When I was studying in Sweden, our university had a sizable contingent of foreign-exchange undergraduates from one of California’s state schools.
I didn’t meet many of them, but one day, a friend from France remarked to me just how arrogant they were. This surprised me, and I asked what made them so arrogant.
“Because they always say, ‘I’m from California.’ Not the United States, but California.”
Assuming preferential status for the Golden State somehow rubbed this guy the wrong way. Looking back, I see he had a point. Sure, California is home to more than 35 million people and has one of the 10 largest economies on the planet, but “Californian” does not supersede “from the United States” in a person’s identity.
Wait until the landmass breaks off into the Pacific and you form a uniquely identifiable culture, Californians. Then you can introduce yourself as being from California when traveling abroad.
Introducing Yourself While Traveling
Introducing yourself seems incredibly basic, like a topic for Being Human 101. However, after traveling for long enough and after meeting enough people, you will understand that experience, culture and circumstance create so many permutations of self-identity that even a simple, “Hello, my name is …” can shake your worldview.
Hello, my name is Eric, and I’m from the United States, from a small town in Kentucky.
This is my standard introduction, and it works perfectly 99% of the time because it offers neither too much nor too little information. My introduction has two elements: A name by which you can call me, and where I am from. Let’s break down the two elements of an introduction to see all the strange ways your first encounter with someone new can get turned on its head.
I offer only my first name as an introduction for the sake of brevity and so no one feels compelled to use a [First Name][Surname] format in conversation. It’s nice to save people three syllables when you can.
In much of Scandinavia, people introduce themselves with just their first names, regardless of age or whether they’ve earned a title (Dr., Professor, Mrs., etc.). This, to me, suggests a preference for pure equality among people, and I plan to continue offering anyone I meet an invitation for a first-name basis because of the equality it suggests, even if by chance I’m knighted somewhere someday.
Pay careful attention to the name others use when introducing themselves to you. It may be unclear whether a two-syllable sound represents a first name and a surname, a name and a title, or just a simple nickname. Also, encountering names that feature a brand-new arrangement of sounds can mess with your brain. I am in Latvia now, and half of the people I meet have names with no English equivalent.
To further complicate things, our names are hard-wired into our identities and our native accents, so most of us pronounce our names through our native tongues.
It’s cool. Just take it slowly and have the person spell out his or her name if need be. It is important to get the name thing right because of its hard-wiring into our human circuitry. Plus, people always appreciate your making an effort to really understand them.
Where We Are From
You need to identify with a geographical location on someone’s mental globe for the introduction to be full and complete.
Please note, unless you are from London, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, New York City, Monaco, Gibraltar or the Vatican City, you should identify yourself by your nation of origin. Those 12 cities are either city-states or can lay claim to having a sufficiently unique image that supersedes the surrounding nation.
Also, please no fudging with suburbs and exurbs. If you’re from Yonkers, you have to say you’re from the United States. If pressed further, you can say your city is near New York City.
If you are from the United States, be careful about saying you are simply “an American.” This does not differentiate you from Canadians or Bolivians.
If you are from a nation that has a clear identity, such as Argentina or China, you can then feel free to be more specific about your city or region.
If you are from a nation that is not fully recognized as a sovereign state by all countries, such as Palestine or Kosovo, identifying your place of birth is not a political statement, and you should feel free to educate us about your home.
If you identify yourself as being from a nation that no one else recognizes as a sovereign state, such as Transnistria or the Basque country, your identity does become political speech at that point. Your story will get no protests from me, but it will from someone somewhere.
And if you are from a small nation with no more than a couple of million people, you might need to break out a map for some of us. Case in point:
I was on a train from Prague to Krakow a few years ago and shared a car with five Erasmus students, one of whom had a Maltese passport. She told me her country’s diminutive profile almost got her into trouble one day in Hong Kong.
She had lost her Hong Kong bank card and arrived at the bank at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday to apply for a new one. The bank clerks were mentally checking out for their weekend and moving slowly. When someone finally saw her, they asked for a passport as proof of identity. She handed over her Maltese passport.
The bank clerk snorted at the document and suggested that if she wanted to defraud the bank with a fake passport, she should at least copy one from an actual country.
The girl appealed to the bank’s management, apoplectic that the bank would not recognize her country of origin. As luck would have it, one of the bank’s managers had a big thing for Orlando Bloom, who had just recently finished shooting the movie “Troy” in Malta. She confirmed that Malta is, in fact, a country, and the girl was issued a new bank card.
Who Are You?
I imagine my oversimplification of geopolitics might stir up some trouble. That’s fine. We’re all here to learn. My name is Eric, and I’m from the United States, from a small town in Kentucky. I would love to hear about you.