‘Where are you from?’ is the number one conversation starter among travelers and expats. We get sick of it sometimes and try to come up with something more original, but ultimately, there is no other way to form your general first impression of a person other than knowing where they come from. In the end we all have clichés in mind: when someone says ‘Italy’, you instantly expect them to use hectic gesticulations and speak of food. When your new acquaintance is Irish, you think Guinness and St Paddy’s day. When somebody introduces themselves as Canadian, you think they’re probably an awkward American using a less conspicuous nationality as a cover-up.
There are travel stereotypes about each country. The funny thing about national stereotypes, is that they are almost never groundless, and even though everybody is going to wave their hands and exclaim: ‘We are not really like this!’, deep in their heart they know that once upon a time there was this ‘patient zero’ who started the epidemic of said reputation for their country.
So when I first arrived to Australia, I felt uneasy when I noticed many grocery stores had signs: ‘Please do not steal!’, and the most upsetting part was that the signs were all in French, thus eliminating any doubt of what was their target audience. French backpackers do have a very bad reputation in Oz, perhaps because many of them travel all the way here overland in search of temporary employment, and have little money left by the time they reach Australian shores. I’ve met some of them, and a few really lived up to their reputation. There are other details to the image of a stereotypical French traveler: white and gay-looking guy or avid pot smoker, never shaves (this especially applies to women), smells bad (perfume industry), rude and cannot speak English. Sure enough, there are nice things about French people, too: cheese, wine, fashion, Paris, Oulala…
But ultimately, when introducing myself, French Caribbean doesn’t sound as a very common combination for most people… And Caribbean people as well may sometimes live up to their reputation (love partying, laid-back attitude, religious, smoke weed…)
But despite all stereotypes about where we are from, we should acknowledge that we all belong in the great lottery of birth and if I am here writing this post, it’s because somehow I won the lottery.
And if you get a life ticket, (no exchange, no return, no cash refund), you do have to win the birth lottery as well. If you are born and raised in a developed country, somehow, you’ve won a nice raffle prize, full of vouchers redeemable for education, clean water and health. Even if life challenges make you think every now and then, that you won a very small prize (pins), your birth lottery winnings are pretty good compared to many developing countries. Think about it, the population of the U.S. is ~300 million, and the population of the world is ~7 billion.
So the probability that the next child to be born, will be born in the U.S., is about 4%.
Well, as far as I’m concerned, I probably beat the birth lottery’s odds:
- growing up in Caribbean,
- in a French island (less than 400,000 people),
- from multiracial
- and inter-faith family. Bingo! (American love to put a marketable label on every anthropological concept).
People tend to forget that France used to be a great colonial empire and is now a quite ethnically diverse nation. And when it comes to stereotyping, this sketch probably sums up the situation for some people in the US…
When we leave our country and try to start a new life of a global citizen, national stereotypes is something we hope to leave behind. But the shadow of our country, however small it may be, is always one step ahead of us. Maybe we should get more inventive with identifying ourselves when prompted with the ‘Where are you from?’ question. I am French. I am from Martinique. I am from the Caribbean. Now let us forget about hairiness, nasty smell, laziness, cheese, partying, weed and bad English. Let me tell you about my journey…