20 Feb 2015

What they see is what you get

Jag talar inte svenska“ I said again, smiling politely into another pretty Blonde’s face. The shop assistant in question had just explained to me the latest special offer pricing at the Nordiska Kompaniet department store. And she looked genuinely surprised when I had to tell her that, apart from this single line (and a few Ikea product names), I did not actually speak any Swedish.

A similar confusion did not arise a few days later, fortunately, when I walked into Bangkok’s Siam Paragon mall. It was Valentine’s Day, it was a weekend, and it was the beginning of Chinese New Year, which meant that the place was absolutely teeming with local shoppers. Of which I was very clearly not part – for my appearance would pretty easily let me pass as Scandinavian, but definitely not as Thai. The best I could hope for, in long linen pants and sans the tourist accoutrements of fanny pack and camera, was the expat look.

Nor do I make for a very credible Turk, young or otherwise, as the subsequent visit to the Grand Bazaar on the Bosporus proved. Istanbul is a popular tourist destination, and consequently, the stall owners and restaurant touts tried their best to guess just where I was visiting from. “Hello how are you? Deutsch Deutsch? Nederlande? Rossiya?” they shouted, before resorting to “where are you from?” 

Québec!” is my typical (and truthful!) answer, which usually bewilders people long enough for me to escape inflated prices and so-called special offers. Answering in Swiss German has a similar effect.

People are easily fooled by appearances, and what they see is what you get. In Stockholm, I was treated like a local, from bus drivers talking to me about traffic delays to hotel staff at check-in – even when they had my Swiss ID in their hands. If, like me, you understand some Swedish but can’t speak it much, this constellation allows you to decide if and when you reveal your true tourist self, rather than just nodding and shuffling on.

This option was unavailable in Bangkok, where people gave me that tired “yet another one” shrug of a city that had seen more than its fair share of ill-behaved Western visitors, or in Istanbul, where I was quickly identified as a walking ATM to be taken advantage of, be it by merchants, restaurant owners or scam artists. I had to keep my guard up.

Such stereotyping can be annoying, but I am the first to admit that I am as guilty of it as the next man. How many times have I seen Asian- or African-looking people walking the streets of Montréal, and have assumed that they must be visitors? Why on earth would they come visit in the middle of winter? I had often wondered. How many times have I mistaken a resident for a tourist?

Fortunately, I blend in with the crowds in my adopted home town. And with almost six years of language immersion under my belt, even the Québecois rarely identify my French as European. My most recent trip has once again nourished my lust for travel to foreign places, but it also made me rediscover the soothing comforts of returning home. For when I am back on the Montréal metro tomorrow, chatting with strangers in the local slang about yet another service interruption and the Sainte-Flanelle’s inglorious performance the other day, they don’t think twice about where I am from. It’s plain to see – here I belong.

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