Fellows' Reflections: Jordan Lee

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I was born and raised in the United States of America, to parents who were born and raised in the United States, who were both born to parents who were also born and raised in the United States. 

That may not be particularly noteworthy to you, but it is a confounder to many people I have met in Qatar. Whether I’m introducing myself to taxi drivers, students at Qatar University (QU), or other expats, people respond variously with confused looks, shock or outright disbelief when I first tell them where I’m from.

This experience isn’t new. When I was in India, Morocco, and Israel, people were routinely shocked to learn that I was born and raised in the U.S. and on one occasion challenged me to speak American English to support my claim.

During my gap year in Ecuador, news that I was from the United States was met with similar surprise. I lived in a small, rural town, and the first time I told members of the community that I was from the U.S., they responded with uproarious laughter. They were sure that I was kidding and was actually from the coastal part of Ecuador (where the majority of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorians live). To be fair, they had reason to be surprised. As I mentioned, it was a small town, so to get a visitor from another country, let alone someone living there for nearly a year, was rare. Also, I was effectively fluent in Spanish by this point and had nearly eliminated my American accent.

But the context in Qatar is very different. I am not fluent in Arabic, Doha is a sizable city with a considerable population of Americans, and my physical features are noticeably different from those of the various African populations that live in Qatar.

And yet, the surprise persists. Whether I’m speaking to someone from Senegal or Bangladesh or even California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing a look of incredulity when I mention that I am from the United States. 

I often respond to the surprise by asking where people think I’m from, and the most common response is Sudan. This response wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it only came up when I introduced myself in Arabic. After all, Sudan is an Arabic-speaking country, and Qatar hosts a significant Sudanese population. Pair that with the facts that relatively few U.S. citizens in Qatar are black or can speak Arabic (let alone both), and the speculation that an Arabic-speaking black man is from Sudan is not unreasonable. But regardless of the language I’m speaking, Sudan is the leading guess. In fact, four Sudanese students at QU have independently (and repeatedly) told me that I look distinctly Sudanese. As far as I know, I don’t have any Sudanese ancestry, but much of my heritage remains a mystery, so maybe they’re onto something. 

After Sudan, the next most common guesses of my country of origin are Kenya and Nigeria. Latin America even comes up every now and then. And even after I’ve assured people that I am a native U.S. citizen, I often get a follow-up question, “But what is your heritage?” When I respond, “I’m actually not sure, since my family has been in the U.S. for a long time,” I only generate more surprise.

I’m not angry or frustrated about this common reaction to news of my nationality. Nor do I perceive it as racist or insensitive or believe that it stems from a considered belief that Americans can’t be black. Rather, I’ve concluded that a black man is simply not representative of the America commonly envisioned by many people outside of the U.S. But I don’t resent having to prove my U.S. origins. To the contrary, I find some satisfaction in changing perceptions of what it means to be an American from the United States of America.