Two consecutive days this week people have called me a magnet. The first occurrence was when I had summoned, on short notice, two high ranking male compatriots for coffee in Copenhagen. Since the two men had tried unsuccessfully to see each other on previous occasions for a similarly trivial activity, such as drinking coffee without having an agenda, they concluded that it must take a magnet materialized as a woman to facilitate such reciprocal encounters. I took it as a compliment without thinking that other things than magnets have a way of attracting things (just think of flies). The second occurrence happened while eating my lunch at the University's cafeteria. The place, which can seat approximately 150 people, was absolutely packed, so I took one of the few available seats left, somewhere in the back. I said hello to my right, and ignored the empty seat next to me on my left. Not for long though...

Five minutes into my stuffed peppers a woman sits down. I let her get comfortable before I turn to also acknowledge her presence. Unlike many these days, I still believe in courtesy. I discover that it's another Romanian who lives in another city and whom I haven't seen in a year. While I'm certainly surprised, she is freaked; and since she can't account in rational terms for the bizarre coincidence, she decides that it's because I exert magnetic powers. As I am pondering to what extent the theory of magnetism is interesting where I am concerned, a Canadian joins us. My friend and I disclose after two seconds that we come from the same country. This information, we think, could not garner anything but normal reactions, yet, as it turns out this is not the case. So after surprise and freakish bewilderment there is space for astonishment. The Canadian just says firmly: no! That can't be possible because we look nothing like each other. Oh, I ask, where would you say I come from? Chile, she replies. Definitely Chile. I look so Latin, she insists. My friend gives me a sideways glance. The Romanians were Latin, last time she checked. After another round of interrogation I feel compelled to come up with something that will satisfy her curiosity. I disclose that I'm Jewish. Ah, says the Canadian, that explains it. I give my friend a sideways glance. The Jews were not Latin, last I checked. And so it goes.

Being a foreigner in a foreign country can be both liberating and frustrating. To this day, to the Danes in Denmark, I'm definitely Spanish. To the Arabs in Denmark, I'm definitely from the Middle East. To the Romanians in Denmark, I'm often either a Gypsy (though this suspicion doesn't get to be articulated loudly) or a Hungarian. Or an aristocratic intellectual whose mother wrote on Marx (in the Romanian context you can get a long way with exhibiting mannerisms or expressing opinions). I liked it the best though when I was living in New York for a short while. There I could pass for all these ethnicities at once. The most wonderful ethnic moment I experienced there came one day when a couple stopped me in the street and asked if they could take a picture of me. They so wanted to capture a real New Yorker, they claimed. I said yes, of course. At least it saved me the trouble of having to fix other people's relatively negative image of Romania. Or having to tell them that, yes, while I may come from Transylvania, no, I have never met Dracula. In my first years in Denmark, I used to tell people that I came from New Zealand. I would usually get the desired exclamations: oh, wow, that's interesting, followed by no further questions. Certain places, it helps to say that you come from a country that conjures no concrete images in people's heads. Better yet, introduce yourself, or just say your name on the phone to people who try to sell you something. They'll probably ask you whether your father is at home, and whether you can go and fetch him, so that they can sell him something. I always say yes and pass the phone over to my husband to handle the subsequent swearing. Accented voices separated from a face may just be the next mask we can wear at the carnival of othering the Other.


Anonymous said…

Screaming fans to Elvis Presley
Flies to MacDonalds
Stars to black holes
Serendipity to lucky bastards
Magnets to big pink fridges
Me to you
Anonymous said…
You look like a friend of mine, also born in Arad. It must be an "Arad look"...
I never understood why people are so keen to find out one's ethnicity..For me is just not relevant...I once thought my nationality (Romanian) was many times a source of frustration (because all of those questions about communism, Ceausescu, orphans and so on)...but in the end I realized I was just bored to have to answer stupid questions or to have to feel the duty of fixing negative stereotypes...Why me? What do I have in common with all of these??? So it has been a while since i have no curiosity for origins, ethnicity, homelands and so on. I could be a lot more interested in the colour of someone's shoes.

Popular Posts