Over the summer of 2017, I learned to stop being American.
I was on a year-long trip hitchhiking across Eurasia and quickly learning that being American abroad can be expensive, annoying, and even dangerous for someone as reliant on strangers’ good will as myself.
That year, most immediate and universal response to my nationality was that people of all walks of life who I encountered literally anywhere thought an appropriate way to continue the conversation was to shout “Trump!” It was funny until it was annoying until it was maddening.
Then, there is the fact that American in the popular imagination means: “Charge me whatever; I can afford anything.”
The more politically inclined, meanwhile, spoke to me in a patronizing, if not hostile, way as if I were a flag-waving Iraq-invading brainwashed support-the-troops Yankee.
These matters may seem trivial, but if you don’t hitchhike, then you don’t know what a difference it makes to be Albanian, Armenian or Argentine instead of American. I know I will never see or interact with my driver again, so donning a false nationality is an effective and reasonable defense strategy to deflect unwelcome prospecting.
My false nationalities exposed me to new stereotypes, prejudices, and assumptions that I never would encounter while traveling as an American. Below I recount my experiences traveling under different guises.
Being South American
Posing as South American is an easy choice because I speak the languages and look the part.
When I say I am Colombian, many people like to immediately crack jokes about cocaine, Narcos, or Pablo Escobar, which I find annoying and distasteful. People in Southern Africa would typically mutter something like “oh, so your country is also very dangerous,” an advantageous impression in certain unsafe townships where I did not want to appear vulnerable or clueless.
Being Venezuelan carries even stronger connotations given the country’s messy migrant exodus over the last few years. In South Africa, a police woman stereotyped me as an illegal migrant when a driver told her I am Venezuelan. She asked to check my passport to ensure I was not an illegal migrant. I also somehow passed for Venezuelan a couple times in Latin America, though my accent should have been a giveaway. Taxi drivers in the region are less inclined to try scamming a Venezuelan – who are unfortunately stereotyped as desperate and prone to crime – than an American.
Posing as Brazilian in the Andean countries also protected me from some of the undesirable connotations of being gringo (rich, vulnerable, etc.) while giving me an excuse for not sounding quite native. At one point in Bolivia my conversation partner was a real Brazilian. He got excited and started speaking in Portuguese (which I did not comprehend at the time). I just smiled and nodded.
Later, in Malawi and Tanzania, my travel buddy and I posed as Brazilians so that we could use Portuguese as a code language when we didn’t want to be understood by locals.
Being Middle Eastern
A homeless man in Serbia suggested I was from Afghanistan because I looked downtrodden and unkempt walking along the highway outside Belgrade around the same time waves of Afghan migrants were pouring across the Balkans. I went along with it but stopped being Afghan after a taxi driver in Bulgaria nearly booted me from his car for fear that he was transporting an illegal migrant.
I posed as Syrian mostly at moments of acute vulnerability in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa to discourage certain doubtful characters from taking advantage of me or viewing me as a lucrative target. It made little difference, nonetheless, because virtually nobody knew anything about Syria. Many in South America even asked whether the people in my country “speak Castillano” (Spanish). One taxi driver in Ecuador scammed me anyways.
I was sporadically Israeli while in India. Upon hearing this, one rickshaw driver stopped driving and turned around to look at me and said, “I am Muslim.” He then extended his hand and said “Salam Alaikum” as a gesture of good will, which I appreciated, though I stopped being Israeli after that.
Being North African
Africa was tricky. I am obviously not black, and I do not wish to pass as a white African (there are lots of them, trust me) for fear of touching upon nativist resentment. I started off Colombian or Venezuelan but either claim was counterproductive because it meant I came on an expensive flight from another continent and therefore had money. Instead I found that being North African was best for keeping me out of trouble.
By the time I reached the Namibian border, I settled on being Moroccan. All of the security personnel crowded around me in curiosity asking what sorts of animals and resources and crops and tribes were to be found in Morocco. Strangely, nobody examining my passport understood that it said I am American.
I soon switched to being Egyptian because it fit better with my Cape Town to Cairo route. One driver asked me questions about the rights of women in my country stubbornly fishing for sexist responses that would confirm his own biases about Arab culture.
I began feeling it was wrong to pose as Egyptian given I had never visited the place, so I became Tunisian. One man wanted to talk about the current Tunisian president (yikes!) before going on a long rant about how wicked Americans are for assassinating Gadaffi and meddling in African politics.
Strong anti-American was a pervasive theme throughout my hitchhiking trips, but luckily I was immune to it as a North African. The African intelligentsia (which actually includes most truck drivers) has a strong sense of Pan-African solidarity, and I watched many schemers drop their sly plots against me when they realized I was a fellow African.
Being North African became unsustainable, however, once I reached the Swahili Coast because people there spoke enough Arabic to challenge me. At that point I transitioned to being Mustafa from Turkey.
I was Bosnian briefly in Varanasi, India. A fellow rickshaw driver made warm statements about Muslim solidarity before leveraging our shared religion in an aggressive attempt to scam me.
I was once Slovenian in Bali. A little Balinese girl urged me in fluent Slovenian to buy her postcards (wtf?). That was the last time I was Slovenian.
People readily assume I am Spanish when I am in Portugal and Portuguese when I am in Spain because I mix both accents when I speak either language. I’ve lived and worked in both countries and am legally acquiring both nationalities soon, so it’s a half truth.
The Other Shapeshifters
Believe it or not, I’m not the only one doing this. I traveled India with a Saudi guy who claimed to be Israeli because he is not proud of Saudi Arabia’s backwards reputation.
Another guy I met in Bangkok claimed to be from Bhutan, but after some digging, it emerged that he was actually from India’s Northeastern Province. Why did he lie? Because he has East Asian features and looks entirely different from what people imagine Indians to look like. If he says he is Indian, he is questioned for not “looking Indian” because most people are not aware of India’s ethnic diversity.
Another guy I met in New York like to describe his origin as “Central Asia,” which of course is a tease for the geography nerd in me. Based on his turkic features and the Arabic script I saw on his phone, I asked whether he was from Uzbekistan, to which he responded, “wow, how did you know?!” It turns out this was just a ploy to shut me up and redirect the conversation.
As it turns out, he did not want to dwell on his origin because he is a Uighur Muslim from Xinjiang, China. Revealing his true identity could lead to three things: 1) The conversation partner comments that he does not look Chinese, and he has to explain that China has ethnic minorities; 2) The conversation partner is aware of the genocide against his people, and their pity or curiosity co-ops the conversation and overshadows him as an individual; or 3) He gets flagged by Chinas’ overseas surveillance apparatus, and his family in Xinjiang gets arrested.
I felt deceived when I realized either of these men had lied to me, but in retrospect, both had entirely legitimate reasons for doing so (and certainly more so than myself).
No Questions, No Lies
Pretending to be another nationality is tiring. When I returned to Europe in 2019 and to America shortly thereafter, I was very relieved that I could finally drop the act (and not pay dearly for doing so). If I learned anything from cycling through dozens of nationalities on my travels, it is only that the expectations carried with nationality are onerous and limiting – and certainly not just for Americans.