other kids and even if there were obvious guides with us. Not just Americans would do this, but English people too! It was so noticeable it became a running joke within the first couple of days. At 5'11" I was a bit taller than most of the other kids and because I sunburn easily wasn't as tan. But one of the teachers with us said "You walk like you know where you're going."

    The next stops were Copenhagen and Paris and it was the same thing there, people, Americans and Europeans alike, would stop me for directions everytime I was out. I finally borrowed an American flag jacket from one of the other kids and wore it.

    When we got to Italy I figured I was safe but no, in Venice, Florence, and Rome it was the same thing again. How Italians could mistake me for an Italian still boggles me.

    I've been back to Europe several times since then, most often to London and its still a very common occurance for me. More often than not in central London I can give pretty good directions, so Brits who stop me for help and then look surprised when they hear my voice are doubly taken aback. I guess I just look like I know where I am!<<

    From an Indian-American:

    >>I've been in Ukraine for the past couple weeks (ugh, the leaves I'll have to rake when I return to Maryland!) and there's no question the locals can spot foreigners a mile away. But I've only once seen someone of black African descent here, so I seem to be by a wide swathe the darkest-complected person around.

    Quite a few times adolescents have run up to me with cellphones asking if they can get a picture with me and couples have asked for a picture with me seducing the girlfriend (no less creepy but not as unpleasant...) I believe they think I'm "Shaft." It's beginning to grate.<<

    On American self-congratulation, with a literary edge:

    >>Your selection of increasingly self-congratulatory responses from American readers about how they occupy space reminded me of a favorite passage from Tender is the Night (underline mine):

    'They were at Voisins waiting for Nicole, six of them, Rosemary, the Norths, Dick Diver and two young French musicians. They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose -- Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with. Things looked black for them -- not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face.

    "We ought never to have given up waxed mustaches," said Abe. "Nevertheless Dick isn't the ONLY man with repose --"

    "Oh, yes, I am."

    "-- but he may be the only sober man with repose."

    A well-dressed American had come in with two women who swooped and fluttered unselfconsciously around a table. Suddenly, he perceived that he was being watched -- whereupon his hand rose spasmodically and arranged a phantom bulge in his necktie. In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

    A well-known general came in, and Abe, counting on the man's first year at West Point -- that year during which no cadet can resign and from which none ever recovers -- made a bet with Dick of five dollars.

    His hands hanging naturally at his sides, the general waited to be seated. Once his arms swung suddenly backward like a jumper's and Dick said, "Ah!" supposing he had lost control, but the general recovered and they breathed again -- the agony was nearly over, the garçon was pulling out his chair . . .

    With a touch of fury the conqueror shot up his hand and scratched his gray immaculate head.

    "You see," said Dick smugly, "I'm the only one." '<<

    A Yank in England:

    >> I am an African-American in London. During my stay, I have been:

    *asked if I was from Nigeria

    *asked if I spoke Hindi because some Trinidadians do

    *asked if I drank green coconut milk because I must be Costa Rican

    *asked if I was from Jamaica

    *nearly propositioned on Oxford Street because a gentleman assumed I was West Indian or African.

    Various people have stated:

    *I looked like their cousin in Alexandria Egypt

    *or in Brazil

    *or that I had the same name as their relative in Guyana.

    Lastly, when I wore a sarwal kameez (formal Indian tunic and baggy trousers) to a wedding, the bride's friends from Pune and groom's parents assumed I was Indian.

    I love being a 'Yank' (especially after the last presidential election!). But I find all of this hilarious as there is a somewhat disappointed look on people's faces when I tell them that my parents are from Illinois and Mississippi. Whatta world.<<

     A Yank in Dongbei:

    >>Arriving late to the conversation as my internet reading habits have definitely slowed since coming to China. But wanted to throw my 2元 in as I haven't seen your readers mention a phenomenon I've always been puzzled by here: that is, the persistent confusion that my being American seems to cause people here.

    First off, like your other readers, I find it easy to pick out Asian-Americans or Taiwanese in a crowd, or even mainlanders who've spent significant time overseas. It's not just head shapes or body type -- the giveaway for me is often the eyes. I don't know how to put it. There's something more openly inquisitive about them, more roving. Something about the expression just feels easier to read.

    That said, people usually assume I'm from the mainland here -- even when I'm accompanied by other Caucasian foreigners and we're speaking English, people will often assume I'm their translator. Since my accent sounds slightly off, I get asked a lot if I'm a southerner, from Yunnan, etc. (Note: this is usually only after a few bars of conversation, at which point the gaps in my 普通话 and theirs isn't so obvious.)

    However, once they pick up on the fact that I'm foreign, I get the weirdest of guesses about my country/place of origin. Mexico, Indonesia, India and even Africa have all popped up with bizarre frequency. Unless I was hanging out with other U.S. travelers, I can't remember anyone ever guessing that I was American. Beyond that, what I find surprising here is how difficult it is for many people to absorb the fact that I am, in fact, American. The conversation usually goes like this:

    "I'm from America."

    "But you don't look American."

    "I know."

    "You're not Chinese?"


    "But you look like us!"


    etc., etc. Eventually the person seems convinced. At which point whichever street vendor I'm talking to turns to his friends to explain, as though, "Hey, get a load of this girl -- she says she's American!" and everyone looks alternately confused or delighted, and laughs. Then a few more people rush up and ask, "Are you really American?" and I have the whole conversation again.

    This happens several times a day.

    I'm sure this would likely be different farther south, but a surprising percentage of people I encounter here in Dongbei seem to have trouble acclimating to the idea of someone being both Chinese and American.

    Then again, of course, these encounters aren't unique to China. The most absurd like encounter I've had in the U.S. was when I was leafleting in Providence in support of separation of powers for RI. After giving a long-winded spiel on the merits of three separate branches of government to one middle-aged shopper, the guy looked inspired, took my pamphlet and said, "Wow, your English is incredible."


    A Jew in the American West:

    >>When I was a student at CU Boulder in the sixties, many fellow students from NYC took me to be one of them. I was born and raised in Denver. I was a skier. My father was a tennis jock. His father (among other things) used to drive cattle through the streets of downtown Denver. Later he played pinochle. My mother's father was a Revenuer. I doubt I had ever left Colorado (Wyoming doesn't count) before I was sixteen. Is it possible that kids from the City are so provincial that they think all Jews are from New York?<<

    A dark-skinned American in southern China:

    >>As for me, I get nothing more than stares... no pictures. The stares say: "What am I looking at?" When I'm out for meals with my Chinese friends I usually make it a point to ask them what the restaurant staff makes of me. My favorite response to date: "He sounds kind of like an American, but he doesn't look like one. So I think he's Canadian."

    I've also been called Russian. (Think about it: the Russian-speaking people a Chinese person who had been to Xinjiang would encounter would be Turkic, not Russian. I'm medium brown. I have a beard. I have wavy hair. Close enough.)

    I'm pretty sure the border guards between Zhuhai and Macao think I'm a Muslim. Why else would someone wear a beard? (Another colleague was detailed when he went up to Beijing for the Olympics a couple of years back. He's got a magnificent beard that makes him look like some kind of wild Chinese sage.)

    Even my students aren't quite sure what I am. When I said "we Black Folk" in class one day, one of my students shot back: "But you're not Black!" After trying to explain that people don't cop to being Black (yeah, there are those who dance like us and dress like us, but... ) without being Black. This went nowhere. Then it hit me. I just said: "Obama." "Ah!" Handy examples make a huge difference with my students. True of my students at USC when I taught there, but more so here.<<

    From an Asian-American:

    >>One response from a reader, in particular, was so shockingly close to my experience. I was raised on the West Coast, went to Brown, then had a Fulbright to China and subsequently worked as a program manager at a business school in Beijing. I often interacted with EMBAs and executives. The European ones all complimented me on my English and asked me where I had learned to speak it so fluently. The American ones wondered where I learned to speak English "just like an American," before I told them that I am, indeed, an American. A few Americans have also told me that my body language (raised chest, eye-contact, walking style), extroverted character, and directness gave my nationality away.

    Though otherwise, my time in China was mostly filled with locals asking if I was Korean. I always make sure to ask them why they think I am Korean, and I've had answers that range from my looks to my accent to my fashion sense. I have also hypothesized: I don't speak Chinese in a 100% local accent, but I'm not white (ruling out American), and I have fair skin, so I am either Korean or Japanese. Since they have less exposure to Japan (and many dislike Japanese people), I must be Korean.

    Upon insisting that I am an American, however, Chinese people often respond, "Impossible, but you have neither blonde hair nor blue eyes! You are [Chinese/Korean]!" In China, nationality has yet to be disconnected from ethnicity.<<


    >>I am a Chinese American who was born in China, I came here when I was 10 and is now an American citizen. In 2000 when I first went back to China, I didn't feel many people thought I was American. It seems like Chinese people may have an inkling that you're not "from here" but at the same time, I don't think they thought I was from the US. I'm not sure if that was because I was with my parents most of the time. Before we came back to the US, we stayed at 北大勺园 (Shaoyuan at Peking University) which is intended for international students and visitors. One day I was getting breakfast in the cafeteria with my parents and an American lady came up to me and asked me where the restroom was in English as if we were in the US. This really threw me back for a second because I was talking with my parents in Chinese and not looking particularly "American", but there was some assumption that I am American.

    This past year I went back with my boyfriend who is a white American, we decided to join a tour group going up the Yellow Mountain. The tour group consisted mostly of young people who've just graduated high school. It seemed like no one picked up that I could possibly be American. Most of them seem to assume that I was at most a Chinese person studying in the US and it took them aback that I've lived here since I was 10.

    Following that we went to Taipei where we were doing some shopping in the 西门町 (Ximending) district. As I was talking to my boyfriend about an item we were about the purchase, the salesperson said to me that my English was very good and that if I study in the US. I told them that I've been there since I was 10, and at this point she said that my Chinese was very good. This is also a rare occasion where someone not in the US commented on the quality of my Chinese speaking. Oh, of course my boyfriend blew everyone's mind by speaking more than 2 words of Chinese.

    It seems from my experience Chinese people rarely assume that I am American by talking to me or even upon hearing me speak English. Tourist Americans in China more often assume that I am "American" similar to Americans in America. Ironically, most international students here I've encountered (who are not Chinese) assume I'm American. I had a conversation with a European postdoc the other day where he tried to convince me to do a postdoc in Europe because they were looking for Americans.

    On a side note, when we were climbing the Yellow Mountain, there was a group of Korean tourist. At one point some people near us were talking about the Korean tourist (I think they were trying to get them to take a picture for them). And they referred to the Koreans as 老外 (laowai). I've always assumed that people only refer to westerners as 老外, this is the first time that I've heard non-westerner as that.<<

    On spotting Russians:

    >>Now you need to get everyone to figure out what makes it so easy, after having spent some time in Russia, to identify a Russian in a crowd of other white people almost anywhere in the world. It happens to me all the time in Nairobi. I can never tell by looking if someone's a Brit or an American or a white Kenyan, but I can always _ always _ tell if they're Russian. Clothes and complexion definitely have something to do with it.<<

    And again:

    >>Fwiw, my Russian wife and her two adult children, as well as their Russian friends, tell me they can always spot a fellow Russian in a group of people. I've even gotten to the point where I can pick them out with some degree of accuracy above chance. I am right maybe 30 percent of the time, when I have the opportunity to test my hunch, but they are, indeed, correct well over, oh, 70% of the time, I'd say.<<

    And again:

    >>Trying to figure out rules for spotting compatriots must be a universal sport. Among Russian-born New Yorkers, apparently, one is supposed to spot Russians in crowded public places and check the hunch by asking them time of the day, in Russian. Good players almost never miss. Of course, the potential targets should not be overheard speaking or otherwise be too obvious.

    But as for picking an American out of a lineup, sometimes you don't even have to see the person. It's enough to read something they wrote, like your correspondent: "When I was [...] in the countries of the former Soviet Union (Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, + + + etc.) in the early '90's..." I wonder if anyone but an American would think Hungary or Bulgaria were parts of fSU ("Soviet block", yes, SU, no). The disregard of quaint local distinctions by someone who has spent years on location is straight from "The Quiet American". Well, stereotypes are based on something. (This particular quote also played to my opinion of the Peace Corps crews I've seen growing up in that part of the world at the time your reader mentions. I am afraid my opinion would be unfair to the many wonderful young Americans, who, I am sure, do a ton of useful work overseas and learn about the world in the process.)<<

    About my claim that the only place (apart from the US) where I'm taken for a local is Germany:

    >>I'm writing in response to your blog post about Americans being taken for native in Germany. I've also had that experience.

    There are visual differences between Americans and Germans, but they mostly relate to haircuts, eyeglasses, outerwear, and shoe/sock combinations. The last two may relate to climate -- German sweaters and jackets can be bigger and heavier, and people seem more likely to wear heavy leather shoes or boots. That's compared to Washington DC, of course, not Chicago.

    But I don't see huge differences in the way Americans and Germans walk, sit, gesture, or work their facial muscles. Germans are the biggest ethnic group among white Americans, so perhaps their national traits have had an influence on us.

    In any case, I often get taken for German when I'm over there. I'm ethnically Italian and a brunette, but I'm well within the range of German physical types. I also speak German fluently, although I have an American accent. Germans often assume I'm from a German family that moved to the States when I was a child.

    I've found that I can also get taken for native in London or Paris, but only when I'm wearing a business suit. Of course I reveal my origin the minute I say anything, but I "pass" visually when I dress up. Maybe the restrictive clothes make me move in a more European way, or maybe it's the clothes themselves. (I'm female, so I'm talking about women's styles here.) But they spot me right away if I'm in jeans.<<

    More with the Germans:

    >>I'm an American (of Dutch-Jewish extraction) who has lived in Europe for 15 years (10 in the UK, 4 in the Czech Republic, 1 in Croatia), and everywhere, save the Netherlands, I am mistaken for a German. It's a mistake that Italians have made as often as Danes. I was actually denied service in a small cafe south of Naples in the late '80s, as I was mistaken as "un Tedesco" (memories of the war were obviously still fresh). It was one of the few times that my American passport created a positive response. The Dutch think I'm Dutch, but then so do I at times. The Germans, however, tag me as British. It's all very confusing. Glad it isn't just me.<<

    And again:

    >>You other correspondents' experiences mesh with ours. We wandered into a lovely stationery shop in a Tuscan town. The shop workers eyed us warily, until one of us asked a question. Then, "Oh, you're Americans. Thank heavens. We thought you might be Germans." We were then told that, on balance, they generally found American tourists to be nicer and less aggressive than Germans. And one woman said she was thrilled by a recent visit from a handsome former NFL football player. We decided it might have been Howie Long. That would have made my day, too!<<

    Other Axis powers:

    >>Just wanted to weigh in on the national characteristics discussion. Several years ago I was watching "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", starring Nicholas cage. I was struck by his body language in one scene where he is seen striding up a hill into the village followed by his troops. Having spent some time in Italy, I immediately felt that Cage was NOT Italian. He walks like an American. Something about the swaying body, arms swinging. It's not a bad thing---I appreciate that we are a relaxed culture.<<

    Asian-Americans in Spain:

    >>I wanted to offer my thoughts on your series of "Chinese Professor" articles and an interesting experience I had traveling through Barcelona. Oh, and for the record, I'm a 31-year-old Chinese/Vietnamese American living in California, working as a lobbyist.

    Back in winter of the 2008, I was visiting a friend in Barcelona. She and I at a fairly empty metro station, waiting for the next train to arrive. We were sharing the bench with a young Chinese woman (as an Asian, I can easily pick out other Asian ethnic groups) dressed very "European." A young Spanish couple walked by staring at me, but didn't give the Chinese woman a single glance.

    I turned to my friend, a Catalan woman, and asked her what that was about. I was wondering why the couple looked at me so intently while not even giving the other Asian on the bench a peep. Granted there aren't as many Asians in Spain as there are in California, but it's not rare either. My friend responded that it wasn't because I'm Asian but rather that I'm Asian American.

    (To preempt any assumptions: I travel quite a bit for pleasure so I know what the stereotype of an American traveling abroad is. I wasn't wearing anything that yelled "USA"--simple sweater, jeans, driving cap and a long coat--nor acting like ... an American traveling abroad.)

    I thought it was very interesting that--according to my friend--the young couple was able to pick me out not as Asian, but Asian American. My assumption is that it's in the way I dressed that made me stand out as a non-European Asian--while nothing that yelled "USA" but not stereotypically European either. But this tidbit I think adds to your conversation of Asian Americans "looking" different than our Asian counterparts elsewhere--including Europe apparently. That or the young couple thought it was strange to see what they assumed was a Asian-Catalan couple.<<

    Another literary precedent:

    >>I actually lol'd when I read this. The following is a passage from "A Short Course in the Secret War", 4th Ed, p.86, by Christopher Felix (aka James McCargar), first published in 1963:

    Speaking about "cover", in the intelligence sense, as an American weakness - "The unconscious aspect is typified in the experience of a New York corporation executive with whom I was once discussing these problems. A cultivated and elegant man, he was once a guest in a London club. He repaired his first afternoon to the steam room, where he found himself alone and, except for wisps of steam, entirely without 'cover'. He was, he thought, indistinguishable from any Britisher in a steam bath. A club member, a total stranger, entered and, sitting down next to my friend, said, without preliminaries of any kind, "I say, so nice to have an American here.""

    [Also, if you do publish that, please don't mention my name - "A reader from Australia..." or something is preferable].<<

    Back to the Germans:

    >>I'm an American who is about equal parts of German and English descent. I've traveled in both countries a fair number of times over the years. On a few occasions I've had Germans speak to me in German and had to tell them that I'm an American. I've never been mistaken for a Brit in England. So there must be something about how I look that reads "German". Maybe I wasn't walking ;0).

    Also, I've been to Mongolia five times now. I know a little Mongolian. It seems that about once per trip, I'll say "Sorry" or some such to someone in Mongolian, only to have them say to me in English "I'm Korean." A trifecta of a sort, I guess. I can tell the difference between Mongolians and Chinese or Japanese, but obviously there are enough similarities with Koreans that I've been fooled. Mongolian royals (the descendants of Chinggis Khan) and nobles apparently lived in Korea and intermarried with Koreans some centuries ago. So maybe that's why I've made that mistake. I suspect the Mongols and Koreans don't. Perhaps you know some folks from both or either country who could weigh in on that.<<

    Spotting Brits:

    >>I have an uncanny ability to pick English people out of crowds of Americans. It might be because I lived in London for a while and have watched more than the average amount of the BBC and soccer for an American girl. There are often some pretty clear markers - for instance, the ghostly pale/sunburned families that roam Orlando or men wearing certain styles of clothes (slimmer-but-not-trendy cuts of suits, brown belt/shoes with black pants, capri pants) - but sometimes I just *know*. I always thought it was really weird, so I'm glad I'm not the only one.

    When I worked there, I was constantly getting mistaken for Irish. I'm a mutt (largely Dutch, English, Irish, French) but have green eyes, fair skin and near-black hair. At home, I just get perfect strangers who are mistakenly convinced they know me from somewhere. Also weird.<<

    The real experts:

    >>One way of gathering data on this would be to interview the British Airways flight attendants who, as a transatlantic flight descends into Heathrow, have to proceed down the aisles and make snap judgments as to whether to offer each row of semi-comatose passengers "Cookies or chips?' "or 'Biscuits or crisps?" It can't have anything to do with walking.<<

    Are you Russian?

    >>I've enjoyed reading your recent blog posts on accents, identities, and nationalities. As a blue-eyed American, most can guess where I'm from as soon as I speak, but I've had a different experience altogether in Asia.

    In China, when I speak Chinese with what I consider to be a very American accent, many Chinese think that I am Russian. Some Chinese even believe that I might be a Chinese citizen (Russian minority). I suppose these guesses have to do with the large number of Russians living in northeastern China. Still, in terms of ethnic heritage, my ancestors all come from Northwestern Europe, so it doesn't quite fit. On the other hand, Taiwanese do a much better job of guessing my American origins.

    When I'm speaking Tibetan in Tibet, Tibetans living in Lhasa can easily guess that I am a foreigner. However, in the villages, it's not so obvious to them. While staying in a village in Qinghai, I wore Tibetan clothes, and spoke a broken mix of Lhasa dialect and Amdo (eastern) dialect. Since I could speak the Lhasa dialect, many of the villagers figured I was from Lhasa, until I corrected them. I was greatly amused that they thought that someone as Anglo-looking as myself could be from the plateau!<<

    Spotting the Hassidim:

    >>I wonder whether other groups exhibit the same unique phenomenon as Americans. Do Canadians walk the same way? As a Canadian in New York, no one's ever taken me for a foreigner.

    One thing that people have been able to point out, is my Jewishness. Or, my being an Orthodox Jew. For example, one time when I was in London with a friend, he was looking for a suit in a department store. The salesman (an Afro-Brit) came right on over and volunteered that none of the suits contained "shatnez", a combination of wool and linen that Orthodox Jews are forbidden to wear. On that same day, we were in a haunted house and one of the actors took the time to wish us a happy holiday (it was Sukkot at the time). We've never been able to figure out how they knew - we weren't dressed as Hasidim or anything. Maybe it's the way we walk?<<

    Walk like a Dutchwoman:

    >>I'm a 5-foot-10 American woman and I know, because my adult daughters constantly tell me so, especially when we're trying to share a sidewalk, that I walk big even for an American. I'm a robust person generally. My arms swing wide. I take big steps. I stand up really, really straight.

    So please explain why when I'm in the Netherlands I am taken, repeatedly and consistently, for a native? This happened to me the first time I ever visited there, as a college student in the late 1960s, and again on my most recent visit last year, at age 61. and on other visits in between. People stop me on the street to ask me for directions, and are completely bewildered when I don't respond in Dutch. I've traveled pretty widely in Europe and the Netherlands is the only place where this happens. Everywhere else, I'm instantly identified as American.

    Most people think it's because the Dutch are tall like me. But shouldn't the "American walk" give me away? I should add that I'm of Anglo-Saxon/Greek/Norwegian descent, in roughly that order of predominance. Not a trace of Dutch ancestry in me as far as I know.<<

    There's more. Thanks to all who wrote in

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  • Walk Like an Asian-American

    Head shape and other cues to national identity

    Previously here, with related links. Today several messages on the topic that got this all started: the physical, behavioral, and other traits that may distinguish many Asians from many Asian-Americans.

    First, on the "head shape" cue:

    >>I'm Taiwanese-American; I was born and raised here and my parents came from Taiwan as adults.

    I visited China for the first time last summer, and I traveled around for about three weeks. In the major cities, I think that people could tell that I was different, if they paid attention, but not the exact way in which I'm different. I was told, though, by a Chinese friend of a friend who I met for the first time in Shanghai, that she would not be able to tell that I was American just by looking at me. I think the reason for this is a matter of background probabilities.

    In any major American city, if you see an Chinese-looking person, there's a pretty good chance of both possibilities -- that the person is from Asia or from the US -- so it makes sense to use little cues to push your decision one way or the other. In a place like Shanghai or Beijing, though, if you see a Chinese-looking person, the probability might be more like 99.9% from China to 0.1% from US. So if you're in Shanghai and see someone who has some western cues, which is more likely -- that the person is from China but is relatively wealthy and dresses in a western way, or that the person is from the US?...

    There's another useful factor for identifying Chinese-born and American-born that I rarely see discussed. Ethnically Chinese people raised in the west tend to have a different head shape than those raised in China. Seriously. If you look at the profile of a Chinese-Chinese person, the back of the head tends to be flatter. In some cases, the back of the head is a straight line up from the neck. This is especially apparent in older men with short hair. I'm pretty sure this happens because infants in China are traditionally raised sleeping on their backs on firm surfaces, whereas in the west, it's much more common to use soft surfaces, and (until relatively recently) to let them sleep on their sides. It's possible that head- flattening is less common in younger Chinese people, as softer bedding materials become more common.

    Flat heads have become more of an issue here in the US since the increasing awareness of SIDS led experts to recommend putting infants on their backs to sleep. If you Google "flat head SIDS", you'll find plenty of information about it.<<

    Let me just say: I agree with this observation. I have borne it in mind since a day in August, 2006, when I realized that I could for some reason pick out -- from behind -- a Chinese-American friend I was going to meet, amid a crowd of thousands of Chinese people on Nanjing Dong Lu in Shanghai. Like any trait, I'm sure it's not universal, but I suggest it as a hypothesis to test when you are in China. After the jump, some more.

    From a Chinese-American scientist in California:

    >>I think I can tell the diff. between Asians and Asian Americans and I think that your analysis of the hair and skin is spot on. But, there might be something more complicated than that globally.

    When my husband and I were traveling in Paris, Asian Americans would come up and ask me directions in English. He wondered, "how did they know you are American?" I think it was my comfortable shoes.  ;-)

    White Europeans could not tell.  In fact, I was not allowed to take photos of shop windows (or of street scenes with shop windows). If I even get out my camera, shop keepers in France and Italy would jump right out the shop doors and start screaming at me.

    My husband [I assume non-Asian] and white women can take pictures of shop windows. The presumption from Europeans is that I am a counterfeiter.

    While I was in Japan for a conference, strangers would talk to me in Japanese.... In Australia, Aussies assumed I was Asian until I spoke. In New Zealand, Kiwis assumed I was American.<<

    From a Japanese-American:

    >>My husband (also a Sansei) and I were pegged as Americans all the time in Japan....but not in China (that's another story), back in the late 80s.

    Once in Tokyo (this was before Smartphone GPS), we were standing near a subway station  and a young Japanese couple came walking up to us with their faces buried in a map.  They walked within 2 steps of us, looked up saying, "ah no, ne...", stopped dead in their tracks and turned around.  We didn't even have to open our mouths for them to figure out we were not "Japanese".  I'm sure it was the haircuts, clothes, stance....or perhaps the baby in a baby backpack gave us away.<<

    From a Chinese-American who was born and raised on the West Coast, went to college at Harvard, and then worked in Beijing before returning to grad school in the US:

    >>Since the majority of your readers seem to be of the opinion that Americans are easily identifiable, I thought I'd add another data point to the mix.

    In my previous incarnation, I intermittently was more or less a tour guide for American EMBA students in Beijing for their week long programs. In that capacity I frequently filled dead time by blabbering on and on about various things, the content of which was always fairly vacuous and maybe only one or two steps above small talk.

    I thought I did a fair job of it, and it was to my surprise that one of my charges thought so as well - he complimented me on my English, saying that he could barely detect an accent. Implication being: he thought I was native to the PRC, and not a native English speaker / born and raised in the states.

    I guess the point I'm obliquely trying to make is that perhaps it is not as easy to pick out an American as some might hope or fear...

    PS: For me, the more interesting part about the "Chinese Professor" video is the professor himself - where did they get him from? There are few Chinese actors working in the states these days. ... Also related to accents - I don't think many have noticed yet that he seems (to my untrained ear at least) to have a Southern / Taiwanese (NOT northern / standard / Beijing) accent to his Mandarin?<<

    Finally, on the larger sociological points raised by the original "Chinese Professor" controversy, this note:

    >>As an ethnic Chinese with quasi-Chinese citizenship, I can testify that I felt absolutely no offense reading your post regarding the identification of Chinese vs Chinese-Americans; rather, I am slightly dismayed that, of all the 'blog trolls' lurking on the net, readers of your blog are capable of such undisguised nationalism and bigotry...

    The reason why we talk about culture difference all the time is because it is supposed to be a distinctive factor of human beings - if a British Caucasian and an American Caucasian looked and acted alike, the term 'culture' would be quite sensibly sapped of any meaning at all.  The same goes for ethnic Chinese born or bred in different countries and regions.  Almost all modern societies praise cultural distinctiveness to a greater or lesser degree in the name of pluralistic liberalism, including China with its scores of minority cultures. 

    Indeed, a more nuanced and scholarly point that goes beyond blog discussions is the issue of Chinese identity - ie Samuel Huntington's point about Chinese civilization masquerading as a country and thus all Chinese are [morally] obliged to toe the standard Chinese culture line - but for present purposes, the outrage the original post provoked should unquestionably be seen as irrational nationalism and branded as such.  It is not a good faith argument when Chinese often differentiate amongst themselves: those who are from the mainland, those from Hong Kong, those from Taiwan; and even with finer distinctions: those from Shanghai, Beijing, etcetc.  That this is suddenly an outlandish and outrageous claim seems to rest purely on the fact that a 'white guy' raised it rather than one which was made in jest - or in hostility - by an ethnic Chinese.

     I say this final thing in provocation to the young nationalists in China.  Almost unfailingly, a Hong Konger is able to recognise a mainlander from a crowd of similarly looking Chinese faces.  To a large extent, non-Chinese East Asians are capable of performing the same feat.  Is that a fashion statement, a socio-behavioral critique, or merely an empirical observation that living in different climates yields different biological responses (skin colour [ie tan], hair colour, nutritional composition, dietary habits etc)?  It might be one or some or all, but it certainly isn't bigotry.<<

    Thanks to all. Having a chance to read and share this kind of thing is a big (and unexpected) payoff of the Atlantic's extension to the online world.

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  • Walk Like an American: The Most Frightening Tale of All

    Every American's nightmare

    A reader in Michigan reports:

    >>I am a white American and have lived here for almost my entire life. I have never lived in the New York area. But whenever I visit Manhattan, I am very frequently mistaken for being French. I am not of French background, and I've never lived in France. The phenomenon is consistent, limited strictly to Manhattan, and totally baffling to me.

    My best guess is that I must have some sort of inadvertent French tell, and that Manhattan is the only place in the US with a large-ish enough concentration of French-born people for anyone to recognize it. I don't really mind - I've visited France and I like it. But what's the tell? When did I pick it up? What fateful day in junior high gym class did my shoulders lift with a slight but unmistakable Gallic shrug?<<

    After the jump, two other Americans in a similar bind.

    >>Back in the 70s I spent a couple of years in Paris. A French friend was doing the lighting for a dance troupe and I went with him to a small party for the dancers. After I'd been there a while I finally said something and one of the male dancers turned to me and said "You're an American?!" I asked him why he was surprised and he said I didn't walk like an American. How do Americans walk? He replied with an exaggerated bow-legged gait.

    I was back in Paris last summer after an 18 year hiatus and my family and I walked up to Parc de la Villette, which was close by, as soon as we got in. I was flattered when some Parisians walked up to me and asked for directions which I couldn't help them with. They'd assumed I was French.

    Having spent lots of time in Paris, I've found it's always seemed easy to look around and spot the Americans. We tend to be fatter, louder and dress badly. Maybe I just didn't spot the Americans who aren't fat, loud and badly dressed...<<


    >>Like one of your other correspondents, I too am a tall American of English and Scottish descent with light brown hair, and have often been mistaken as a native all over Germany (though rarely in the UK itself). The German exception was in Berlin, where every single person I met spoke to me first in English.

    This felt similar to how New Yorkers can always spot tourists, and can usually tell where they're from, much quicker I believe than in some other parts of the US. It's easy to practice this there, first of all, but I also think some longtime urbanites can fit into certain other large cities with little effort.

    This urban connection was reinforced in Paris with my wife, who is Irish-Italian by way of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Parisians always spoke first to her in French. Finding out she was American, they would look genuinely confused. Then she would say "New York," and be met with sighs of relief and nods of understanding, as if that reference somehow set their view of the world back in order.<<

    FWIW, in China most shopkeepers, passers-by, and other Chinese laobaixing similarly assumed that my wife, rather than being American, was "French." At least they could explain why they thought this, which for tact I'll leave in Chinese: "你不胖!"

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  • Behind the Scenes: Making the 'Chinese Professor' Ad

    "But what's stupid. We're the Americans!"

    To review: last month I marveled at the slickness of the "Chinese Professor" ad and said, as I still believe, that it's the commercial most likely to be remembered from the 2010 campaign. Much back- and-forth ensued, and is still ahead, on the general topic of matching people's nationality to their looks, during which I idly wondered how the Asian-American and visiting-Asian students who served as extras in the ad (which was produced in the greater DC area) felt about the Chinese-menace message it conveyed.

    Thumbnail image for StudentSmile.png

    Now we know! Here's more of the back story, via a source I trust, from someone involved in making the ad. For understandable reasons, this person does not want to be identified by name. Emphasis added.

    >>First off, everyone involved was in it for the check. From the grips, to the director, to the extras, it was all about doing the job, not about "the message." The only time the crew wasn't acting like a bunch of guys around the water cooler was during the lunch break when someone from CAGW [Citizens Against Government Waste, the sponsor] was here to "see how things were going."

    The extras were recruited from a Craiglist posting, mostly, and a few fliers around the campus for "young people age 19-27, able to appear Chinese." About 50 showed up and they were given some info as to what to wear, but otherwise, they were just extras in a commercial. One commented that she was Laotian, but even Chinese people didn't believe her. Another said he was half Chinese, half Vietnamese. All in all, they didn't give a crap about what the purpose of the commercial was, they were happy to be hanging out, getting paid, and getting fed.

    Towards the end of the day, when "The Professor" was on set, and some discussion of what exactly was being said happened, one of the kids piped up with, "But that's stupid, because *we're* Americans now." After the extras were dismissed for the day, they started having a conversation about being Asian in America, and bringing their parents' standards to American business. Of course, that was as they were walking out the door, so I'm not sure where that discussion went....

    It seems someone has identified our facility, and asked the Powers That Be at the college questions about the commercial, which has caused them to ask the Campus Director to freak out a bit about us "allowing" them to film this here. They cut us a $15K check for the privilege, just like any other client. But the school has a bug up its butt, so you didn't hear any of this from me...<<
  • Walk Like an American: the Israeli/Indian Connection

    Funny, you don't look Syrian...

    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.

    More »

  • Walk Like an American: the German Question

    Germany: the inclusive nation?

    Today's installment (previously here, with backward links), with thanks for the interesting accounts that continue to come in and that I'll catch up with and digest. Much discussion so far about the Asian angle. So for variety, let's look at ... Europe. A reader writes:

    >>I grew up in the SF Bay Area and have lived in Asia (Japan) and I agree with you that it is easy to tell Asian-Americans from Asians (and the latter from one another) by looks alone.   I think it is true of African-Americans and Africans as well.  As you've mentioned, posture, eye-contact, how people move and physically relate to the world around them, all signal their national origins in overt and subliminal ways. 

    Interestingly, though, in my experience this is less true of Europe.  I lived in Paris for a year, and people were always surprised that I was American.  (Funny how often they thought that was a compliment.)  My French wasn't good enough to be taken as a native, but they just couldn't figure out where I was from.  Scandinavian?  Northern Italian?  (Yes, I'm blond.)  A friend of mine had a similar experience in Germany.  Though not a native speaker, she spoke the language fluently, and she was almost always mistaken for German.   

    So I wonder if this is more a West / East thing ... or developed / developing world?<<


    >>Swimming against the tide slightly, I traveled for some months all over South America in the late 1970's.  I was easily spotted (being over 2 meters, metric being their frame of reference of course) will get you noticed in, say, a Peruvian village or even Cartagena.

    Fellow gringo tourists generally picked me as American, but locals all across the Andes almost always thought I was German.  For context, there were approximately equal Germans and Americans traveling the region at the time, something to do with the Dm being particularly strong and SA having become a favorite spot for German tourists..  

    From what I could tell, it was mostly the height; I have light brown hair, blue eyes, typical Scots Irish / English from what I can tell.  Not dark skinned, to be sure, but not stereotypical (at least from our limited stateside view) Nordic.   My Spanish was decent (better than average tourist, to be sure), my pre-trip lessons having come from a Cuban friend and the rest (including accent) picked up along the way.<<


    >>I'm an American who is about equal parts of German and English descent. I've traveled in both countries a fair number of times over the years. On a few occasions I've had Germans speak to me in German and had to tell them that I'm an American. I've never been mistaken for a Brit in England. So there must be something about how I look that reads "German". Maybe I wasn't walking ;0).

    Also, I've been to Mongolia five times now. I know a little Mongolian. It seems that about once per trip, I'll say "Sorry" or some such to someone in Mongolian, only to have them say to me in English "I'm Korean." A trifecta of a sort, I guess. I can tell the difference between Mongolians and Chinese or Japanese, but obviously there are enough similarities with Koreans that I've been fooled. Mongolian royals (the descendants of Chinggis Khan) and nobles apparently lived in Korea and intermarried with Koreans some centuries ago. So maybe that's why I've made that mistake. I suspect the Mongols and Koreans don't.<<

    FWIW, these reports accord exactly with my experience -- well, except for the Mongolia part. "Racially" I am from the British Isles, but I've always gotten body-language cues that people there knew I was a Yank. Yet without exception, every time I've been to Germany the waiter in the restaurant or the teller in the store or the passerby on the street has spit out something to the effect of, Also, was würden Sie für das Abendessen wie? or Können Sie mir sagen, was der kürzeste Weg zur Potsdamer Platz?, which I cannot understand and have not the slightest idea of how to respond to. When I wave, kein Deutsch, they generally switch seamlessly to English but after a momentary register of surprise.

    What is it about modern Germany or the assumed German look that makes so many people there think that (white) outsiders actually are local? I dunno. But I'm relieved to hear that it's not just me.

  • Walk Like an American

    If you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, should you judge a person by his or her walk?


    Lots and lots of accounts piling up about the countless small cues that signal a person's nationality before he or she has uttered a word or shown a passport. (Previously here, with backward links included.) Here is another batch, starting with this, from a visitor to France:

    >>My wife and I were flying home from Nice. My wife stayed in the rental car with the luggage while I went into the little hut to check in.  There was just one young woman behind the counter.  She was filling out the papers for a man who was checking out a car.  They were speaking French.  I stood back so as not to appear to be listening.  As they finished, she handed him the keys and said, "Bonjour" as he headed out the door.

    Then, she turned to me and said, "Good morning!"<<

    Many accounts involving walking style, for instance:

    >>When I was opening new Peace Corps (PC) programs in the countries of the former Soviet Union (Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, + + + etc.) in the early '90's, I was often told that even though the PC Volunteers physically looked like the residents of the countries in which they were serving (versus white Volunteers serving in Africa or Asia), you could always tell which people on the streets or in the shops were the (American) PC Volunteers: they walked with their head up, shoulders back and didn't try to avoid looking people in the eye - as opposed to the locals who looked at the ground and walked with their shoulders hunched over as if trying not to be noticed. I've related this to many people over the years. It's nice to have it independently corroborated.<<


    >>This discussion reminds me of something I heard on NPR a few years ago, maybe on This American Life. An African-American woman who has lived in France for 15 years or so and speaks fluent French was surprised when a French acquaintance said something like, "Oh, you Americans." The woman telling the story hadn't told the French woman she was American.

    "How can you tell?"

    "You kick out your feet when you walk."<<


    >>I second your correspondent who says Americans carry themselves differently than others. 

    When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I became friends with a Beligian woman who became impatient with the, what she considered, sloppy way American men carried themselves.  She set about teaching my then-boyfriend to "walk like a European".  She said that Americans have a lot of space, and they use it.  They move freely, swing their arms, and generally take up space. 

    She had Bob stand up straight, hold his arms by his sides, keep his shoulders square, take smaller steps.  The results were eerie - he suddenly seemed like one of the French guys in the dorm.  I liked the effect, but he wasn't having any, and went back to being a free-ranging American.<<

    After the jump, another on American walking style, with the combined testimony of Stanley Crouch and Carl Jung.

    One more for now:

    >>Somewhere, I read speculation that the American gait had changed since the early 1900's, loosening and copying an African-American style.  The story went that in turn of the century films, (white, filmed) Americans had a shorter, more stilted, ramrod-straight gait that contemporary Americans would find unfamiliar.  I enjoy the thought that the American style of walking that your readers say they can spot a block away is actually a black American trait that has become the default.<<

    After doing some research, the same reader wrote back having located the quote she half-remembered. It was from a Salon interview with Stanley Crouch:

    >>Q: Why do you admire Johnnie Cochran and Ron Brown so much?
    You know, some imbecile who reviewed my book said I admired Johnnie Cochran and Ron Brown because they were black men who made it in a white world. But I don't know where that white world is. Carl Jung said that white Americans walk like Negroes, talk like Negroes and laugh like Negroes. Now Carl Jung was from Switzerland, where they make the real white people.<<

    More ahead, including from people who reject the whole idea of visual clues to national identity. And, how this discussion relates to a previous thread on "language mismatches" -- people whose accent is at surprising variance with their appearance. Plus, I will reveal in what country, other than America, people assume I'm a local (hint: not England, Canada, etc), and where everyone in China assumed my wife was "from."

    Note to the young: the picture above is of course an homage to the Bangles, obligatory in any "walk like..." reference.

    More »

  • Field Guide to Identifying Americans

    How can you identify an American on sight? It's not just that so many of us are overweight.

    For those joining late, previous discussion here, here, and here. The question is whether it can be "racist" to note that there are quick visual cues to people's nationality, even when the people involved are from the same racial group. I originally said that that I didn't think the famous "Chinese Professor" ad had been filmed in China, because the students in the auditorium, while ethnically Asian, somehow looked different from those I'd seen in real Chinese lecture halls. And as it later turned out, the ad had been filmed in Northern Virginia, with students from the DC area. But what about the seemliness of saying, "They don't look Chinese to me?"

    Three reader responses on what's involved in categorizing people by look -- and about the surprising ease of spotting Americans. First:

    >>I'm a Chinese-American, currently living in Hong Kong, and I can tell you that even barring certain physical characteristics, there is something distinctly different that seems to set me apart from the locals here, which was also true when I was living in mainland China. I've gotten my hair cut at a local barber, bought clothes at shops other locals visit, even worn the thick, black-rimmed glasses that are often seen worn in Asia. None of it seems to matter. I've been told several times (by both native Hong Kong friends and strangers) that I, and others of a similar background, just look and act different.

    It's true that I can blend in. People will speak Chinese to me on first contact, but I can tell this is just because people will generally use Chinese first to anyone who physically looks remotely Asian. But it doesn't take long for them to know I was born overseas.

    The reverse is also true. As your other reader also pointed out, I can roam the streets here and quite accurately pick out other Chinese-Americans. And when I saw that picture you took from the Chinese Professor ad, I instinctively knew the students were American-born. I've now seen the whole video, and even though I have the knowledge that they're Asian-Americans, I would have been really shocked if it turned out that they were otherwise.<<

    Another reader to similar effect:

    >>Yes, I've had experiences that indicate that Americans are somewhat distinctive by simple appearance and bearing.

    - In Sao Paulo, as I was getting off an airplane to meet someone from the local office, I looked across a fairly large crowd and spotted her immediately. She wasn't waving or looked much different in terms of skin color or hair or dress, but somehow stood out.

    - In Moscow, we were going to a meeting and met an interpreter on the street beforehand. She said that she spotted us a block away, again not because of physiotype or dress, but just by the way we held ourselves and moved.<<

    And from an Indian-American reader:

    >>You could in fact expand your observation beyond Chinese/Chinese-Americans. Of course, Americans of any descent are easy to pick out based on visual cues, in my opinion. 

    Whenever I traveled to India as kid (the country of my parents), i would not even have to open my mouth before folks knew I was American. Its not just dress. But I'd argue most of it is how you carry yourself. Frankly it's confidence--upright posture, and a confident walk. Additionally, Americans are one of the only people in the world who look strangers in the eye when passing them in the streets (perhaps that is also part of the confidence thing). That's the other dead giveaway.  (i say this mind you never having been to China but assuming Chinese there don't look people in the eye).

    I recall a few years ago I was meeting a friend in Buenos Aires at a crowded plaza. He's also American but Caucasian. He said that even before he could recognize my face from several blocks away, he knew it was me just based on how i was walking. i think his exact quote was "you were walking like an American."<< 

    So maybe that's the point I really should have made. It's not so much that the students in the "Chinese professor" lecture hall looked vaguely non-Chinese. It's that they looked so definitely American. (And on what might be involved in "looking Japanese," see this previous article.)

  • So Much More on the 'Chinese Professor'!

    More and more back story on a memorable ad

    Recently I quoted a testy reader who thought it "racist" of me to say that Chinese-Americans looked richer and better-fed than their distant cousins who had grown up in mainland China. Now, three followups.

    1) I'm right! A Western reader reinforces the idea that there are easily visual cues for knowing who grew up where:

    >>You can count me on your side in the argument that there are subtle differences that signal an ethnically Chinese person who was not raised in China. You mentioned better teeth or skin, as a result of better nutrition, or hairstyles. You can add clothing style to your list of attributes that send abroad vs. mainland signals. But also, as an American living in Beijing now for 2.5 years, I'd also say it's just in the way a person carries himself.

    The best way to spot the differences is on the subway, when small differences will stand out in stark contrast to the norm. In my first year in Beijing, while riding the subway, I would sometimes see a person that had the "je ne sais quoi" of a fellow American. I wouldn't think too much more about it until I would hear that person speak - in perfect American English. At first I was surprised when I realized I had recognized an American who by all accounts looked just like the other hundred or so Chinese waiting on the platform or stuffed into the subway car with me. I guess small differences in hair, teeth, clothes, and hairstyle may have added up to a pretty big difference that triggered my subconscious. But there's something else in the posture, or the walk, or the way Americans just kind of carry themselves in a public venue. It's hard for me to put my finger on it. I used to surprise myself at my ability to pick an American-born-Chinese out of a crowd, but now that I realize how easy it is, it's no longer a cool parlor trick.<<

    2) The Extras in the Ad. I mentioned the last time around that I wasn't sure how the Asian-American college students who served as extras in the "Chinese Professor" ad felt about serving a larger "Yellow Peril" purpose. A reader graciously pointed me to the Racialicious site, quoting from Angry Asian Man, with an account from an extra in the shot:

    >>It was filmed at a community college (NOVA in Alexandria VA) and when we got there, the production team did tell us about the ad, but in a misconstrued kind of way. I know that the ad was about the US deficit and they did tell us the premise of the ad (taking place in the future, and we all supposed to be "Chinese" students in a lecture). I saw the commercial and it's pretty intense and one thing I did not know that the commercial would do, is put this almost red-scare type of fear in the eyes of Americans (effectiveness wise, the political ad works, not saying I agree with the tactics) [JF note: that was my original point about the ad].

    What's interesting is that the production team told us that we would all be laughing in the commercial because the "Chinese Professor" said something funny, so there were multiple shots where we all "laughed" after the "Chinese Professor" said his so called, "joke."<<

    3. The IPA Angle. Picking up the gauntlet of my challenge to find a "better class of angry-letter writers," a reader in Singapore writes with his own degree of wroth:

    >>How dare you, sir, put a nearly full-page picture of a Sierra Nevada Torpedo on your page? You should know that there are thousands of expats suffering the absence of hops in Asia. In Singapore it's particularly bad, because there are a few decent microbrews, but you have to pay US$10 a pint and you can only get them at a few bars. If you want to drink beer at home, you're paying US$12 for a six pack of Tiger cans. You KNOW this!

    That picture probably got at least a thousand mouths watering for something they can't get. Now that you're back in beer country, I hope that you're thinking about how to bring affordable hops to Asia. Or else at least put a NSFAE (Not Safe For Asian Expats) warning on future pictures of delicious, delicious IPA.<<

    I do, in truth, know the reader's pain.

    More »


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