Mistaken Identity

Last July, my wife and I were queuing to board the flight to Bangkok at the Frankfurt International Airport. Our conversation were disrupted by a small lady. “Excuse me,” she said with a smile, “Are you Filipinos?” I smiled back and said, “No, we are Indonesians.” She gave a look of disbelief. “But I heard you spoke Tagalog!” she retorted. “Well, we share some similar words with Tagalog,” I explained.

In the air, the dinner service was in progress. When it came to my turn to be served, the flight attendant bent and spoke a flurry of words strange to my ears.  “Sorry?” I said. He kneeled down and apologized. “I am sorry, I thought you were Thai.”

While visiting Zaanse Schans in the Netherlands, the tour guide allowed us time to explore and do some shopping in the clogs workshop. I finished early, so I stood near the cash register where she was. She smiled at me and began to speak in Spanish. I stopped her. “Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” I said. “I am Indonesian.” She was surprised. “I’ve been to Indonesia!” It turned out that she had spent a long time in Indonesia and had visited many places there that even I had never been in. (Writing this gave me a headache. How on earth could someone who had lived among Indonesian people mistake me as someone from South America, or whichever country she thought I was from?)

Indonesian people consist of over 1,300 ethnicities. My parents are both Batak, an ethnic group originated from Northern Sumatera. But I have met people who thought I was from Manado in the Northern Sulawesi, or even Chinese. Very few people could immediately guess that I am Batak, before knowing my family name.

Maybe it’s because I don’t fit the physical stereotype of a Batak man held by most people. My eyes are nearly a pair of narrow slits. From afar, it could be difficult to say whether I am awake or not. I lack the square jaw that many Batak men have. I speak rather softly, and without Batak accent.

On some occasions, this could prove to be useful. I could dodge the common stereotypes people had about Batak people when they didn’t know I was one. But actually, some stereotype can be a good thing. A Batak accent can come across as endearing to other people. It’s like a build-in ice-breaking system. As soon as you speak it, people relax. There’s a big-brotherly quality about a man who speak in that accent that others will voluntarily call him “Bang” or “big brother” out of respect.

Let’s take being accosted by a stranger in a foreign country because you seem to fit a certain identity. From one point of view, it may seem to be annoying. But on a different way of seeing it, it’s an easy way to make new friends.

On one side, I am glad that I don’t exactly fit into any specific bias. But on the other hand, I must admit I may lose some inherent privilege that comes with being in one.

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