When we left the United States there were no tears on takeoff, and no sudden feeling of not belonging. But, during our first few days in Dublin, something wonderful did happen.
No, it wasn’t an “Oh my God, it’s full of stars” moment. It was much more subtle than that – a vague shadowy presence as opposed to an actual event – a series of incidents, none of them greater or more supercharged than the others.
The day we arrived we went shopping at the big grocery store directly across the street. No big surprises there, except that everyone instinctively knew (even before we spoke) that we were American. The next day we stopped in the Gourmet Bank (a wine and specialty foods shop in the same shopping center). Here we found an ethnic foods section. Not a big deal, until we hit on the “American foods” section of ethnic groceries.
Later that day we checked in at the GNIB (Irish Immigration office). Here I found myself seated next to people from around the world, many of them clearly (physically) of a different ethnicity than the Irish (meaning they were not white). I waited in the same line as the family from Nigeria, the student from Indonesia, and the Ukrainian single mother. (I focus on myself here because Kalpana, my wife, is of Indian descent and has dealt with feelings of “otherness” and ethnicity the entire time she’s lived in America – 40 plus years.) But I, a white boy from America, found myself smacked in the mouth by the dead fish of “ethnicity” in a white, western, First World society with close ties to my own country. What gives?
I look like them. Hell, I’ve got some Irish in me. Yet they know, just by looking at me, that I am other? My wife is brown, and still they know she’s American, and not Indian, or Indonesian, etc. Maybe its clothing, hair style, or some other marker, but they just know we’re not part of their tribe, and now that I think of it, back in the States, I could sense it too.
As someone who has gone through life with a profound physical disability, I’m not really put off by people looking at me with that “he’s different” look. It’s just what people do. I think it must go back to the earliest days of bipedal evolution when the human cortex boiled down to three neurons. One said eat it. Another said hump it. And the third said run and hide from it. It’s this last, the one Tim Cahill (one of my favorite travel writers) refers to as the “Human Scream and Jibber Impulse” that has done the most for us as a species. “Run away” is what kept us alive from the earliest cave days.
I believe it’s the fear of things unknown and untested that has its finger ready to pluck that third neuron like a guitar string. As a result, we are all just one good car honk, or woman in a burka, away from being turned into Beaker from the Muppets. But, I’m not convinced it’s a purely physical thing.
People joke about not being able to tell other ethnicities apart. Asians will say they can’t tell one white person from another, and white people say the same of most Asians or people of color. But even within our own general ethnic groupings we discern a broad spectrum of variation. Not all of us act on those variations by ascribing ethnicity to them, but we sense something is different. Is there a physical subset within our general appearance that sets us apart?
If that were the case, wouldn’t I feel the greatest kinship to the disabled Irish folk I meet on the street every day? We’re white, and pretty much the same physically (right down to the lifts on our shoes). But they aren’t my tribe. I’m American, and they’re Irish, and each of us knows this.
It’s likely some marker that goes deeper than just race that defines our ethnicity and our tribe. If not physical, it must be some sort of emotional, gut level, response to our group, or our place. Perhaps the notion of “home” is more emotional or has more to do with shared experience than I first thought. Was I right to expect more of a reaction in myself when leaving my home? Have I moved so often in my life that this internal sense has somehow been dulled, or subsumed?
The search for answers continues.
(Apologies in advance to ethnographers and anthropologists who are surely filled with extreme acid reflux at my cavalier intermingling of nationality and ethnicity. Suffice it to say that I’m just coming to terms with this stuff myself. Once I’ve had a chance to read your books, I’m sure I’ll have a better grasp of those concepts.)
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
- The Logistics of International Moving
- Moving Pets