The Ethnic Detective

The best way to find out someone’s ethnicity, of course, is to ask.  Ask joyfully; don’t sound frustrated or suspicious when you ask; ask with love in your heart, knowing that people love and cherish their cultural backgrounds.  If you feel nervous about asking, just don’t; you’ll come across as dodgy.

That’s the best way.  The formula is usually “Ooh, what’s your ethnicity?”

After decades of asking, you start getting a feel for it.  Thai people have long names,  people from Ontario say “oatside” (the opposite of “inside”), Indians don’t use their left hand for food.

When it comes to nationalities, Asians are easy to identify.  When people say they can’t tell the difference between Japanese people and Koreans, I always wonder if they can tell an Austrian from a Swiss person, or a Spaniard from a Greek.

When it comes to ethnic Americans, the task is harder, since we all shop at the same places.  Also, we’ll cross cultures just for fun; I wear a guayabera all the time; my cousin used to wear a qipao.

I get identified at all the time.  Usually, in Seattle, they guess “filipino” and I answer “of course!” because really, what’s the point of not answering that question enthusiastically.  In China I was always misidentified as Indian, and New Yorkers didn’t ask much; or they’d stop after I’d say I was from Seattle.

It’s the misrepresenters that require some detective work.  Here in Seattle, it’s not usually people that are misrepresenters… it’s restaurants.

20 years ago here in Seattle, Korean people would open Japanese restaurants and lead with teriyaki.  The tell-tale signs were a Korean calendar, rice on a plate, any sign of Christianity.  Nowadays these teriyaki restaurants don’t hide their Korean origins anymore; there’s kimchi and kalbi on the menus.

A couple years ago in Midtown Manhattan I found a restaurant near Penn Station on 8th Avenue, and it’s cover was flawless… no Christianity, rice in a bowl, everything in the dining room said Japan, Japan, Japan.  The whole menu was Japanese.  Finally at the end of the meal, I overheard the servers talking, and the sentences ended in “-hisayou” instead of “-desu”… so I busted them with a “kamsahamnida!” which they happily returned to me.  Totally Korean.

There is one Japanese restaurant in Seattle that’s run by some Chinese people; the food is pretty good, and they are rather meticulous about the Japanese illusion.  In fact, in the end it was language again that gave it away; I heard them speaking Mandarin.

Today I was at the Gyro Café for the first time.  In the window it said “Greek food.”  I love Greek food, but I like Palestinian-style gyros even better.

Here are the clues:

  • Greek things on the menu:  gyros, dolmas, tzatziki
  • The cook asked me if I wanted my gyros to be spicy
  • Non-Greek things on the menu:  babaganoush (not melitzanosalata), shawarmas
  • Other clues:  “feta” is misspelled as “fetta.”  Hand-drawn camel and palm trees on the board.
So obviously there are no Greek people involved, despite the fact that the tzatziki was great.  My gyros plate came with a “Greek salad” which had all the usual trimmings, PLUS a diced Fuji apple, which made it awesome, but I’ve never seen Greek people do that at a gyros stand.

I didn’t get a chance to ask which ethnicity they were, but I’m going to guess Egyptian, maybe Lebanese.  The website says the owner’s name is Hassan.  Next time I go, I’ll ask.

One last thing… I’m pretty sure that Mediterranean people would have been able to ID the place on sight, just by looking a the bread…

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