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Walk Like an American: The Finale (Part 1)

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