Categorizing seems to be second nature to humans. We tend to divide and separate, making clear distinctions between “us” and “them,” or “you” and “me.” My home culture – the United States – has long been known as a great melting pot, though we also obviously have our issues with separating and dividing, as “white flight” or interracial or interethnic relations within the U.S. have long demonstrated.
Even with our problems, the image of the melting pot has ingrained itself in my imagination, so that some aspects of living in Kyrgyzstan are pretty surprising. When studying Russian, it didn’t take very long to figure out that Russian-speaking people tend to use “nationality” in a way that corresponds more closely with “ethnicity” in English (which explains why “nationalism” looks more like “ethnocentrism” in this context as well, but maybe that’s another topic for another day). “American” means white, and our other American friends are clearly designated “Indian,” or “Asian.” My Russian teacher stared at me dumbfounded when I said I was Swedish-English-Scottish-Portuguese. “No, you’re American. You can’t be four things.”
Later, I was talking with a friend whose paternal grandfather was Russian, but the rest of his grandparents were Tatar. “I’m Russian,” he would say, even though by blood it is obvious that he was more Tatar. In the U.S., the distinction wouldn’t really matter, and we would typically say, “I’m a quarter Russian and three quarters Tatar,” but in a Russian-background context, only one “nationality” can go into your passport or onto other official documents (another difference with the U.S. – we put “U.S.” on the passport no matter what our ethnicity is).
Once, while looking for an apartment, we were on the phone with a potential landlord who wanted to know the nationality of the potential renters. “Americans,” we said. “Yeah, but what kind of Americans?” the landlord replied. “They’re Americans,” we said with our cultural don’t-put-people-in-boxes-radar going wild. “Yes, but not all Americans are the same.” We didn’t end up renting from them.
I have to admit: sometimes I actively resist the way we’re all judged and categorized. Whenever I’m not in Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan), I always answer the question, “Where are you from?” with the incorrect response: “I’m from Bishkek.” It is so fun to watch the eyes of the inquisitor and see their brain working. “Wait… that’s not what I meant… this guy is definitely a foreigner… English? French? Australian?” Often, the follow up question is a bit of a guess, such as, “Oh, but I meant, where are you from? Canada?” Deep inside, I grin when they guess the wrong box.