Cultural Passing

One evening I was out in Moscow with one of my friends who also happens to be Asian.  It was getting late and I was ready to catch the bus home.  He insisted on accompanying me but then jokingly added that I should be the one to walk him home because I looked Russian and he didn’t.  Although he said this only in passing and we didn’t discuss it, there was a strong truth in his words that resonated with me and I haven’t forgotten.  Then I remembered the term passing.

In sociological terms passing is “the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other then his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, social class, gender and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance.”  The purpose of passing may not always be to gain social acceptance but may be necessary for ones personal safety.

I soon realized that I was often passing as Russian.  When I walked down the street, shopped in the supermarket or caught a marsthrutka, I appeared to be Russian.  I was aware of this and realized I could only pass as Russian until I began speaking.

Sometimes when I spoke people didn’t realize I was Russian or, if they did, made no mention of this.  On numerous occasions people would stop me and ask me for the time or for directions.  I would answer them in Russian and continue on my way.  But other times people would ask me to repeat myself or inquire about my accent and ask where I was from.  Many Russians said that, when they first met me, they thought I was Russian.  Others said I had Slavic features and some said I didn’t look American.

I was grateful that I was in a country where I was able to pass.  I knew that if I were in a country where my physical appearance was drastically different, my life might not have been so easy.  If I were in Asia, for example, it would be quite obvious to those around that I was a foreigner and it wouldn’t have been able to walk down the street and pass.  I’m not at all indicating that there is any discrimination toward foreigners in Asian countries and I don’t know that there is.  I haven’t been in Asia yet so I can’t speak from personal experience either.  But I do know that I was acutely aware of my own foreignness when I was in Russia, regardless of whether or not I was passing.  As I walked I felt like it was obvious to everyone that I was a foreigner, even though it was not and was only obvious to me.  But as I walked I knew that people didn’t see this and I was thankful for that.  Even though they may have made nothing of it, I know I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable or as confident in living there if I didn’t blend in physically.

The ability to pass (or not) in another culture can greatly affect how someone feels when they are in a cross-cultural setting.  It’s important for those contemplating a move to a drastically different culture to realize how much their life will be affected when they suddenly singled out no matter what they do.  If one doesn’t feel comfortable being different at all times, then a transfer abroad may not be the best idea.

Although the goal of intercultural training is not to pass someone off as a native of a particular culture, it does attempt to teach them to pass to some degree.  We study cultural rules and ways of behaving so we don’t stand out or cause offense.  The Ugly American, for example, doesn’t attempt to pass at all and so it’s glaringly obvious that they’re a foreigner.  The consequences can be conflict, animosity and unsuccessful intercultural interactions.

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