Why Not To Eavesdrop in Guam

 

Ah, this is the topic that gets me into trouble: "where are you from?"

"Your worst nightmare," should be the dreamy response - delivered deadpan, low voiced and with super intense scary music in the background. But alas, life is never as Hollywood would have us believe it is, or should be.

Here I am, a 50 year old male, very white and very middle class. No matter how my outward appearance is, there are things I will hold dear until my last heart beat. One of them is my identity. If who you are can be put in one line on a t-shirt, I would need a billboard. And that isn't bragging.

My life has been a series of adjustments. I haven't done too badly. As one invests in life experiences though, there is the added weight of the said experience that comes with it - and it is heavy. When someone asks you about yourself, how much do you "unload" on them?

My family was government, and my father held various posts in different areas of government. The basic rule of thumb was "don't talk about work and NEVER ask." So we filtered. Talk was always pleasantries and generalisms. I would tell you simplified answers. It was easy on Guam: "I am an off islander."  

White is a no brainer in Micronesia. In fact, I sometimes think Micronesia should have been derived from "land of small life experiences." Don't think me prejudicial - people on Guam got as far as Hawaii or the West Coast. They looked down on everyone and held Saipan and other islands in the Pacific with disdain. Some of the more adventurous islanders joined the military but secretly prayed they would be sent no further than the Philippines or Okinawa, Germany or Belgium or God forbid Turkey or Greece. Ironically the worst prison offenders got sent to Hawaii.

I also found that the more life I got under my belt, the less my birth in Spain mattered, until September 11th. Suddenly I am confronted with the fact that I don't speak Spanish. My passport says I was born on a military base in Spain.

"Why don't you speak Spanish?" demands a snotty Immigration officer in Seattle a few years back, when I did not respond to her "por que tu estas aqui?" (I learned a long time ago on Guam that eavesdropping got you beat up, so I tune anyone out who doesn't speak to me in my language).

"I wasn't raised in Spain and my mother is a German Jew and my Dad is a WASP. " To myself I think, 'you twit. Why would I speak Spanish growing up in the Pacific and Asian continent?' I could hurl off some pretty nifty invectives in Tagalog and Chamorro and a few zingers in Japanese if so motivated. Instead I chose to get very passive. Undeterred she brings up the Spanish issue again (okay, so her last name is Spanish. Big deal). 

"Why are you in the States?" 

"To visit my parents."

"Oh, I thought they were in Spain." Only if they have been in jail for the last 40 years, lady.

I looked at her, "I never said that." I am not trying to be difficult, I just don't think listing the countries I have lived in is going to be to my benefit. I do not want to sweep this woman off her feet, I want to sweep her under the carpet and stomp on her and make her go away.

"Are you adopted?"  

As I considered countering this with some pithy response, my internal warnings went back to high school hazings. Keep your head down. She stopped when she saw me staring at her name tag. Suddenly she realised it wasn't funny anymore.  

"You can go now."

I wasn't even in the immigration counter area, she was a pre-screener for crap sake.

On the other side, when I am at work I have a very vague, "lots of places, Dad's work" response. Some people really do want to know and then I need a map to point it all out. Jumping from one side of Eurasia to the next and the US outer islands and west coast will make even the best geography student gasp. 

"Have you ever been to Russia?" I was asked recently when I was on a flight to Vladivostok. 

My eyes crinkle the way we were taught in flight school - the same way we were taught how to sit and hold our hands and tip our heads forward. That finishing class for flight attendants was the same one that gave the best advice: avoid hassle with two word answers and a question to boot.

"Have you ever been to Russia?"

I am pouring champagne to a Japanese industrialist. My eyes crinkle as I reply, "only lay-overs. Is this your first time?"

Last of all, let me tell you, unusual will get you noticed. I have been told by friends before, using a fountain pen and having a coin pouch all seem wonderfully "affected" and non-American. I am not trying to be different, I am practical. No one touches my pens and my coins are always where I want them. But it makes me stand out. But I see people with pierced eyelids and green hair and no one is harassing them. What am I doing wrong?

So the next time you ask me a "where are you from" question, expect a two worded answer and a question in return. If you want to dig a little deeper, pull up a chair and let's dish.

Letter from the Editor