No sooner had I wrote about being a Stranger in Two Lands upon my arrival in the Kingdom than three separate conversations about American identity occurred. As you can see in the image above I hold an American passport, or, as I’ve heard it described, the “Blue Book.”
Blue Books are a source of fascination among many people I encounter. “How can I get one?” or better yet “can you get me one?” is a fairly common question. I first gained experience deflecting this exhausting query as a volunteer in the Peace Corps with a somewhat vulgar quote from Bart Simpson: “sorry, the country is full,” which, despite the rude context, always seemed to trigger laughter. Nowadays, I’m far more diplomatic in my answers. But possessing a Blue Book isn’t about wide-eyed covetousness; far from it, in fact. Instead, it’s about the perceptions of where Americans come from–notions that we aren’t readily exposed to while living in the US of A.
One such conversation materialized with a coworker, a gregarious and quirky Yemeni whom we’ll call Faisal, as he was giving me a lift home from work one Thursday afternoon. (Faisal uses exaggerated hand gestures when addressing me has developed a tendency to stretch my name out to his own amusement using a very nasal pronunciation, “Hi Zaaaaaain! What’s up Zaaaaain?”) We were discussing how Saudi Arabia is home to millions of expats who do everything from operate oil refineries and teach English to build houses and serve families. Eventually, our chat drifted toward America where, in the estimation of my colleague, we’re all expats.
Faisal: In America, everyone is foreign.
Me: How so?
Faisal: They are all from Europe! English, German, Irish, Spanish…
Me: Not everyone. America is home to people from every country and ethnic group the globe. Some for a few years, and some for generations.
Faisal: See? They aren’t from America.
Me: Well, it’s not that simple…
Faisal: 95% of Americans aren’t from America! Only 5% Americans are…
He fumbled over a few words until his eyes lit up, at which point he awkwardly twisted his hand behind his head and pointed his index finger skyward. A crude sign of someone wearing a feather.
I laughed nervously and pointed politely to the steering wheel as we were doing about 90 mph down the freeway. But as we drove I pondered his thought process and decided to take note of where others believed Americans were from.
A few days later I spoke with another colleague. Khan, a Pakistani from the region where my grandmother was born, believes me to be a sort of comrade-in-arms. He also calls me “sir” and whenever we greet each other, he darts his eyes around and looks over his shoulder before leaning in to explain something to me as if it were in confidence. This time, the conversation was about my father’s origins.
Khan: Sir, your father is from Pakistan, yes?
Me: Originally, but he immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s.
Khan: But, sir, he is Pakistani, yes?
Me: Ethnically, yes, I suppose so, but he is an American citizen.
Khan: What nationality is in your passport, sir?
Me: Nationality? American, of course.
Khan: It doesn’t say Pakistani?
Me: No, because American passports don’t list a person’s ethnicity.
Khan: I see, sir.
I don’t think he actually saw, but I decided to let it go. Explaining why American passports don’t list ethnicity would only add to the list of topics to clarify with Khan: why I don’t speak Urdu; why I’m not Muslim; why I’ve only been to Pakistan twice, and then only as a child; why I’m not married; and, of course, why I don’t consider myself to be from Pakistan.
But the most intriguing conversation I’ve had about American identity in the four weeks I’ve been in the Kingdom was with another teacher who is American only because his passport says so.
While I think the “where are you from?” question poses some difficulty for me, Rich’s life story makes mine seem insignificant in comparison. I met Rich at a gathering with some other Americans and, for the life of me, I could not place the origin of his accent. It wasn’t Commonwealth (British, New Zealander, Australian, or South African) but it wasn’t exactly American, even though his pronunciations and tone might suggest there was some sort of American influence. After some pizza and a discussion about local politics, I managed to blurt in edgewise with the question, “so, where are you from?” Everyone began to laugh. He smiled and replied, “where am I from, or how am I classified?”
He went on to explain a life born to American parents in Papua New Guinea, raised in Southern Africa–mainly, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Botswana. Wanderlust seemed to take him through East and Southeast Asia, where he eventually found work as a teacher before ending up in the Middle East–a decision he attributes to “being sick of being poor.” While he has loose family ties on both the East and West Coasts, he doesn’t identify with America culturally nor has he lived in the U.S. for any extended period of time. And while he also possesses a Blue Book, he is one of those rare yet true global citizens. Or, in his words, “unclassifiable.”
I’ve met many individuals stateside who claim several towns or cities as their home, are bicoastal, or have deep ancestral roots in one state but have adopted an entirely new home base–San Francisco; Harrisonburg, Virginia; or Missoula, Montana, to name a few. Expat life, however, seems to open up a wealth of completely new categories. Lifelong expats, like my uncle who is retired in Thailand; diplomatic expats who move every two or three years to American embassies around the globe, with brief check-ins back home; long-term expats who may have adopted a country like Spain, Japan, or Taiwan for two, five, or ten years; and recovering expats who are live back in the United States, but are strongly tied to a country they once resided in such as Brazil or the Netherlands.
On the inside of my passport, my Blue Book, it states “place of birth: California, U.S.A.” A warm reminder of the state that is most dear to my heart. But as I ease back into (temporary) expat life here in the Kingdom, I’m once again reminded that one’s roots are much broader than whatever is stamped on the front or on the inside of whatever color book you carry. Even more so, the perceptions that others have about my origins play a big role in sparking thoughts about my own existence. My desire to connect to a broader regional or even global culture, even if it’s just for the short term, fulfills what has been instilled in me throughout my life, and what this whole overseas experience is really all about: the value of getting to know and understand individuals from all walks of life so you can put your own identity in perspective.
photo: an older version of the Blue Book, specifically, mine.