What Does An American Look Like?

US flagI guess that I don’t look all that American to Americans. On my second day here in Abu Dhabi I was waiting in the lobby of my residence building with a couple dozen teachers who are in my program. I wasn’t feeling particularly social, so I sat alone on the side of the lobby. Regardless, the lobby was densely packed and one couldn’t avoid being more than a couple feet away from another person. I think anyone who entered and observed the language and demeanor of the people would assume that all in the lobby were part of the same group: Americans.

At this point, I’ve previously spoken to a few of my new colleagues, but I hadn’t met everyone. As I sat there, a group of four women in the program stepped out of the elevator and began making their rounds greeting all the teachers in the lobby. Interestingly, I was excluded from these kind formalities.

I did not take offense. Seriously, I had no problem with it. I was simply amused and curious as to why I was omitted from all the greetings.

I didn’t have my “don’t talk to me” face on, so I have to assume that they probably thought I was some other resident in the building chilling in the lobby. Abu Dhabi is quite a diverse place with people from all over Asia, East Africa and Europe, so I could have just been another African dude or dark-skinned Arab.

When alone, I’ve noticed that other Americans won’t engage me in conversation; yet, when I’m with my White wife, they’ll engage us both. It’s probably that they think she’s the teacher and I’m the husband tagging along.

Don’t get me wrong, the other teachers are very friendly! Once they realize I’m in the program, they engage me in cordial conversations. In fact, they’re probably more open-minded than most Americans, but obviously they brought their stereotypes with them.

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14 Comments

  1. Teaching in Abu Dhabi that should be a pretty wild experience.

    You seem very laid back with the whole race issue. I guess if you let every little thing agitate you, it would drive ya nuts. People are people I guess. Shame on them !

    From an earlier post about “I’m not Bob Marley”. I grew up in Buffalo NY and know a few dreds, and if someone pulled that nonsense they would of knocked there block off. I guess violence is never the answer, but ignorance can just gnaw right through your soul sometimes.

    Anyway good luck on your new job, and looking forward to hearing about your adventures in Abu Dhabi 🙂

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  2. I’m glad to know you and your wife arrived safe and sound in Abu Dhabi.
    This post rings a familiar bell with me. Although I was born in the US, my family background is Middle Eastern; I have the requisite olive skin, dark hair and speak the language fluently. I even have the cultural nuances down…at least I think I do. But at a party last week here in CA where everyone was Mid Eastern, I was ignored. They thought I was American, so they spoke around and past me to each other, and even translated for my benefit. Strange…or stupidity, yet again?

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  3. @Trisha: Yes, you’re right. It can be benefit to be invisible at times.

    @B0ll0cks: I am looking forward to a great adventure here in Abu Dhabi. My wife an I started a new blog to document our experiences: Abu Dhabi Insights. You’ll notice some posts I’ll share on this blog, too. As far as race issues, I’ve developed much patience over time. Growing up in Minnesota as part of a tiny minority helped me learn to be more understanding of why particular persons may have a certain level of ignorance regarding cultural, ethnic and racial issues.

    @Kelli: I am fascinated by the story you shared. It’s interesting to observe the assumptions people make about each other. In the 10 days since I’ve been here, I’ve had many people come up to me and start speaking Arabic.

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  4. Now, I am not saying that you weren’t excluded for other reasons, but you may not have thought you had a don’t talk to me face, but you could have. It is amazing what our body language says that others pick up on. Just wondering. Try testing that theory and see if anything changes.

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  5. Could also be one of two things. Some of us Americans are introverts and don’t easily carry on conversations with people we don’t know. Second, us Americans can be so self-absorbed at times.

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  6. @Jaymi: True, body language can say so much more than any words we may use. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t giving off that “stay away” vibe, but I’ll try to be more in tune with what body language I’m exhibiting.

    @Jackie: Both points are true, but I believe your second point is more applicable in this situation. Since they were great everyone, shyness wouldn’t explain it. It may also be that they had all met before….who knows.

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  7. Interesting post. Yes people around the world are guilty in bringing their stereotypes along with them wherever they go. I am glad you are teaching in real life and online about these things 🙂

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  8. Stereotypes are sometimes mental short-cuts. Our brains would blow up if we had to process everyone and everything from the ground up every second of every day. At least your colleagues shifted gears when they obtained new information about you.

    However, I’m sure you’ve had many experiences when the shift didn’t occur, even when compelling evidence contradicting the stereotype mounted and mounted through numerous interactions with you over a period of time. To be polite…how baffling! Women get that a lot, even though we are the majority. And people universally, in America anyway, get it on age (a group that everyone, God willing, eventually joins).

    Because of your philosophical assumption, that we are all biased and have distorted perceptions (and I agree!), I think you might also agree with me that the big test in life is to grow in non-judgement. All the spiritual leaders and gurus suggest that detachment (as in freedom from prejudice or partiality) leads to peace.

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  9. @Celticmusicfan: Yes, this is true of people all over the world. Also, thanks for the support.

    @AlaJoAnn: I agree with your statement on stereotypes and that is one way we as humans need to survive without information overload. I think you have a keen sense of how I think and appreciate you reviewing my About page. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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  10. Sorry for the ignorance! Sometimes American people are just more comftorable around other American people. Sometimes Americans really dont look like they would be American, so thats why theyre usually not involved much in activities at places with other people who they dont know. I bet they were just nervous and didnt know how to act around you. I’m sure if you were alone, and your wife wasnt with you, they would surely involve you so you wouldnt be all alone. But I mean, they should of said something to you.

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