Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Monday, February 05, 2007

What do we look like?

My wife just mentioned to me that our son looks kind of weird to her.

By now I know what she means by that, so I said, "You mean, not Polish?" "Yes."

Jerzy has brown hair and very dark eyes. Monika thinks he's a beautiful boy (as do other people not even related to us) and that he's exotic-looking. Now while I think he's a good-looking kid, "exotic" is not a word that comes to my mind. But then, I think Polish people look like they come from Ohio (aside from the startlingly large percentage of nines and tens you see on the streets of any Polish city).

When I first started to learn Polish, I practiced, as you'd expect, in shops and markets. (As Kipling observed, there are few linguistic barriers between a willing buyer and a willing seller.) People asked me if I were Austrian, Yugoslavian or even Russian! And my students would ask me, "You're part Spanish, right?" "Was your mother Greek?" "Are you an Indian?"

Finally I asked my senior class, "I get it now. I don't look like you people do I?" Blank looks. "No Steve, you don't look Polish at all." It had taken months for it to occur to me, that because people around looked pretty familiar to me, that didn't mean that I looked commonplace to them. In fact, I fit in better on physical appearance alone in Bulgaria or even Saudi Arabia.

(My son's English godmother told me, "Anyone can see you're a Black Highlander." That's a group which originally migrated from Iberia during the Bronze Age, so Spanish is perhaps not so far-fetched.)

My wife comes from an ethnicly homogenous country, and as is often the case in such countries, whoever looks foreign seems exotic and attractive. She says that she's really happy our son doesn't look like a typical Polish kid - because in a homogenous population typical can mean well, pretty typical.

Europeans tell me they can tell each other apart by looking - and I've heard this from Germans and Poles about each other for example. I'm not sure though how much of this is differences in subtle body language cues. A friend of mine once recognized a Chinese-American - in China, from the way she carried herself. And a Russian woman in Lithuania once swore to me that she could tell I was American across the room in the dark.

However, genetic markers used to track descent do tend to cluster within language groups. And I suppose that when you have a national group of no more than a few tens of millions intermarrying for a while, you're bound to start getting family resemblances. Because after a while you ARE all family. And of course, in the 20th century this was exacerbated by disastrous reductions of the gene pool due to the wars and state-murders. Poland lost 20% of it's population in WWII for example.

Here in America, we've had groups merrily mixing for a few centuries, something remarked on by both St. John de Crevecoeur and de Tocqueville. I've joked with foreign colleagues that if we hear of any group of people in the world that has not contributed some immigration to America, we must immediately send for some!

I remember when the flood of young Asians, refugees following the fall of Vietnam, the Chinese students who sought asylum after Tien An Min square, mixed children of war brides etc, started showing up on university campuses in huge numbers. And I remember seeing how the Okie boys were sniffing after these lovely girls and thinking that our next generation was going to look a little more Asian.

And yet, with all this diversity Americans somehow come to look like... I dunno, Americans. A few months ago I was standing with two girls from Germany and Austria looking at a photo display of student journalists, mostly women. There were Black girls, Hispanics, blue-eyed blonds and Asians, yet one remarked, "American girls look like they were poured from a mold."

I had to laugh. A while after I brought my family to Oklahoma I asked my wife what her impression of the people on campus was. After growing up in a homogeneous population I wondered what her impression of our very heterogeneous student body was.

She said, "Well maybe I'd notice it more if they weren't all dressed alike."


  • At 9:54 AM, Blogger Icepick said…

    I was a graduate TA in Mathematics at the University of Florida for several years. There was one group of students that I could never distinguish as individuals, because they all looked alike to me: frat boys and sorority girls. Talk about poured out a mold!


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