Ethnic Ambiguity and Perceptions Abroad

Living in Romania for the past few months provided me many opportunities to reflect on how my interactions with others are shaped by unconscious bias, both theirs and my own. So often are people’s behaviors towards others structured by the categorization of others into constructed groups and identities. On this program we’ve learned a lot about how these identities have been constructed around the nation and used to build states in Eastern Europe. My feelings and experiences here as a foreign student of ambiguous ethnicity have reminded me of both previous experience traveling abroad and growing up in my hometown. As I felt and experienced I couldn’t help but compare it to home incorporating my knowledge of nation-building in both regions.
I grew up in a mid-sized New England town on an island where everybody knew each other and just about everybody was white. One of two or sometimes three brown or black kids in a class of less than 200, I was rarely allowed to forget my status as an Other. Being half-Caribbean and half white, my ethnic background is mixed without clearly visible markers of origin in the way I look. This left many of the other students I went to school with without a specific category of other. As a regular occurrence I would get asked questions that seem almost meme-like after attending Carleton like; “Where are you from?” and “No, but, where is your family from?”. These questions, though rarely directed with any malice, a casual racism and efforts to stereotype and categorize me, left me feeling like an outsider.
Most places in the world, especially cities are less white, and less visibly homogenous than my hometown. traveling gave me a taste of blending in to the crowd. I first began noticing differences in how people initially interacted with me. Often greeting me in their native language (usually Spanish) or vernacular. Until I spoke up, I was treated as one of them, and even after it was clear that I spoke only English, I would often be treated more warmly because I looked Guyanese, Mexican, or whatever-else enough in comparison to even the rest of my family. There was one time my family was even stopped by customs and asked if they had adopted me while they we’re in country.
In Bucharest, and the rest of Romania, my interactions with people were more similar to my travels elsewhere than to home.  Most of the time, people would greet me in Romanian, even young people that could speak excellent English. From the urban neighborhoods of Stephan Cel Mare to the touristy city center and old town, even in our dorm a couple times at the start of the program people would start talking to me in one way, then, as soon as I opened my mouth and made it clear I didn’t speak Romanian the conversation would shift.  Suddenly, I became an object of exotic curiosity. “Who is this person?” I imagined people asked themselves. “Where do they come from?” as they attempted to search their brains for the category I must belong to. Nations and races pop through their heads as they try to pinpoint which ideas they have about the parts of the world and it’s various peoples I fit into. So of course, after the initial exchange of words and a short pause where all these ideas run through their heads, as does anyone when they meet someone new, they ask out loud that ever-familiar question: “Where are you from?” Of course, as a the child of a first generation immigrant and a born-and-bred American I answer; “The United States”. When they hear me say this, usually their first response Is a look of confusion. Then, since in Romania as it is in most European countries it’s not considered completely polite to talk about race, here is where my conversations diverge. Among my interactions with employees of establishments I’m a patron of or people I’m paying for something they change the subject by asking what I’m doing in Romania, a normal and curious question for someone visiting your country from abroad. It’s not so much these interactions that had the most interest for me. It was those with others, people I knew personally, students in the dorm, and even, yes, tour guides that I thought said the most about people thoughts and ideas around ethnicity here in Romania that are similar to my hometown, but different from my experiences with people of a more cosmopolitan background.
Overall, I think there was commonalities and differences between the associations Romanians have with ethnicity and nationhood and those of the people in the town I grew up in. While the Romanian identity leaves quite a bit of room for visual diversity, given the mixed pasts of Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldovia, Dobruja, and other parts of the country. Places with more homogenous populations like my hometown and other more rural and suburban parts of the United States conflate Whiteness and even blackness with Americanness, while other, more ambiguous people whom are not portrayed in media and pop culture are associated with foreignness and otherness. Even if they’re born American, the civic definition of American citizenship and ethnic idea of Americanness don’t match up in the same way as Romanian Identity and Romanian-ness.

Ethnic Ambiguity and Perceptions Abroad

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