July 12, 2005

Being openly American

If you speak to a Tunisian for more than ten seconds, the first question they will ask is where you’re from, your nationality. I think it’s something of a national pastime to play Guess Where the Tourist is From. It’s a practical question because they want to know what foreign language to try out on you, and ultimately, it’s the only thing that distinguishes us from each other.

Usually when I’m walking on the street, people call out to me in Italian or Spanish. Today while walking with my roommate Cari, a young shopkeeper called after us in strangely inflected but quite recognizable English: “Helloo… I am Canadiaaan!!!” It rarely occurs to people to guess that we’re American, since I suppose few of them make it out here, and perhaps, those that do cover as Canadian.

Being openly American in Tunis is like being openly gay at home… a conscious political choice. Passing is pretty easy, because almost nobody but another American can really tell the difference, and telling everyone you’re Spanish or Italian or Canadian would really make life a lot simpler. But, because in principle we’re proud to be who we are, and because in some sense we feel a duty to our fellow countrymen to represent, we always tell the truth.

It’s not a popular answer. The best response you can hope for right off the bat is, “Really? You seem so nice!” Among young people, this is often followed up by an explanation that they like American people, and think America is actually a great place, they just don’t like the government’s foreign policy. Others make an exaggerated show of being welcoming and nice to show how open-minded and hospitable but really you can tell they’re uncomfortable. Some are more open about their resentment over America’s role in the Middle East, although we haven’t encountered any real hostility yet.

Still, it wears on you after a while, the feeling of constantly needing to shoulder the burden of enduring people’s prejudiced responses in order to educate them, change their assumptions, and be an ambassador for your group. It’s a point of pride to always answer with the truth, but each day it's more and more tempting to simply give in. “Sí, sono italiana.”


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