I think it is part of human nature to put people inside boxes. When we meet someone new, we try to rationalize who that individual is, where they are from and why they make/made the choices that they make. I think it’s only natural that we try to make sense of what we are seeing, hearing and feeling. I’ll admit that I am guilty of this as well, but, I do try to avoid doing this, really I am.
It was one thing to deal with in Egypt, or Qatar or Spain. It’s a whole other thing to deal with this in the US of A.
Let me explain what I mean. When people find out that I speak Spanish, they automatically assume that I am Latin American, or grew up there, or am married to/involved with someone from the region. Some people even try to pronounce my name with a Spanish flair… Nope. Sorry, I’m just regular old black…
When they find out that I speak Arabic, it’s much the same. The next questions /assumptions are that I am Arab, Muslim, or married to an Arab/Muslim, or was born/raised/spent several years in the Middle East or in an Arab community etc.
None of these assumptions are illogical, and they are all not necessarily incorrect in my case, but what a cat-and-mouse game!
There are two things that irk me about this. First of all, it’s the thought process, “Oh, you’re Arab, that’s why you know such a random language” or “Oh you must be Muslim to be interested in Arabic” or the worse one “Oh, you’re involved with Arab guy and want to get to know his culture.” How about I was interested in it for far less trite reasons. It really can and does happen.
It’s also weird that people seem to look past the fact that people actually study languages in school to the point where they and become conversant or even fluent in them. Why is this reality such a strange concept for some people to wrap their heads around?
Perhaps, what is truly bothersome is not so much the assumptions themselves, but the way that people go about trying to reinforce them. It’s like when someone can tell you are from another country, and instead of asking just asking you where you are from, they proceed to name countries one, by one: “Where are you from, Nigeria?”
No… after guess number three, I usually say, how about I just tell you so you don’t have to keep guessing… ha, ha. Or better yet, why don’t you just ask me where I’m from.
I think this last example differs somewhat from the language examples I gave previously, but the essence is the same. Instead of trying to make sense of people by defining them, how about we just ask them about their convictions and how they define themselves?
People sometimes (well, most of the time) are put into boxes/categories, but asking can get you to the right filing cabinet more quickly… ha, ha…
Seriously, my story of how I became interested in the MENA region, and how I ended speaking Arabic is interesting. Really it is. It may not be as “exotic” as you may think, but it’s the truth, usually has nothing to do with why you thought I came to know x, y or z or experience a, b or c and um yeah, that counts for something, even these days, right?
As I stated above I am guilty of this too, assumptions are a part of life. However, I usually keep them to myself. Having people tell their own story, and break down the walls that I had built in my mind, stretching the mold, is always awesome.