“Where are you from?”
As a Eurasian I am often asked this question. I do not believe it is because I am for any reason particularly noteworthy in either my looks, habits or actions. I’ve tended to be one for blending in to a crowd. I do not stand tall, model-like, proclaiming my desirability with a toothy smile and tight jeans. So it pains me to admit it’s unlikely to be a chat up line.
And the question where I am from is often followed by a guess.
“Are you Spanish?” Or perhaps, “Are you Greek?”
Given that these questions are often asked in Spanish and Greek respectively, my failure to understand the question when it is asked, let alone answer it, is usually enough to provide an answer of sorts. Though I must admit that there is something appealing about being thought of as Spanish or Greek. There’s something sun kissed and sexy about it. But this is, perhaps, more a sign of my own delusion – another example of the way popular media has helped form powerful stereotypes in our mind.
Certain customs and immigration officers have a habit of picking me out too. In China I’m eyed suspiciously for traveling on a re-entry permit for Chinese nationals, as if I might be a member of a Ughur resistance movement. The concepts of race and ethnicity are highly political in China, and very much tied up with the Chinese sense of themselves as people. A Eurasian face, whilst often prized as exotic, is always more foreign than Chinese. It is not local; not constituting part of the great Chinese people.
In the United States, a society at once multicultural and xenophobic, a passport is often no longer proof of identity. As I was once told by a policeman, “sorry to bother you sir, it’s just that you look like them Taliban”. I thanked him, and thought again about what I had just been told. He was trying to explain a few things and perhaps said more than me intended.
If the confusion of having a Eurasian look can mean exclusion, it can also be an invitation. As a student I remember being hailed as a fellow “comrade” by a group of young South American students whilst climbing over the walls of Highgate Cemetery in North London. Clearly they felt my refusal to pay an entrance fee to visit the grave of Karl Marx, even if it was ostensibly to help pay for the upkeep of the cemetery, firmly put me in the camp of the bearded one himself. However it didn’t explain why they would have thought I was from Chile.
Sometimes looking as I do has come in handy and provide opportunities for insight. Once when I was approached my two Mormon and frankly not in the mood to exchange pleasant conversation (God had obviously deserted me that day. Perhaps he was in Utah.) I was able to be a little naughty. On being asked the inevitable question I told a lie. I told the Mormon’s that I am Iranian. Disappointingly they did not show the persistence of some of their brothers and walked away.
To read those magazines that seem to understand what I’ll broadly terms as “the look”, I shouldn’t really be asked this question at all. I should look Eurasian; have that “exotic mix of East meets West” I recall once being told by a young woman describing the Eurasian look whilst being totally oblivious to to the fact that she happened to be talking to one. Is there really a Eurasian look? Is it mongol or mongrel? Well, from my experience, it means to look to some people Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Argentinian, Mexican, Kazak, Uzbek, Ughur, Iranian, Arab, Afghan, Pakistani, Indian and to those that think this happens to be a look as well, Taliban.
I’ve even be thought of as my component mix. In Northern China, West Africa and the American Mid-West I’ve been told I look English. Apparently it is the shape of my nose. I have also been told by a market-stall seller in Cameroon that I must be Chinese because “you have dark hair”. Apparently Europeans hair is auburn and American hair is blonde. “Only Asians and Africans have dark hair, and you’re not African”, I was told with confidence.
However in some parts of Hong Kong, and in certain circles, the question is not asked. You’re Eurasian, I’m told, in a manner that suggests some local, esoteric knowledge.
Then comes the next question:
Inclined as I am to believe that we are more a product of nurture than nature, I reply that I am 2 parts Ovaltine to 1 part Horlicks, with a little Drinking Chocolate thrown in on special occasions.