Suddenly Ethnic

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.

Stay tuned.

(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

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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12 Responses to Suddenly Ethnic

  1. lunamarina says:

    Welcome to the club Glenn 🙂 Being a “white” Hispanic has similar issues and don’t get me started of what is to go back to PR and being told that I am not Puerto Rican. That is another long essay about identity and tribalism 🙂 Funny that in less that half a century a lot of people in the US has forgotten the many white “ethnic” that came through Ellis Island and that poor white ethnic people are not so different that people from Asia, or Latin America. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Kay Connelly says:

    “One said eat it. Another said hump it. And the third said run and hide from it.” This made me spurt my tea. This entire post rings true with my own experience of moving to Paris. Before I say a word, they know I’m American. After I say a word, they wish I wouldn’t butcher their language 🙂

  3. jeanette says:

    Very, very interesting, You’re writing so well! I look forward to reading more.

  4. I’m glad we’re getting to share your experience through your incredibly insightful eyes! I don’t think average, white Americans get to feel that feeling that a whole lot of the rest of the world lives with. Do “others” get used to it? The only time I’ve come close was when I went to a black rodeo here in Oklahoma and realized I was a minority. Just casually traveling, I think we’re still pretty insulated from the feeling — I didn’t have it in Hong Kong or Singapore or Bangkok.

  5. Scot says:

    Well duh…without a pint of Guinness, you’d stand out like a sore thumb!

  6. Laura says:

    Glenn, your post was extremely interesting and gave me lots to think about. I agree with Elaine’s comments. I look forward to reading more about your experiences. I’ve enjoyed seeing the pictures Kalpana has posted to fb. We’ll really miss her at CelloSpeak!

  7. yvonne Lindsey says:

    Glenn: Your mom put us on to your blogs, and we are truly enjoying them. I have to concur with your feelings of puzzlement of “How do they know we’re American?”. Wherever we’ve traveled, when we enter a store, the clerk switches to English, which is helpful, but…. I finally decided it was our clothes, mainly our “walking” shoes, i.e,, sneakers, etc. No European wears them around like we do. So I went European, bought rugged looking sandals, etc., and I don’t think it’s been so obvious anymore.
    Hope you and Matt and Chris don’t lose touch, although I’m sure they’d like a trip to Ireland in the near future.
    Enjoy your new life!! Best to Kalpana. Regards from Yvonne and Lee Lindsey

  8. the Ross says:

    you got it in one yvonne- it’s those horrid running shoes you yanks wear all the time.

    and your neat hair, good skin, and really clean teeth.

    and your smiles.

    so sort them all out and you should be graaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand.

  9. CT says:

    Glenn, great blog. I look forward to checking in regularly. You are spot-on about our lack of organisation/laziness and poor public transport.

    But as for spotting Americans, I think you may have overcomplicated the issue here in some sort of haze of self-consciousness. It’s really very simple.
    Americans are easy to spot in Dublin (and elsewhere in Ireland) because they tend to look alike: baseball caps, ‘fanny packs’, collegiate sweaters, white sneakers, glasses with string tied to them, a large backpack worn on the front rather than the normal way… Generally a clean-cut, preppy look. But also a raised voice, noticable obsessive compulsive tendencies, a slow ambling pace, a look of confusion/wonder/lost-ness… and they tend to move in packs.

  10. Yarr says:

    People really still use the phrase ‘colored people’?

  11. Pingback: Feeling Other – Racism and Racial Profiling in Ireland and Elsewhere | An American in Dublin

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