All American Girl - Geetha
We spend a lot of time on this tour thinking and talking about how race plays out in this country. On Sunday at the Smithsonian, a question was raised that got me thinking not about race in America, but how my race plays out when I am in other countries. I have done a great deal of traveling, and there is no question that my race plays a large part in the way that I am perceived abroad. Interestingly, it is when I am in another country that I tend to identify most strongly with the fact that I am American, rather than with my racial heritage. Being a product of American culture is what distinguishes me from the people in whatever area I am visiting. At home it is race that tends to make me most different from the people around me and the piece of my identity that draws the most confusion and questions.
I lived in rural Kenya for a summer, and many of the people in the smaller villages rarely, if ever, saw people who were not black Africans. It was very common for young children to shout “Wazungu!” when foreigners would walk by. Guidebooks will tell you that “wazungu” means “foreigner” in Kiswahili, but from what locals told us, it basically means “white person.” It’s not a malicious thing, but more to tell other kids to come look. It was interesting to hear when people would shout it at me. There was another woman I traveled with who was also Indian American, and when we would go somewhere together, we did not get as many kids yelling at us. However, when we were with white people from our group, the kids always yelled. Does this mean that they did not think of me as a wazungu? Did they not see me as a white person? As a foreigner? To be honest, I sometimes got disappointed when kids didn’t yell “wazungu” when I walked by. It was important to me for some reason that people see me as a foreigner, to know that I am an American. Even my own host family had a lot of questions as to whether I was really American since I did not look like what they imagined an American to look like.
It is interesting to me that American identity is often one that people abroad are hesitant to apply to me. There are many images that other countries see about America, whether in news, media, or wherever, and mine is definitely not a face that appears in those images. It was not just in Kenya that I had to explain why it is that I don’t fit into the stereotypical “American” mold. There is often a perception, even after my explanations, that I am Indian and just happen to live in the United States. But then again, I guess my not being American is also a perception that many Americans have as well due to the stereotype that Asians (and Latinos) are perpetual foreigners. Why is it that I feel like I always have to explain my identity to someone? Why do I always have to legitimize why I identify the way I do, whether that is an American, a mixed person, etc.?