In the traveler and expat circles we tend to have friends and contacts all over the place. In these situations people often get labeled with their country of origin. “The Spanish girls or the guy from Canada or a bunch of Australians.” Does our “country of origin” define us in some way or is it just a convenient label?
It seems in the travel world especially, one of the first questions that gets asked when meeting someone new is “where are you from?” We look for commonalities and country of origin is one of them. The conversation usually goes beyond with things like “my brother was sort of near there one time”, “I met a guy in Prague from there” or the oddly funny joke of asking someone from an enormous city if they know someone. Nope, even in a town of 200,000 I have nearly no chance in knowing anyone you have met. Although it ends up hilarious when it by random chance does happen. The last name phenomenon probably falls into this too. A friend of mine here used to get introduced as Becky from Canada. She joked that yes “from Canada” is her last name and just a coincidence.
When the first question is “where are you from?”, then usually the first impression is of that answer, so it is natural to use that heavily. Like most labels, using country of origin gives us a basis for further description. The cultural assumptions that come with such labels can be useful in such a mixed group. They can often give clues to languages and cultural ideas. It is assumed that when you call someone “an Australian” that they speak English and likely with a specific type of accent. These labels also give basis for comparison. I have a few friends who I describe as “German, but they speak fluent English”.
Especially in hostel situations while long term traveling, names often get blended together and forgotten completely or mixed across too many people and too many pints at the local. At least that is my experience. I can often remember country’s of origin rather than names. The Canadian girl in Prague who told us stories about Paris. Sorry, name isn’t coming to mind. Sure I knew it then, but now in telling it now the actual name doesn’t matter to the story. So also the story I tell of riding the night train to Madrid and hanging out with a Russian, his American girlfriend, a guy from Peru and a Colombian. It almost reaches the level of joke status where all of these nationalities walk into a bar.
The other side of labeling is stereotyping. Americans are loud, brash over-tippers who can only speak English. Canadians get asked to say “about”. Germans like beer and Italians are always late.by knowing where someone grew up you can have a basis of who they might be. The tendencies and such. It can be useful, but it is important to take them as who they actually are and not just their country. Travelers often travel to change themselves. The more someone has traveled the less they seem to fit the standard picture of their country of origin.
I am an American with pretty heavy German traits. I speak other languages, abhor war and am pretty quiet most of the time. Every so often on trams I will talk to someone and they are surprised that I speak such good German, almost to the point of asking if I have relatives here, as if it is unbelievable for an American to learn another language and want to live in a different place without connections. I have lived and traveled here long enough that I have taken a fair number of German traits for my own. I am learning planning and how to wait at the red light. I don’t expect I will ever be fully one or the other again, but a mix.
Using country as a label or a tooltip (for those non-technicals, a tooltip is the little bit of text when you hover over a button or a link. I really think people should have these.) is useful in helping identify with people, but should not be taken as a full description of them.
Mistakes in Guessing
Especially in the English speaking world there are commonly mistakes in guessing where someone is from based on accent. A few of them can be funny or tragic..
- Asking a Canadian where in the US they are from.
- Guessing Australian if they are Kiwis.
- I once asked a Welshman where in England he was from. I am so lucky we had known each other for a while first.
These can be either funny first conversations or the crash of a friendship. I have certainly made the mistake a few times myself. Despite having Kiwi friends, I still can’t tell the difference between New Zealand and Australian from accent alone. I am comforted by the idea that most of them can’t tell the American accents apart either. I guess this is a point where language and culture are pretty tightly wound.
It’s a long story…
There actually a quite of few people that I know that I chuckle when someone new asks them that common first question of “Where are you from?”, because I know the whole story and it can be a long one. The explanation of where one grew up, who one’s parents were and the added idea of what passport(s) one holds all comes together to make a story that can’t be reduced to a single label. Though often we do anyway, usually based on language and accent. The story of “where are you from?” sometimes becomes a full night just as “where have you been?” or “where are you going?” can be.
Do you tend to think of travel friends by nationality