Thursday, November 3, 2011

The I Inside

What are you?


The dreaded question. Folks, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard this in my lifetime. Everywhere I go this seems to be the question of utmost fascination when people come across my path:

"You know, I've always wondered: what are you?"

Sounds pretty rude, doesn't it? But this is not an embellishment -- this IS the way it's constantly worded. Sometimes the person doing the inquiring will precede it with a: "I don't mean to be rude, but . . ." And we all know what the "but" means in these statements. The funny thing is, I actually don't get offended by this. Honestly I don't.

However, I must admit to being perplexed a lot of the time. The reason for my confusion is that I don't see other people around me getting asked this question nearly half as much as I do. I try to cut people some slack, though. I mean, I guess to them I must have enigmatic features. I've been told by quite a few folks that I have the type of background that allows me to blend in to a lot of different cultures. And, true to form, depending on where I happen to be or who I'm talking to, the guesses people come up with can cover quite the gamut. But before I list all the different countries I'm supposedly from based on my looks alone, let me put up a personal portrait for reference . . . which I just took with my iPhone:

There. This is me. Not much to see here, right? I think I'm pretty average. But, I shit you not, depending on your own biases, opinions, and experiences, you might have varying interpretations of my background than the next person.

When in the greater NYC area, I'm almost always blanketed as "hispanic." Without fail. Of course, my last name doesn't help, either. When I lived in Vermont for 4 years, I was told I look: Latin American and/or Middle Eastern. When I started learning Chinese, I was even told by people that I look somewhat Chinese. That one's hilarious. But even Chinese people themselves make the mistake, especially when I talk to them in their own language. After the shock wears off, the conversation more often than not follows along these lines:

Them: "Are you Chinese?"
Me: "No."
Them: "But you speak the language so well!"
Me: "Oh, not really. I know very little." (This is a very Chinese response to compliments, btw)
Them: "You must be Chinese. Are you sure?"
Me: "Yes, I'm fairly certain."
Them: "But then one of your parents must be Chinese? You look half-half."
Me: "No, actually they're not."
Them: "Grandparents?"
Me: "Nope. Not there, either. Sorry."

Believe it or not, this is how it almost always goes. Without fail. It's gotten to the point that I think I've developed a complex over it. It makes me hesitant to speak Mandarin to a Chinese person now, only because I don't have time to go through my family lineage right then and there for their benefit.

But look at my face. How the hell do you get Chinese from that? Apparently, though, I look very similar to some Chinese minority groups living in the Western most provinces of the mainland.

When I went to Italy last year, I was told I look Italian. And again, I didn't help my cause by speaking some choice phrases in their own language.

When I was in Turkey, I was told I could pass for Turkish. Although, oddly enough, I also got "Brazilian" a lot the moment we wandered outside of Istanbul and headed south along the coast. I think this is because they love soccer so much in Turkey.

When we honeymooned in Hawaii, I was mistaken for a local by the taxi cab drivers. And when our trip was over and we were on our way to the airport, one cabbie asked us how long our trip away from the island would be. He was surprised when I told him we were tourists.

Here's my theory: I think people see what they want to see. Especially when confronted by a person whom, like me, actually comes from a diverse background. I don't belong to a single race or ethnicity. For me this is a useful trait for blending in when I'm overseas. I don't think I'll ever be identified as American straight off the bat. Not unless I'm wearing my Yankees baseball cap. And even then . . .

For the sake of full disclosure, however, I'm going to list here on this blog my exact background -- oh, the HORROR! This type of thing makes a lot of people uncomfortable for some reason. But relax, I've had nothing but years of practice disclosing these details. It's like nothing to me now.

So, here we go:

My father (who I never grew up with and hardly ever see) was born in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. His family came to this country when he was in his late teens, but because I hardly knew him I have zero knowledge of Dominican culture or the Spanish language. Whatever Spanish I learned came from six years of instruction in public school. Pretty much the same as anyone else growing up in NYC.

My father's family, however, is itself very diverse. In addition to Afro and Caribbean Indian influences, they also have Italian and *gasp* Asian influences somewhere in there. I say "Asian" because it's hard for me to get a straight answer from anyone on my father's side. It doesn't help that, even to this day, the majority of them still don't speak English.

As for my mother's side of the family; that, too, is a pretty diverse tree. The majority of my mother's ancestry is Scots-Irish and Germanic. Mostly the former. That much I know for sure. There's also a surprisingly large amount of Native American influences in her gene pool as well, which some say I've inherited. On her grandfather's side, there are people who are straight up still part of the Cherokee nation today.

You know, everyone always sees the Latin side of my genes in my face, but it's surprising how much of my mother I retain in looks. My cheekbones are actually hers. As well as my stare. When I glare at someone, that's straight up my Mom! My thick, wavy hair is also hers -- my father has very thin, straight hair. My eyebrows, eye and hair color, lips, and general cranial shape are my father's, though. In a certain light I'm his spitting image. In another, I'm completely not. Yes, very enigmatic I know.

Curiously, my nose is a composite of both my parents. Neither one has the exact same shape as me, although the length of the bridge is all my mom's side of the family.

And there you have it. Now you know why I look the way that I do. And why I don't identify with any single background. However, this is all on the outside. When you get to the *real* me -- the David Batista on the inside -- I have a very definite ethnic identity. Which is to say: I'm 100% American.

No, I'm not trying to be funny. I grew up solely on my mother's side of the family. When she died, it was her mother and sister who took us in and continued raising us. Every one of my cultural references -- food, speech patterns, holidays, religion, jokes -- comes from a largely British/Presbyterian/Anglo-whatever backdrop, transfused through two centuries of living in this country.

Today, people try their damnedest to pigeon-hole me into something Hispanic, which is disingenuous. In looks? Yes, perhaps. In genes? Only half so. But in culture? Sorry, I'm the least Hispanic person you can possibly find on this planet. I had to learn the language the hard way just like everyone else who does not come from that background.

And you know what? I'm perfectly fine with that. I love the family that raised me. I abhor the family which ignored me. How hard is that to understand? In this day and age where everyone seems to want to be something they're not, I'm not ashamed of my rather WASPy background. It's all I've known, and it's the culture where my heart belongs. So, sorry, but I won't be marching in any Dominican or Hispanic heritage parades. I won't even eat the food all that much, since to me it is a foreign food which I eat with the same frequency as any other foreign food like Chinese or Ethiopian.

I'm not dissing Dominican culture. Or any Latin-based culture, for that matter. I just get annoyed when people assume I belong to that whole scene, and then feel sorry for me when they realize I don't. It's not your life, it's mine. And I'm happy with exactly who I am -- both on the outside as well as the inside!

Sorry this entry turned into such a long diatribe. And if it strayed into uncomfortable waters for some, than I apologize for that as well. But this is me, take it or leave it.

I just thought I'd clear this up in the one space where my voice can be heard by a small few. My regular readers don't know this, but recently I've been asked about my background by no less than four separate individuals in the space of a week. I don't know why it's so important to know my ethnic makeup since, as you can certainly tell by now, I do not identify with the culture you may think I look like.

So, there.

P.S. -- The title of this entry is taken from this favorite sci-fi novel of mine from back in the day.


Botanist said...

To the folks who ask that question, I have to wonder...what does it matter? The person is way more important than the pigeonhole.

Yvonne said...

Next time someone asks, tell them you are of human descent. :)

Jennifer Hillier said...

I get this ALL the time. And just like you, I think people see what they want to see. Why it matters what we are, I don't know. I guess people are curious?

Rodney said...

I actually remember having a conversation with you (back at Middlebury college) about this when we first met. Of course, I asked in a much more polite way, "What nationality are you?"

I think people believe having nice, neat categories for the things around them makes life easier, since once something is categorized they know all about it and don't have to worry (aka think) about it anymore. So for the rest of the time they know you, you'll be akin to a character from the Sims with a little diamond over your head noting what nationality you are.

The sad part of that is when you close your mind on a person (or subject) you start to miss out on all the complexities and changes in that subject, but that's Humanity for you!

BTW: Thank you SO MUCH for recommending "The I Inside" to me so many years ago. It was a FANTASTIC read and a great entry into some other EPIC stories from Foster!

David Batista said...

Ian -- Yes, I'm left wondering the same thing all the time. Obviously, then, I *never* ask people this unless I've gotten to know them very, very well over time. And by that point, they've usually told me themselves.

Yvonne -- Funny enough, I used to say that all the time. When I'm asked "what race are you?" I would reply: "Human." Or if feeling especially snarky: "Alpha-Centaurian." That one gets them to leave me alone right quick! :)

Jen -- Thank you! Yes, you seem to know what it's like, too. I guess, despite all our best efforts, we find it easier to "macro block" people when we first meet them into recognizable stereotypes. I'm not entirely without guilt in this practice myself. Most people, however, revise their opinions as they get to know the person better. But some don't. The latter are the types I want to introduce to my fist more often than not.

Rodney -- Yes, you did ask. But you weren't rude about it. And, plus, I didn't feel like you had already pre-judged me based on my appearance like some people I know. It felt like it was honest curiosity on your part. And you're absolutely right: people do this because it's easier. Yet, coming from the wrong person, it can come across as rather racist. Especially since I've noticed only so-called "minorities" get asked this the most in this country. When I'm in foreign countries, I get the sense they really want to know my nationality because I don't fit their conceived notion of what a typical "American" looks like. Fair enough, that.

Oh, and yes . . . I was glad you enjoyed that book as much as I did. It was one of my earlier lessons on not judging a book by its cover! :)

getyourselfconnected said...

Sorry you get that so much. I don't even think about that kind of thing. I am about how people are, not what they look like or what ethnic class. I know I did not ask you!

PS No more 'I love Winter' posts!!!!

David Batista said...

GYSC -- Yes, you did not ask when we met. I am grateful for that. Just goes to show what a standup kind of dude you are.

I can't exactly promise no more snow pics on this blog, especially if we get a really big storm here this winter. But I won't overdo it. I have to remember that it's not a lot of fun for some people. Your situation sounded horrible!

I must admit, if I lived in the suburbs and/or owned a house, I'd probably curse winter with the flaming hot passion of a thousand suns! But living in an apartment in a big city where the power lines and mass transportation are all underground . . . you might see how for me this is all a lot of fun! :)

Antares Cryptos said...

Initially thought you're being asked about your astrological sign.

Hobbies and Interests are still the most interesting aspect of a person.

Antares Cryptos said...

I meant aspects

David Batista said...

Sometimes I get ask that, too, Ant. But that's a rather innocuous question, so I don't mind it as much.

For the record, I'm a Virgo. Pssht! As if you couldn't tell. :)

Antares Cryptos said...

Balrog. Nice to meet you. *grins*

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