One person asks another: “Hey, are you German?”
My answer, I learned, should depend on the ground under my feet.
In the United States, I’m being asked about my ancestry. I look a touch German. It’s not an unreasonable question. I’ve heard ones like it before. It’s a getting-to-know-you question. It’s charming. It’s about bloodlines and what specific version of the American story I’m living. The asker wants to know more about me. It’s a good thing.
My answer, in the United States, is an unwavering yes. I’m about 50% German. Another big chunk goes to the Emerald Isle. The rest is a western European mosaic. Yeah, I’m German.
So that’s what I said.
The problem is that I was in the airport in Bogota, Colombia.
“Yes,” I said.
And she’s German, too! From Troisdorf, outside Bonn. She said all this in German. Because she’s fucking German. I didn’t understand a word.
I guess I’m not so German after all.
Interactions exist within a set of social and cultural conditions that dictate your response. This amazing and hilarious thing happens when you travel, which is that the conditions completely shift, rendering normal interactions absurd.
If I went on a date in the United States and I was asked about my religious beliefs, I’d give the candid truth: I was raised Catholic (there’s the Irish chunk), but I rebelled in my teens and I’ve swung into something of a cosmic spirituality. You know why that’s what I’d say? It’s not because honesty is the best policy and authenticity matters (though those things are true). It’s because there’s like a 75% chance it’s true for the person sitting across from me, too. It’s a wickedly safe answer. Go on a date with a Colombian woman (in Colombia) as a white American and say exactly those words. See what happens. I literally dare you.
Anyway, I’ve been out of the United States for most of the last two years, and I’ve gotten much better at these things. But still they happen. And still they’re funny.
In the last few months, recreating these moments has become one of my favorite components of recording the Baggage Claim podcast. There are two human perspectives, and the collision in the middle is where the story is. It’s wonderful.
Anyway, I experience quite a few of these in the first three episodes. If you haven’t yet, click here to listen on your podcast platform of choice. Also, text CONNECT to (332) 877-9540 and we can be friends. Feel free to laugh at me. I sure did.