On Color-Blindness and Observation Method

Thoughts, US Culture
four diverse women

The author (second right) and international students on a trip to Washington, DC

There are by now several compelling arguments why being “color-blind” does not address the problem of racism but merely masks it. A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, detailed in New York Magazine, found that children were self-censoring to avoid referring to people by race. Middle-school children were asked to identify a photo of a person out of a group of 40 by asking yes-or-no questions. It was discovered that:

Overall, the odds of children mentioning race were 4 times lower than mentioning gender […], despite the fact that both questions were equally useful for completing the task. It was also clear that children noticed race: Over 97% reported noticing that the photos varied by race in the posttask measures.

The results were consistent across different (self-reported) racial backgrounds. The children who avoided mentioning race despite noticing it explained their choice as not wanting to be rude or racist. The study concludes that the stigma on mentioning race hurts minority children as race is central to their identities.

While this is a powerful argument to stop avoiding race in conversation and pretending to live in a postracial society, one should be careful not to interpret the findings as an encouragement for referring to people by their (perceived) background — something the authors never explicitly state in the article. Whatever benefits a person may derive from a strong racial identity, that identification needs to be determined by the person themselves and not assigned to them by the external observer.


Do Foreigners Speak English to Americans to “Practice” It?

two people conversing

Image by Oli Young

I often hear from Americans who visited or studied abroad that, to their frustration, younger people would switch to English when speaking to them, not giving them a chance to improve their level of the local language. A lot of these Americans visitors felt like their hosts just wanted to talk to them in order to practice their English.

While I understand this frustration and recognize this is often an accurate assessment of the situation, I find that another possible motivation is overlooked here — namely, each language’s “suitability,” so to speak, to talk about certain things.

There has been research suggesting speaking a different language makes one manifest a different (facet of their) personality. It may stem from the fact that the different languages are used in different settings — for example, one at home and one at school. As a result, speaking each of the languages brings out a different side of the person.

This has certainly been the case in my own subjective experience. So, dear traveling/expat Americans, whenever I used to talk to you in English, it was rarely about “practice.” Yes, I’m sure part of it must have been to signal my group membership as one who has lived in the US and “belongs” in your company. However, most likely it was simply because I could not come up with a way to talk about any US experiences without sounding like I was clumsily explaining US suburbia to a confused Russian grandma (or answering something like “Are all Americans really fat?”). In my experience, Russian isn’t very well-suited for that.

Does that mean that I should thwart all your attempts to speak Russian? Not at all! I just wanted to write this post to explain that I did care about you as a person and was not just using you as my free English tutor — which, immodest as it may sound, I don’t think I needed that desperately. All in all, it was not about your inadequacy in Russian — it was about mine. Native speakers will struggle to express some ideas in their language, too.

What’s the solution? I have certainly made an effort to honor my partner’s choice of language. To make it easy on the obstinate native, though, consider talking about things the local language will have no trouble describing – local stores, events, or institutions. This may be easier for everyone to describe than all things American.

US Perceptions of Language Learning

Language, US Culture
Man listening to headphones

image by m0php

A question I’ve heard a lot in the US is “How long have you been here?” The answer currently stands at 2.5 years and counting, and the reaction has often been “But your English is so good!” The degree of amazement is usually inversely proportionate to the number heard. You may imagine what it was like when that number was in the months. A frequent follow-up question is “Did you know English before you came here?”

Far from insulting me, this line of thinking is very revealing of the Americans’ notions of language-learning. What I take from it is that people often assume that you learn a language by going to a country where it is spoken. This is consistent with how language-learning occurs for many Americans, and they seem to extrapolate that experience onto other people.

Unlike in many countries in Europe and my native Russia, Americans usually don’t start taking a foreign language until middle or high school. Those who decide (or have to) take it in college often opt for a study abroad experience as a way to immerse themselves in the language and culture and to improve their language skills rapidly. Many language majors don’t start taking “their” foreign language until college — as opposed to Russia, where you need to have a certain prior knowledge of the language to major in it.

How is it different from my experience (and I hope, this is somewhat representative of other people’s experience as well)? I started taking English in elementary school (fairly early even for Russia, where most children don’t start learning another language until the 5th grade or so). I was nowhere near fluency the first 3 to 5 years, but I had a lot of time to learn a lot of nuances of grammar and register — something an intensive-course student may not have the time to do.

So, to answer the original question, by the time I arrived in the US, I had had 16 years of English instruction (along with classes in other subjects taught in English — I was a Linguistics major) with a year-long US stint in between. While my experience may not be representative of everyone in Europe or even in Russia, I think it’s safe to assume that your average Russian will have had at least a few years of English instruction prior to arriving in the US and that this learning experience will be mostly classroom-based (as opposed to immersion or stay abroad), although this tendency is gradually changing.

Is this consistent with how people learn languages in your country? If you’re American, would you agree with how I described language-learning in the US?

Why “Where Are You From?” May Be a Bad Ice-Breaker

Two Girls Talking

Image by acambaro77

So, you start talking to this person you’ve just met and try to come up with some topic for conversation. Oh yeah, what’s that curious accent all about? So you drop the question. “Where are you from?” is a great way of getting a person to start a mutually enriching cultural exchange, right? Wrong. Let me tell you why.

Granted, exchange students, immigrants, and other people who may, for whatever reason, have come to your country don’t expect to be taken for locals. They are, most likely, well aware of their accent, different appearance or whatever else may distinguish them from the natives. Perhaps, they even cherish your interest in their culture and the chance to share it with you. Still, “Where are you from?” could make your international buddy feel not engaged, but alienated.

Personally, I can’t help cringing at the inevitable question. While I do recognize and appreciate the person’s friendliness and interest, I can’t help thinking, “Is that the first thing people notice about me?” It is not without hesitation that I take this, genuinely well-meant, opportunity to start a cultural exchange. While I’m aware of my “foreignness,” I’d like to think there’s more to me than coming from a different country, however intriguing that aspect may look.

Not to mention the fact that, more often than not, the “cultural exchange” stops at “Oh, that’s cool” because my buddy doesn’t really know what to say. Or, even better, they give me the well-meant, but indefinitely vague question “So what’s it like?”

I’m not trying to advise anyone against asking where an apparently non-local person is from. But perhaps it shouldn’t be the first question that comes out of your mouth. Try something less personal instead.

USA Then and Now: Bilingual Signs

Multilingual Attention Sign

Image by beer

I think our generation’s been fortunate to witness the rise of the Internet and cell phone technology. The 7-year gap between my long-term US stays enabled me to witness an equally fascinating development in a different realm: the rise of bilingualism in the US.

When I was in Pennsylvania in 2002-2003, I didn’t see signs in any language but English. Granted, Pennsylvania is a predominantly white state, far from areas of high immigration.

However, here I am in 2011, in the equally Northeastern state of Ohio, and – lo and behold! – virtually every public sign has a subscript in Spanish.

It only makes sense for a country that has no official language to move toward bilingualism and reflect its current population makeup, but I wonder what other Americans have to say on the matter?

Be more specific


In an earlier post I tried to work out some advice to self for the upcoming trip to the US. To avoid sounding like a pre-fab culture manual, I decided to tailor some of the vague recommendations to suit my specific situation.

  1. Don’t get stuck on your firsts
    I did fall in love with my first American town and my first American state, but you have to appreciate the new surroundings, too.
  2. Don’t assume you are befriended
    Appreciate the nicety and politeness, but don’t take them as tokens of a nascent friendship. Better be pleasantly surprised by the resulting closeness than disappointed at the distance.
  3. Admit you are a foreigner
    This may sound strange since I just emphasized the importance of being open-minded and fitting in your host community. However, coming from a different background, you are bound to do some things differently. It will often spare you a lot of funny looks if you tell the locals you are new to the area and ask for help.