Musings on Mistaken Identity

kalyan.penn.jpg Actor Adhir Kalyan was on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and shared a story of being mistaken for Kal Penn when he was visiting a beach in California. I don’t feel there’s too much similarity in their looks, and they sound completely different because Kalyan has a British accent. But hey, I know being mistaken for another desi happens from time to time, even to us non-celebrities who aren’t getting screen time during prime time or in theaters across America.

Example #1: At one summer job, I was one of four interns in a small office with less than ten staff members. Occasionally, throughout the summer the Executive Director and one or two other staff members would call me Ritu, the name of another intern. She was desi, had straight hair (of a different length) and wore glasses like me, but that’s where the similarities ended.

I don’t mean to make this experience sound horrible–to me it was something awkward that made me think a little bit about personal identity. I corrected the people who called me by the wrong name each time, but I also remember wondering if in their minds my comments at staff meetings, actions at work, etc., were being attributed to me or the other intern.

Were my achievements my own? Were her errors or mishaps mine as well, if only in their minds? (Perhaps that last question was on her mind as well!)

Example #2: At school I was one of two desis in a particular class. This time the setting was larger with a classroom of about twenty students, mostly women, and the other desi, Ana, was about as opposite of me in terms of features like height, size, hair, as you could get.

When we raised our hands to ask a question or comment the professor would call on us, and after I got called Ana a couple of times I started thinking of how the professor perceived me. Was I a desi/brown person first and foremost in her mind? Is that why I was being called by the other student’s name? And, perhaps more pressing at the time :) , was this going to affect my class participation grade, if she ended up remembering me as Ana chiming in during class discussions?

Neither of these examples involved desi professors or bosses–I can’t recall other desis confusing my name that way besides my parents, and having them call me by my sister’s name has never prompted any existential musings!

Have you had a similar experience? How did you handle it, and how did you feel about it?

If you’re interested in how Kalyan handled the situation when someone thought he was Kal Penn, you can watch the part of the interview that’s about 2 minutes 20 seconds in. Clearly he didn’t let it faze him, or if it did he at least parlayed it into a nice joke for late night anyway. The actor currently stars in a sitcom called Rules of Engagement with David Spade, playing Timmy, a variation on a role that Spade made memorable in Just Shoot Me–an overly put-upon personal assistant who trades witty, caustic barbs with his boss.

67 thoughts on “Musings on Mistaken Identity

  1. when i was sixteen my gym teacher started yelling at me before the first class period. apparently i’d tried to run him over that morning. i explained i didn’t drive, it was the other brown dude in our town of my age. wasn’t a big deal, but i was kind of pissed about it later cuz he was a notoriously bad driver and i had a few other people approach me with scowls because of his reckless behavior (he was a transplant from britain actually, but i think he got his license in the states first, so it wasn’t cuz he was driving on the wrong side).

    in college once i was applying for random jobs. i showed up to drop off an application, and the supervisor was like “orientation is tomorrow” i’m like “what?” and the supervisor was like, “orientation is a week after you got hired, not 6 days. come back tomorrow for orientation.” i respond, “uh, i never submitted an application.” one of the supervisor’s assistant gives her a weird and embarrassed look, and smiles nervously at me. obviously some brown dude had been hired the previous week, and the supervisor thought that i was that brown dude she’d hired. i explained the situation and laughed it off.

    sometimes i play tricks on people. at the 2007 scienceblogs.com summer meet-up a blogger came up to me and was like, “razib, i finally get to meet you!” and i responded, “i’m not razib, i’m the ‘scientific indian’”(another brown blogger on the network, who wasn’t at the meet up). the blogger who i deceived was pretty chagrined, and apologized profusely, and then began asking how come i didn’t have a british accent (SI lives in britain), was i an american expat in the UK. this went on for 15 minutes before one of the other guys who knew i was lying couldn’t handle it and just started laughing. last week i was an a social event where there was an indian american graduate student. many of the people didn’t know each other, so i played another trick and switched names with him (without his knowledge). eventually some of the guys who i’d confused started correcting people incorrectly, they’d become so convinced that the other guy was razib and that i was amit.

    i never worried/worry about being confused for someone else. i’m pretty distinctive and memorable.

    • “sometimes i play tricks on people. at the 2007 scienceblogs.com summer meet-up a blogger came up to me and was like, “razib, i finally get to meet you!” and i responded, “i’m not razib, i’m the ‘scientific indian’”(another brown blogger on the network, who wasn’t at the meet up). the blogger who i deceived was pretty chagrined, and apologized profusely, and then began asking how come i didn’t have a british accent (SI lives in britain), was i an american expat in the UK. this went on for 15 minutes before one of the other guys who knew i was lying couldn’t handle it and just started laughing. last week i was an a social event where there was an indian american graduate student. many of the people didn’t know each other, so i played another trick and switched names with him (without his knowledge). eventually some of the guys who i’d confused started correcting people incorrectly, they’d become so convinced that the other guy was razib and that i was amit.”

      Wow, you’re a real hoot. Putting down people who are actually happy to meet you and making them look foolish. Then deceitfully stealing someone else’s name. Speaks volumes about character.

  2. I went to a mostly WASPy high school and there were 2 other desi girls in my grade, and sometimes walking down the hallway I would hear someone yelling, “Hey, Rishika!” from behind – we were roughly the same size with straight black hair, but our faces were pretty different, we had different skin tones, eye colors, features, etc. What’s interesting is we ended up at the same college (plenty of brown folk here) and no one ever mixes us up. I didn’t mind though, she’s such a pretty girl haha. The 3rd desi girl had the distinction of being 5’11″ and on the heavier side so she was more recognizable.

    In college there’s a significant south asian minority here (or maybe it’s cause i’m a science major so they’re more prevalent in my classes, hah) but the professors/TA’s don’t seem to get us mixed up. I think if you live in a diverse environment and are exposed to many different phenotypes then the handful of brown (or any minority) kids won’t look alike to you.

    In the lab I worked in over the summer, we had an intern from Bangladesh and she confided in me that both of the blonde post-docs looked so alike to her – she said she used freckles to distinguish them for the first few weeks! hah

  3. LOL! My husband’s family is full of tall blonde blue eyed women. It was really difficult for me to tell them apart initially. In my defense, there is strong family resemblance amongst them!

  4. Meh, I’ve been mistaken for other Indians by Indians too. In college, I was standing in line at the cash machine, and the Indian girl standing behind me called me by someone else’s name. Even when I turned around to face her, she called me the other guy’s name, admittedly, now as a question.

    I’m terrible with names myself, so I tend to cut people slack if people mistake me for someone else.

  5. This reminds me of a story Matthew Perry told on Letterman last year. Perry said he met M. Night Shyamalan at a party once and was really excited because he wanted to be in Night’s next movie. The punchline was that it was just some random desi guy and Perry didn’t realize that until several hours later.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kq_gdqXgqvk

  6. It’s articles like this that make me keep coming back. I feel like so much has changed w/ SM now, I don’t feel energized or excited by it anymore, and the new comments format makes me sad. What happened to equality?

  7. Interesting post as always Anna!

    There was one British teacher in my high-school who would consistently mistake the three brown kids in the class. After not seeing any effort by the teacher to fix his behaviour, I started calling him by names of famous British people.

  8. i’m a petite south asian woman—i get alot of looks of recognition from people i’ve never met. “hey, it’s you!” then me thinking to myself: we’ve never met.

    i’m a resident at a hospital and sometimes the nurses get me confused with other short brown girls. i don’t know if it’s because my name has 3 syllables, making it slightly harder to pronounce, so they just remember that name and not mine. i don’t mind, though they’re usually really embarrassed when i correct them.

  9. Interesting post as always Anna!

    SSK, Anna didn’t write this post. I think you are confusing two women who just happen to have sepia-toned avatars at the bottom of the post. A case of mistaken identity.

  10. SSK,

    Neat!

    Are you Salil Manikthala? Or the Lord of the Dings? Or Rahul?

    Abhi, you’re a tubelight.

  11. Have you had a similar experience? How did you handle it, and how did you feel about it?

    Yeah, my late father used to do this with me and my brother…I found it annoying :)

  12. I was standing next to Kal Penn a few months back and a group of girls asked me, thinking I was Kal Penn for a picture.

  13. On the flip side; I had an Indian intern who I took to my friend Sean’s party.

    We met my friend Tim and my intern told him “hi Sean”. When Tim replied that he was in fact Tim my intern went on insisting that he was Sean. It was all pretty embarrassing and continued for a few minutes seriously; my intern was being both stubborn and foolish; btw this is the same intern who said Parsis were miserly (knowing that his boss, me, had links to that community) so I don’t have much faith in his good sense.

    Anyway to my mind Tim & Sean look nothing alike. Tim is dark-haired & English; Sean is ginger and Irish. To be fair at that time to my intern he had been in the country from Delhi for a grand total of 3 months. So it really works both ways.

    • Not to be defending your intern, but I don’t think the English and Irish are all that different looking, so I doubt if that can be a basis for anyone to make out the difference b/w Sean and Tom. The hair color is a different issue but I have noticed with fellow desis that hair color doesn’t register- perhaps because it is rarely, if ever, a differentiating factor amongst us. Just happened to me yesterday when I was talking to my 10 yr old (ABD) daughter. I was asking her who the new girl was that I had seen playing outside and my daughter’s question was “Is she dark haired or blonde?” and I had absolutely no idea- I remembered what she was wearing, tho.

  14. After not seeing any effort by the teacher to fix his behaviour, I started calling him by names of famous British people.

    Perfect! And exactly what I did, sorta. I took a note from some black friends of mine who were routinely mistaken for others and simply ignored people when they didn’t say my name. Being ignored seems to have a stronger impact on wp than berating them.

  15. Happens to me all the time. For the first few months of law school, everyone kept calling me Aditi, the name of a third year student. I finally met her, we look nothing alike. (It did bother me that this chick’s friends are so unobservant.) The security guard did it forever until I finally got exasperated and said jokingly “We don’t all look alike.” That got him laughing and ever since then, he’s never messed up my name.

    On the other hand, I had a problem for the first few months with the Caucasian males in my class. I kept up mixing John with Joe with Tim, etc. So they kept teasing me with that whole “we don’t all look alike” thing as well.

    I think it’s a matter of educating people you know about yourself. I try to politely and firmly correct folks now when they forget/mispronounce my name. Before I’d let things slide. I think it’s important to address it right away.

  16. Pavani, you must be reading my mind. Or are you the other desi gal in my Monday toddler group class? :)

    I left a completed form on the table in our class today, and the instructor went over to the other desi gal and asked her if she was done with it. I was standing right there, and told her yes. I didn’t want the instructor to feel bad, but I’m guessing that’s how she (sort of) remembers folks in her class – there are two desi moms, a few Chinese moms, one dad, and everyone else is white (and female).

    Since I’ve only been there 3 times, I don’t think it’s a big deal – they try to remember everyone’s name, which is impressive in a class of about 20 parents and babies.

    Oddly, that’s the first time it’s happened to me in ages. I can’t even remember the last time, to be honest.

  17. This has happened to me a few times mostly unintentionally, but intentional on one particular occasion.

    There was this one fellow desi in grad school (Sunil) in my class for the first semester. Looked nothing like me – I am taller by 4 inches, wore glasses, (he didn’t) and we had different accents (both DBDs, but mine is a Delhi-type English accent and his was Bengali-influenced). I used to work at the career center and this girl from my class Cameron, walks up to my desk and says, “Hey Sunil, get us a job!” winking as she says it, clearly joking.

    Now Cameron used to hang out all the time with a somewhat similar-looking girl called Heather. I usually have these witty comebacks hours after an incident like this, so I am especially proud of what I said to her, without batting an eyelid. “You’ve got to start networking more, Heather”. We both had a good laugh about it. As did the Jewish kid standing next to her. Jon Stewart, I think his name was, or something like that.

  18. When I am with a new group of white people, and many of my activities do seem to involve white people, it can take me days to tell them apart. I try really hard to use sex (obviously), facial hair, body type, dress style, hairstyle, hair color, voice – but it’s still a huge effort. And generally not understood or appreciated.

    We’re all somewhere on the prosopagnosia spectrum – Oliver Sacks and that guy on Radiolab recently pretty far to the right, and the rest of us, well, somewhere.

  19. You have to remember that a lot of Americans, and Caucasians in general( Americans being about the worst) do not have much experience circulating with a large variety of people of any kind, less so with people of colour like Indians. Their perceptual abilities are thus limited. It’s of course a broader problem of insularity, ignorance, parochialism, provincialism and borderline racism, and pure racism without a border.

    • It’s not really racism. Your facial recognition “software” is going to develop to identify faces based on the features that tend to differ among people you see growing up. Different races have different levels of variability along different features. If you grow up in an environment where you never see Asians, then the features that most Asians have in common but most White people don’t are going to make all Asians look the same to you because you’re not programmed to identify those features when recognizing faces.

      This isn’t a moral failing on the part of the person.

  20. Yoga Fire,

    Exactly. I remember living in Japan, and having Japanese tell me that I looked SO MUCH like this or that famous white actor.

    First off, I’m half Persian, so I look like very few white actors. Secondly, I… just don’t.

    But to them, the generalized features were such that that’s how I was perceived. It’s not “racism.” It’s just lack of experience. Running to the “racism” explanation the second someone isn’t oh-so-cosmopolitan as you are is silly.

  21. Yes, that’s a serious problem, the lack of cosmopolitanism. But even more, the lack of self awareness that they are non-cosmopolitan.If they were articulate and provincial, that would at least be acceptable.

  22. You must find very few people “acceptable” then, especially back in your native India. Simply because there are millions of people there living in rural locations who likely have never even encountered a non-Indian. But i don’t see anything wrong with being provincial.

    I agree with the facial recognition point made above. I grew up in a town where almost everyone was white and didn’t really interact with blacks or hispanics much until I came to college. I’m embarrassed to admit i mixed up 2 of my black coworkers for weeks without realizing it. Fortunately I never called them by the wrong names out loud though. So I’m patient enough (at first) when it happens to me.

  23. I once saw a documentary about recognizing faces– they showed that young babies could easily recognize differences in the faces of Lemurs, which all look pretty generic to an adult. The theory was that babies can recognize differences in the faces of all creatures, and as they get older, the brain realizes which faces are important to notice differences (i.e. people, maybe dogs if they have pets) and which are not. I wonder if it is the same in the cases of people who grow up around people who are mainly of one race– they may become good at recognizing the differences amongst that group, but not well practiced for people who may look a bit different. Therefore, if say, you grew up surrounded by only Desis, white people, Africans, etc might be harder to tell apart (without practice) and so forth.

    But I would add that this probably varies– I think the ability to recognize and remember people is stronger in some than others– I have always liked drawing, especially portraits, and I usually find it very easy to recognize people, tell them apart, and remember them– for example years after college I ran into this girl and instantly recognized her as someone from my graduating class (that I was not friends with). I proceeded to ask her if she was so-and-so and determined she was– but she had no recollection of me at all. I have had that happen other times as well… I also have never had problems telling people apart, regardless of race… I remember working in a (to remain nameless) elementary school where a lot of kids of east Asian origin went– I quickly learned all the kids name in the class I worked in, and the teacher said to me (which made me want to barf a little) “Wow! I can’t believe you learned all the kids names already! Not to be racist or anything, but all these Asian kids look the same to me… you know… black hair..” While I still found this horribly racist and offensive (anything starting with “Not to be racist but…” usually is racist) it sort of makes sense with my above theory– but if that is the case, I think people should then try extra hard to quickly learn, not use it as an excuse to not tell people apart.

  24. I’m willing to place India in an altogether different category of a poor, developing country, whose history and economy has been skewed by invasions and colonial exploitation. India thus has an excuse, if not a reason. The US doesn’t. The ignorance Americans display even about their own neighbours, Canada and Mexico, is astounding.

    • Varun– I totally agree– the ignorance that most Americans display is pathetic– it just shows how badly our schools are doing in educating children about the world…

  25. @Varun – Well now you’re kind of branching off to something different. I would agree many Americans are ignorant about other countries politically and culturally, but i don’t think that ties into facial recognition. Like the examples you gave: most Canadians are white so facial recognition wouldn’t really be the issue, whereas most Mexicans are non-white so again the facial recognition/ lumping minorities together problem would arise for those Americans who weren’t raised around hispanics.

    I know in America desi’s tend to cluster in certain areas too. I bet if i moved from NYC to the deep South i’d get called the wrong name way more often.

  26. alina, most of the south would be like upstate. but houston and atlanta would be like nyc. itz more an urban/rural thing than a regional thing.

  27. “The ignorance Americans display even about their own neighbours, Canada and Mexico, is astounding.”

    Varun, why should Americans or anyone for that matter care about anything by mandate..you don’t care you don’t care…shrug…its all good though, Ignorance is seldom rewarded in the long run…short run, yes.

  28. Lindsey, thanks, yes that’s correct. And you know what Alina, it’s really not unrelated, if you think about it, to the subject of facial recognition or acknowledging differences among people of the same race/ethnicity. If Americans were more educated about the rest of the world, they might be able to say something like “You know what, that brown person over there could be originally from India, the world’s most populous and pluralist democratic free state, and not from Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, which is also involved in terrorism worldwide through its funding of radical Islam. And India is a major victim of such violence”

    Instead, the tendency of Americans is to lump everyone together. Of course, even the characterisation of individual Saudis may not be fair, but distinguishing between Indians on the one hand, and Arabs and Pakistanis on the other, would be a major start.

    • I agree with Alina that facial recognition may not be exactly related to ignorance of other peoples and cultures in America– but I do think the combination of both can make things much less bearable for people who are not majority ethnicity in America growing up– I still remember a girl in college asking just about the dumbest question I ever heard, during a presentation on tribal music in Jharkhand:

      Girl: “I have a friend and she is from Bangladesh, but she always gets upset when I tell people she is from India. I don’t understand why.” Presenter: (Probably wondering why this girl is asking this bizarre question in a presentation about music in Jharkhand) “Because Bangladesh is a different country.” Girl: “OH! It is? Oh my god, wow!”

      face meet palm.

      She could have solved her confusion so easily, but just looking at a MAP. Does she know how to READ a map? Or even asking her friend! But, no, she waits for an expert on music in Jkarkhand to give a presentation, carefully saving up her question, so she can properly embarrass herself and make her self look like the fool she is in front of a room full of people. Ah.

  29. You know what, that brown person over there could be originally from India, the world’s most populous and pluralist democratic free state, and not from Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, which is also involved in terrorism worldwide through its funding of radical Islam. And India is a major victim of such violence”

    Ok, but even if everyone kept up with international politics, how would that solve the problem of: White guy who grew up in mostly-White town sees 2 brown people. Sure, he knows they could be Saudi or Afghan or Bengali etc…(assuming he is educated) but to him, they still initially look alike because he has never really encountered brown people that aren’t on TV before. Probably it would take him a while to adjust before his facial recognition senses were better “honed” in a sense.

    And I 100% agree Americans need to be better educated, but I really do think the facial recognition thing is psychological more than anything (lemur example Lindsay gave).

    Even brown people can’t tell what ethnicity other browns are just by looking at them. In NYC I get asked by immigrants, foreign tourists and international students all the time: Are you Afghan/Persian/Syrian/Lebanese/Turkish/Arab/Egyptian etc? If people from Iran can’t tell if I’m Iranian or not, and if other browns can’t tell if I’m brown or not, I honestly am not surprised (or offended) when most Americans can’t determine my ethnic group from looking at me.

    Heck, even my mom calls me by 6 different names before she gets to Alina, haha. Maybe it’s a desi thing?

  30. people should wear t-shirts. e.g., “punjabi indian, which means in the northwest of the indian subcontinent, next to, but not in, pakistan. sikh, which is not muslim. but not hindu either. the caste is jatt. descended from scythians bad-asses, who are mentioned in herodotus. a greek historian, he wrote the persian wars remember? you know, that movie 300 in 2007 was loosely based on that. oh, and that reminds me, i’m transgender, can you guess what that really means in my case?”

  31. I think we can all agree that we don’t like being mistaken for “the other asian girl/ guy” or whatever, or even perhaps being mistaken for another type of Asian or brown person. It is also perfectly legitimate to lament the lack of Americans’ general knowledge about the world, since it is generally quite bad, in comparison to most developed countries. You could of course justify this lack of knowledge in many different ways – “who needs to know about the rest of the world? We’re doing fine without knowing what’s going on elsewhere. Our economy is so big it’s like having 10 Indias, UKs, Chinas, Japans etc – what do we need to know about you guys for?”

    Our issue as minorities is that we have to deal with this type of ignorance on a daily basis – and obviously it rankles, as it would to any thinking/ feeling person.

    So, I agree that you can justify the “ignorance” that Americans display, but it does not and should not stop us from complaining about it, since we are the ones who have to deal with it every day.

  32. excuse my typos, but just looking at a MAP= BY just looking at a map. And Jharkhand… I have uncooperative fingers.

  33. “Yes, that’s a serious problem, the lack of cosmopolitanism. But even more, the lack of self awareness that they are non-cosmopolitan.If they were articulate and provincial, that would at least be acceptable.”

    Find me a provincial in any country who tends to be self-aware. It’s rare anywhere.

    But y’know, “the ugly American” is pretty easy to pick on, given that you have experience with him.

    I’m half-Persian, so I have a sort of olive skin tone. I get mistaken for being Latino, Arab, southern European, and even occasionally Greek/Turkish. I don’t get offended. Why is it everyone else’s job to know that I’m this or that ethnicity? And if I get mistaken for a Latino dude, whatever. Life’s too short to be meta-analyzing’s everyone’s motives, constantly digging for the hidden racism in everything everyone does.

    I bet most of us would have a pretty hard time telling different African ethnicities apart. Doesn’t make us racist.

    “She could have solved her confusion so easily, but just looking at a MAP. Does she know how to READ a map? Or even asking her friend! But, no, she waits for an expert on music in Jkarkhand to give a presentation, carefully saving up her question, so she can properly embarrass herself and make her self look like the fool she is in front of a room full of people. Ah.”

    It’s fun to be haughty, but I remember living in East Asia and getting asked all… the… time what the difference was between the US and Canada, or where California was in relation to “insert state here,” or why California had so many problems with Spanish-speaking immigrants.

    I guarantee that I’m more cosmopolitan than 99% of the world’s population (as will be mostly everyone on this site), but I’ll also say this: I know very little about the differences between most Central African nations. I suppose I could just “looking at a MAP. I know how to READ a map, given my love of the outdoors. But alas, like most people, I take shortcuts.

    “I’m willing to place India in an altogether different category of a poor, developing country, whose history and economy has been skewed by invasions and colonial exploitation. India thus has an excuse, if not a reason. The US doesn’t. The ignorance Americans display even about their own neighbours, Canada and Mexico, is astounding.”

    America is also bloody isolated from much of the world. It’s one thing for Europeans to say how cosmopolitan (or martini, or even gimlet) they are, but they happen to live in a place where you have small interconnected nation states everywhere. Go to Japan, another isolated country, and you find a very similar situation. Korea as well.

    Also, there’s a very simple reason why everyone knows what the US is up to, while Americans don’t know what others are up to: the US matters more. This is changing, but it still remains true to a great extent.

    • “It’s fun to be haughty, but I remember living in East Asia and getting asked all… the… time what the difference was between the US and Canada, or where California was in relation to “insert state here,” or why California had so many problems with Spanish-speaking immigrants.

      I guarantee that I’m more cosmopolitan than 99% of the world’s population (as will be mostly everyone on this site), but I’ll also say this: I know very little about the differences between most Central African nations. I suppose I could just “looking at a MAP. I know how to READ a map, given my love of the outdoors. But alas, like most people, I take shortcuts. “

      You seemed to have missed the point… From how the girl explained herself the question was “My friend is from Bangladesh but always gets upset when I say she is from India, do you know why?” Always..indicates.. more than once. As in, she repeatedly stated this fact, after her friend getting upset, repeated times. And didn’t ask why or bother to look it up. I’m not it’s terrible or awful if someone doesn’t know something, but if you repeatedly make the same mistake and don’t use either your ability to look something up or your ability to communicate (“I’m sorry I upset you, but actually I think I might be confused? Can you tell me more about Bangladesh?”) then I think a little mockery is in order.

      I don’t know that much about Africa, but if I get into a situation where I don’t know something, I will say so, or ask someone, or look something up. It’s not just about knowledge, it’s about “cultural desire”, as says Campinha-Bacote. How many times have I heard Americans refer to Africa as a “country”? I mean it’s not that HARD to make a little effort, is it?

  34. lindsey, i haven’t followed the conversation in detail. are you claiming that americans are less cosmopolitan in a genuine way that other people of similar socioeconomic levels of development? if you control for size & nearby neighbors i don’t think europeans or canadians are any different. or at least my exp. isn’t.

    • I wasn’t really comparing Americans to any other country or group– just saying that I think Americans need to make an effort to know more about other peoples and cultures in the world.

      In terms of people getting mistaken for Muslims– I don’t know if someone else was talking about that– but I was just talking about people not making an effort to learn or understand backgrounds of the people around them.

      • I like to think that people not knowing a damn thing about my background gives me a certain air of mystery and intrigue.

  35. p.s. i think one of the issues non-muslim south asians might have is that there are pretty pragmatic reasons for not wanting to be confused for muslims. hindus are perceived by the typical american to be funny and weird (e.g., worship cows and eight-handed goddesses). muslims are perceived to be scary. in fact, europeans are scared to muslims too. my british cousin told me that his white friends were generally a little distant and diffident around him until they found out he was an atheist and not muslim identified. the same pattern was recounted to me by an arab christian of french nationality, who is often confused as a muslim at his university. OTOH, i doubt south asians with a lighter shade would be too irritated about confused for southern european. though racism might be an issue for some darker-skinned ones who are mispercieved to be black.

  36. just saying that I think Americans need to make an effort to know more about other peoples and cultures in the world.

    they don’t need to at all. we’re a huge economy, and only 10% of our GDP is in the export sector. we should, because i believe it can be edifying, and makes for less stupid discussion. but since i believe most people are stupid you can see that i have rather low standards. OTOH, it behooves the dutch to be aware of the wider world since their economy is so globalized. and it behooves bangladeshis to know much more about india than vice versa from a purely pragmatic perspective.

    p.s. americans are also quite parochial in terms of their regions within the nation. some very ‘cosmopolitan’ people on an international scale are rather parochial on a national scale. i’m thinking of a friend who lived in the upper east side who admitted to having been to the caribbean more often than to brooklyn in her life.

    • “they don’t need to at all. we’re a huge economy, and only 10% of our GDP is in the export sector. we should, because i believe it can be edifying, and makes for less stupid discussion. “

      I don’t really define “need” in terms of economics– more in that America is becoming more and more diverse ethnically and culturally, and if we want people to get along and live together and blah, blah, blah.. then they NEED to try.. at least a little. Anyways this is just my humble opinion.. coming from an anthropologist who is now studying to be a nurse and at this very moment writing a paper on the importance of cultural competency in providing quality patient care! :)

  37. p.s. americans are also quite parochial in terms of their regions within the nation. some very ‘cosmopolitan’ people on an international scale are rather parochial on a national scale. i’m thinking of a friend who lived in the upper east side who admitted to having been to the caribbean more often than to brooklyn in her life.

    The very fact that “flyover country” is a recognized term we use is evidence of this.

  38. Lindsey,

    “You seemed to have missed the point… From how the girl explained herself the question was “My friend is from Bangladesh but always gets upset when I say she is from India, do you know why?” Always..indicates.. more than once. As in, she repeatedly stated this fact, after her friend getting upset, repeated times. And didn’t ask why or bother to look it up. I’m not it’s terrible or awful if someone doesn’t know something, but if you repeatedly make the same mistake and don’t use either your ability to look something up or your ability to communicate (“I’m sorry I upset you, but actually I think I might be confused? Can you tell me more about Bangladesh?”) then I think a little mockery is in order.”

    I don’t think I missed the point. We also have little context. What if the person didn’t bother explaining why Bangladesh and India are distinct? “Getting upset” in and of itself accomplishes nothing. It sounds to me, based on the info we have, that the other person literally had NO IDEA that this was the case.

    Sure, we can blame her for not going and looking it up in a map– but then again, how do we even know that the first person expressed WHY she was upset?


    Somewhat unrelated note: isn’t it funny how we have no problem with stereotyping Americans (stupid Americans not knowing about _____!) but if you said the same thing about French people living in rural Nice, you’d be a jerk?

    Just sayin’.

    • shrug. You don’t have to agree with me. It just gets tiring to hear people saying things like that over and over… and I am not even a minority.

      P.S. I am not comparing America to any other place… I was just talking about America. I can say plenty about people from other countries not knowing anything about other cultures/ethnicity etc either. but it doesn’t really change things in the U.S.

  39. Somewhat unrelated note: isn’t it funny how we have no problem with stereotyping Americans (stupid Americans not knowing about _____!) but if you said the same thing about French people living in rural Nice, you’d be a jerk?

    cuz most of us are americans. the only europeans most americans have known personally are foreign exchange students, who tend to be from more cosmopolitan strata by definition.

  40. It was funny to come across this topic this week because I just had a similar incident a few days ago at a meeting. I’m a female science professor, born & living in the US with European heritage (white). There aren’t a lot of women science professors in every setting, and when you narrow us down to white, female, American, under age 40,…. well you get the picture. I was at a committee meeting with colleagues from other science/engineering depts, and one of my male Desi colleagues asked me if I wasn’t the woman featured on the university’s homepage this week. The woman who was featured and I are both white, female, in the same dept, and within 5 years of the same age,…. But the similarities end exactly there. So it was funny when this colleague at the meeting repeated his insistence that he saw me on the homepage even after I told him that it wasn’t me, but another woman in my dept. (!)

    My husband assures me that I am actually WAY better looking, have MUCH better research, and am clearly much more COOL to be around than this other woman in my dept. I am choosing to believe my husband on this one.

  41. dphud “The woman who was featured and I are both white, female, in the same dept, and within 5 years of the same age,…. But the similarities end exactly there. So it was funny when this colleague at the meeting repeated his insistence that he saw me on the homepage even after I told him that it wasn’t me, but another woman in my dept. (!)”

    Well…it cuts both ways, doesn’t it?

    Enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGmD4fOqWgo

    • We should not be uncritical of Desis or East Asian( Mr. Schwartz’s experiences) behavior in this matter either. There are still North Indians,usually from the older generation, who have difficulty naming the four southern states of India, merely being content to label it all “the South” or “Madrassi”, an archaic term, by the way.

      My experience with East Asians have generally been positive; they are friendly and cheerful But don’t expect anything incisive, articulate or eloquent from them, less so something about India. Expect a comment or question like “Which city did Mother Theresa live in” or “where is that Taj Mahal”. Not “India is a complex country grappling with huge problems, yet doing it in the context of a free, democratic, pluralistic system and ideology” They are this earth-earthy to a fault, to make a remark like that.

  42. America’s ability to acknowledge and in many cases embrace cultural diversity truly amazes me. Even when I was a young fob at a major state university in the early seventies, where we desis were a little drop of 100 in an ocean of 40,000 whites, it came as a huge surprise that the locals would make an honest attempt to correctly pronounce alien names and learn about our culture. We North Indians had much less patience with South Indian names. Perhaps universities are not a true reflection of societies ar large, but my part-time jobs did expose me to many low-income, less educated people. They were equally sincere if not as successful in their efforts.

    In the 37 years of living here I have seen not gradual but exponential improvements in this area. We are now at a point that ignorance about your colleague’s cultural roots and mispronouncing their alien names may be highly detrimental to your career, corporate mandate or not. I guess I am bullish on America for two reasons. It has shown remarkable improvements over the past three decades and hence has a proven record, and with all its flaws, it is still more respectful of diversity than many other countries. Cases of mistaken identity usually arise from unfamiliarity with different cultures and races as some commenters have pointed out.

  43. “.s. i think one of the issues non-muslim south asians might have is that there are pretty pragmatic reasons for not wanting to be confused for muslims. hindus are perceived by the typical american to be funny and weird (e.g., worship cows and eight-handed goddesses”

    This is an excellent and accurate observation. And it refutes totally the notion that Hindus and Hinduism represent some kind of ideological threat to the world. Hinduism might be seen as weird, even gross, though often( and Julia Roberts is a good example) attractive. But never a threat. Despite all the gassing and belching pseudo-liberal American commentators like Martha Nussbaum and Paul Gross make about the dangers of the Hindu right, even their paranoia is restricted to India, not even South Asia or Asia in general.

  44. Lindsey,

    Thanks for being diplomatic– few blog commenters are.

    I’m not trying to ruffle your feathers (or even tweak your nose, as it were.) I’m just saying that the sense of “Americans are oh-so-bad” that so many liberal bloggers have is somewhat silly in my experience around the world. Yeah, it’s really tiring to hear stupid things repeated, but the fact of the matter is that stupid people are everywhere, and even smart people can occasionally have moments of supreme stupidity. It’s best to laugh it off and focus on more important things anyway. If I had a nickel for every time someone said something idiotic about my rather convoluted ethnic background, well… I’d be able to buy a bottle of Coke. Maybe. You seen the price of a Coke these days? Insane!

    My take on people: there are jerks everywhere. Try not to conflate this one jerk with everyone you know from his identified group. Otherwise, you just end up with silly stereotypes.

    dphud,

    Funny how that works.

    • Ari, I agree with you to a point… but I don’t feel comfortable resigning it all to some stupid people… yes, there will certainly always be stupid people, but I think a lot of progress can be made through education and experience…

      I have worked with children in a lot of different settings and most are extremely eager and intrigued to learn about other people and cultures in the world… if our education system developed a curriculum that incorporated more study of different countries and cultures, then I don’t think the perfectly intelligent girl I worked with would be asking me if (for example, but true story) “all Indian people live in like, mud huts?” It took me about 5 seconds to pull up some photos of India to show that indeed, lots of people not only did not live in mud huts, but some lived in fancy mansions. with maids. and yes, some people live in mud huts. I know this girl, know she is intelligent, and no she meant no offense what-so-ever, and was truly interested, but had never had an idea of how people live in other countries at all.

      Additionally, I understand your point that it is not just America, but since I grew up in the U.S., and lived in India, but not in any other countries, I can’t really start talking too much about other places. I CAN acknowledge that I have certainly been asked “silly” questions about American by Indians at times (i.e. “Is it true Americans just get divorced and married over and over and over?” or “Are all Americans really obsessed with being skinny and work out constantly?” or “When Americans go on a first date, they all do it that night, like in Hollywood movies, right?”) And I also had Shopkeepers confuse me with other American people (i.e. are you (brown eyes, dark brown hair, tall and awkward, olive skinned tone) the same girl who came in here yesterday? (when it was my friend Melissa– shorter, thinner, blonde, blue eyes, freckles, pink skin tone).

      I have also heard some not-so-good stories about other places. Recently one of my friend in India emailed a French company to see if they would ship to India and got this response: “No we do not as it is a third world country and the post will lose the parcel.

      Stop bugging us with that, or order in an Europeean country that will ship back to you in India.

      We will only accept bank wire transfer to be sure to retain money.”

      Or the Japanese guy I was talking to in the Charles-de-Gaulle airport who was just heading home from a study abroad in France who told me it was the worst experience of his like and little kids would point and stare and people would sarcastically shout “NI HAAAOOO” at him.

      Anyways, I don’t know where I am going with this anymore.. I got sidetracked my stories… ummm regroup regroup… yes, so I do think this sort of stuff can happen anywhere, and there are always going to be some stupid people.. but I think that we can also say “Hey! Let’s make an effort to teach our kids more” (etc) and make an effort ourselves..

    • Out of interest, and since you seem to go on about it so much, what is your “convoluted” ethnic background?

  45. Lindsey,

    I agree with your pro-active advice. While it is definitely true that the U.S. is much more open to multiculturalism than many other countries, we can always make things better by teaching our kids about foreign cultures, so they are more aware of the rest of the world. We have a lot of resources in our hands (the internet, libraries,etc.) and we should use them.