Walk Like an American: the German Question
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.