Teaching the Art of Being an Other

Daily Prompt: Teaching The Art of Being an Other

On a dark, gray rainy day on a train platform in the small town of Ripoll, Spain I awaited the delayed RENFE (train) that would take me back to Barcelona.  I had just had a fabulous time in this small town where I hung out with fellow 17 year olds, when I spent the weekend at a host family’s house.  It’s a sleepy town nestled in the mountains, where surprisingly there are several cool nightclubs. It has a famous Benedictine monastery built ages ago in 879. I didn’t really go there to enjoy the history of the town that is shrouded in a bit of mystery.   It was a small town and I stood out, a lot!  There I was on the platform waiting and waiting when an older couple approached me. They asked me “what I was?”  Ever since I had moved to Barcelona for the year, I faced that question repeatedly on a daily basis.  I answered the woman by stating that I was American. She looked at me and shook her head. She asked me again. I answered that I was from New York. She shook her head and turned to her husband and noted to him that I claimed to be American but she knew I was from Tunisia.  I smiled at her and just walked away to a further away spot on the platform.  Days earlier a bakery owner claimed to not be able to tell me apart from two other women who looked completely different from me (and were of differing races) because we were not from Spain.  Days and days later a man tapped me on the shoulder speaking a language I didn’t understand  expecting me to be from Cape Verde.  He was severely disappointed when I said I was from the US at which point he further inquired as to what I was and I noted my family was Puerto Rican. He then exclaimed “wow. Your English is very good.”  Then I had the experience of being told, once I provided my background “you are so lucky to be tanned year long. I have to pay so much to go to the tanning salon.

Through these and other such encounters, I have learned to deal with the question of “what are you?”  Herein, I share some of those hard-earned tips.

1. Smile. If you smile, it will keep you from getting irritated at the 100th time being asked that question.  Biofeedback works wonders.

2. Be obtuse.  Although, I understand the “what are you” question, I sometimes play dumb just to have fun with the interaction. You can ask them in turn “what do you mean?”  I only do this though if the individual asking is doing so in an ignorant, offensive way. Not everyone who asks this question is trying to be offensive. Many are just curious and really mean no harm by their question.

3. Acknowledge their confusion and note the rising stats of ambiguous looking people.  Take the interaction to be a teachable moment. Take great pride in who you are and share and infect others with that pride.

4.  Explain loudly for all to hear that you are the mommy and not the nanny –even though your son is white and you are brown. Other parents in the playground or other teachers at the school will hear the explanation and never ask you that question thereafter.  While at it, take every opportunity to reinforce the mommy role. I do this by repeatedly hugging, kissing and calling my son “baby.”  Such a move serves two purposes gets people to stop asking the question and just gives you a hundred more chances to just totally love your child

5. Lie or obfuscate. Ok. This won’t be popular to state. However, when I lived out in Berkeley, there was a housing shortage. The only apartment available when I was looking was a 250 square foot place that had a long line of people waiting to see it that somehow how 10,000 checks to cover the rent for a whole year’s worth.  The realtor was Indian. I mentioned how much I loved korma and such and how I cook tikka masala once a week. He thought I was Indian. I did not dissuade him from that thought and I got the apartment. It may seem like I was taking advantage of the situation but considering that laughingly people were required to write essays to get some apartments in Berkeley  I went along with his presumptions.  I never said I was Indian, I just said I cooked Indian food.

6. Answer politely, move on and get a cocktail.  Don’t dwell on the question. As I mentioned earlier many people do not mean anything bad by this question.  Answer quickly and move on. I recommend an apple martini. It’s a brightly colored drink that will bring out the sparkle in your eyes.

7. Walk away and leave them hanging. Back in Spain, I often just walked away.  Looking back I don’t think that was the wisest choice as I could have taken the opportunity to teach them about my heritage and how the world outside their bubble looked like. However, I was there to learn and I was so young that I didn’t want to have to be a teacher.   More often than not, these days I do NOT do this option. However, there are times when obnoxiousness just deserves to be ignored.

apple martini

Eventually I will share these ideas with my son. At the moment though I will let him relish in “ignorance” At five years old, he still doesn’t understand what is different between us. He just thinks that I have curly hair and am a girl; while he has straight hair and is a boy.  You have got to love the simplicity of that world view.





Other thoughts on teaching

Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss

Concentrate on yourself

The Jittery Goat

Creating my world

14 replies »

  1. This happens ALL the time right here in our country@the U.S…I can’t tell you how many times, countless, I’ve been spoken to in Spanish..Especially when I lived in Cali for over 20 years..Now on the East Coast; constantly I get questions of what I am..From Spanish to Cuban to one man said he just knew I was from an exotic place..I said I sure am! My parents are originally born/bred in New Orleans..Depends on what type of mood I’m in , as to whether or not I respond..For some reasons these days folks have a need to know of one’s origin..When one is mixed with Black, French, Blackfoot Indian, African; the simplest answer IS Black. Enjoyed your write from your experience(as usual) 🙂


  2. Great post 🙂 a few thought… are who God intended you to be….He chose your hair, eyes, HEART, intellect and smile….Too, He also chose you for your son and your son for you….God doesn’t make mistakes, and how boring life would be if we were homogeneous.. Think of the striped zebra versus the spotted leopard and the long necked giraffe.God must have had a blast thinking those up…I am betting He enjoyed making you too!


    • 🙂 thank you. You are always so positive and sweet . Growing up I always could relate to the giraffe. Although I’m only 5’4 I was (am) the tallest female so my nickname shifted between giraffe and flamingo legs 🙂


  3. A wonderful post, you perfectly describe an experience which sort of characterises my upbringing in the UK. I won’t go into a depressingly long narrative of ‘small minds, narrow perspectives, and no understanding of history’. Rather, let’s be positive: I think that there are growing numbers of people who live hybrid identities, self-constructed identities and are personally self aware. Travel is wonderful, we meet such eclectic and wise people on the road. When travelling we leave our imposed non-negotiable pasts to create beautiful wondrous identities for tomorrow.


    • Interesting. I’m curious as to your experience in the UK. When I visited lobdon, it was one if the few European (if not only) places where I was completely comfortable being “different”. But I of course was there for just ten days and haven’t had a chance to visit other parts of the UK. I’m curious to check out other parts on a return trip. I like how you frame that by travel we have an impact by leaving our footprints 🙂


      • London is a very special place, it’s a global city, a crossroads of people, cultures, languages and vibes. IMO London is quite unlike the rest of the UK. I grew up in the North East of England, which is a fairly homogenous place. Nevertheless homogeneity is no excuse for ignorance. People used to say things to me like “you’re not a real British person”…, my parents & I were all born in the UK, our heritage is from Holland, Jamaica & Ireland..,


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