On a warm October morning in Egypt, I ventured into Cairo’s labyrinthine Khan Al-Khalili market to lose myself. I passed stalls of gold, sliver, and brasswares, brightly patterned galabeyas and linen scarves draped across narrow passageways, colorful bowls of spices shaped into delicate, powdery pyramids.
Scents of falafel, pita bread, and exotic teas were in the air. I elbowed my way past Egyptians, all the while politely rebuffing the sales pitches of bazaar merchants who clamored for my business and tried in vain to identify my nationality.
“Where you from?” one man asked. When I didn’t respond, he followed up with a checklist of countries, halting between each one, searching my face for some sign of confirmation.
“Japan? China? Korea?” he said.
I only shook my head and smiled, satisfied with the sense of safety and protection that came with my self-imposed anonymity.
I had resorted to an old traveling habit—hiding behind my ethnicity to mask my identity as an American. Whatever courage I’d had to get on a plane and fly to the Middle East last fall abandoned me upon arrival. I worried about the things many visitors to the region worry about: anti-Americanism, being the target of hate, animosity, and terrorism. Over the years, I’ve learned that I could use my ethnicity as a kind of shield, a way to mask the anxiety that came with crossing boundaries into a foreign culture. As an American of Filipino decent, I have that luxury. Whenever I travel, my skin color and facial features are often the first things people notice about me. At first sight in Mexico, people there call me “chinito.” With a camera strapped around my neck in France, Parisians approach, bowing and asking, “Take picture?” In Italy, young boys leap, wave their arms in kung-fu motions and cry out “Hiyah!” I play along sometimes by creating aliases to match their assumptions. Often, I just get a kick out of pretending to be someone I am not.
In Cairo’s souk, I was hiding out of fear. Unlike travelers from other countries, Americans are seen as the embodiment of their nation. An honest response to “Where are you from?” puts me on the receiving end of rants against everything from rap music, Hollywood movies, and McDonald’s to American foreign policy. Hiding my nationality makes for a less challenging travel experience.
But traveling under false pretenses is an odd, disingenuous—and empty—way of navigating the world.
There was no revelation, epiphany, or singular event that caused me to let down my guard and begin revealing my soul. In America, we are so protective of our personal space, mindful of where we stand in relation to others. I was moving through Cairo’s convulsing streets with a sense of detachment, intent on keeping everything and everyone at arm’s length. But I was wholly unprepared for the warmth, hospitality, and acts of kindness that awaited me. On nearly every corner, children smiled and waved their arms to catch my attention.
“Hello! Hello!” they shouted. “Welcome to Egypt!”
Older, more intrepid children rushed up to me, asking, “Are you from America?” Before I could open my mouth and give them my false reply, they unleashed a flurry of English, all of them eager to practice their words and conversational phrases straight out of a language primer.
“How do you do, Sir? A fine day we are having, isn’t it?” one child said.
“My name is Ahmed,” another said. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Pants, shirt, shoes, glasses,” still another child shouted, pointing to every item on my body.
At Tahrir Square, young men whizzed by in an attempt to chase down a service mini-bus and leapt on at the last possible moment.
“Welcome to Egypt!” one called out as the taxi pulled away and the other passengers waved.
Along the bustling Sharia Al-Azhar, a man about my age came up to me and draped his arm around my shoulder.
“America?” he asked. I was taken aback by his brashness, but his tone was so warm and gentle that I answered him without hesitation.
“Yes, I’m American,” I said.
“America, good,” he said. “Welcome to Egypt.”
He shuttled me into a café where we shared a cup of tea with a group of old men creaking back and forth in their Bentwood chairs and huffing on apple tobacco through their gurgling sheesha pipes.
This was all a far cry from everything I had expected. In the face of such outward friendliness, the fears I’d harbored, the notion that I could hide behind my skin color seemed silly. These Egyptians saw right through me. Traveling through Cairo was forcing me to reexamine everything I knew—or thought I knew—about the Middle East. It was also making me confront the way I feel about being an American.
As the son of immigrant parents—a seamstress and a Navy veteran—I’ve always felt pride in my nationality; gratitude for the life that America has given my family. But I’ve never been a flag-waving patriot. Growing up in San Diego, my worldview was shaped by my neighborhood, a mixture of mostly Filipino and Mexican families. We referred to the few whites among us as the Americans. In social contexts, “American” was used as a put-down. Asians who wore preppie clothes—in the 80s that meant Izod Lacoste shirts, and Sperry Topsiders—were trying to look “white,” trying to be “American.” It was a “dis” of the highest order, accusing someone of selling out. We weren’t Americans. Americans were the suburban kids who lived in big houses with swimming pools and went to schools with fancy sounding names like “La Jolla Country Day.”
Even as I grew older, I never felt comfortable identifying myself as an American—it never felt fully mine, like I was borrowing someone else’s clothes. In Boston, New York, and Berkeley groups of white men have mocked me by chanting “ching-chong-ching-chong” as I walked by. Queuing up with Asian friends at Disneyland, I’ve been told to “get back on the boat” or “go back where you came from.” Last summer at a gas station along I-5 I pulled up behind an SUV with a group of children in the back. When I smiled at them, they reached their hands to their faces, used their index fingers to slant their eyes, and their thumbs to pull back their lips and form buckteeth. I pointed this out to their mother as I pumped gas. “Oh, they’re just being kids,” is all she said. Those slights amuse me more than anything else, but in the back of my mind, they’re also nagging reminders of times when I’ve felt like a stranger in my own land.
It was curious then, that Egyptians embraced who I was without question, that 5,000 miles from home, I felt more American than I had in a long time? Rather than being a lightning rod for hostility, my identity was led to the human connections that are at the heart of our travels. Once I embraced that identity, owned it—”I, too, sing America” I said to myself—I began to travel with more purpose, take more risks. In doing so, I regained a bit of courage that I took with me in my travels throughout Egypt and beyond.
In Aswan, I played chess with a septuagenarian who’d visited North America decades before and hadn’t returned since. As we sat beside the Nile, watching the sails of ghost-like feluccas flutter in the wind, he remembered the joy he felt upon seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. He wanted to know if Los Angeles was as beautiful now as it was then—crystalline skies, breezy palm trees, sunlight glittering on the water—if it was still “the city for the angels.” His vision of America was of a land of endless possibilities, dreams, and beauty. There was so much I could tell him to the contrary, but instead, I said, simply, “Yes, it is still the same.”
Later, near the village of Ramady south of Luxor, I shared a meal with locals and a group of travelers I had joined for a felucca trip down the Nile. Someone had the bright idea that we should sing—literally—for our supper and requested that each nationality represented in the group give rousing renditions of their national anthems. So there I was, the lone American, belting out my best “Star-Spangled Banner” accompanied by the rhythmic beating of Nubian drummers as the sun set on the Nile.
In Petra, the magnificent ancient city of sandstone in Jordan, a Bedouin family called me in to share Ramadan breakfast. They carved out a space for me on the communal platter of rice and served me chunks of lamb, rice, and a stew of lentils, and asked me questions about my homeland. Did I know any movie stars? How many cars did I have? How big was my house? Nashida, the oldest daughter, who spent her days selling jewelry and Bedouin crafts and dreamed one day of studying in America, paused during the meal to tell me, “I don’t think America is the devil,” before serving me another chunk of lamb, another spoonful of stew.
I was becoming everything that I had tried so hard to avoid in my travels—the embodiment of my homeland, at once its representative, symbol, and ambassador—sharing who I was and at the same time seeing myself and my country through the eyes of others.
There was one instance when I experienced the hostility that I’d feared. As I boarded a ferry from Jordan to Egypt, the ticket taker snatched my passport, sneered as he gave me a once-over, slammed my passport shut, then to my disbelief, raised his arm in a Nazi salute.
“Heil Hitler!” he yelled at the top of his lungs and clicked his heels together. “Bush is Hitler! Bush no! America no!” He followed that greeting with a venomous tirade on America, hurling epithets and outrageous conspiracy theories at me. I felt the crowd’s impatience and anger grow, the glare of hundreds of eyes on me. The ticket man dismissed me on to the ferry where I sank in a seat near the back of the main deck, hoping to find a place to hide.
No sooner had the ferry left port and headed across the Gulf of Aqaba than one by one a few passengers approached.
“America,” they called to me as if “America” was my name. “America, good.” They came to apologize for the ticket taker’s behavior. They came offering candy, dates, and fruit. They came to say “Welcome to Egypt” or “Welcome to Jordan.” They came to tell me, “September 11th was a sad day in my home.” The last man to approach, Esmael, offered a cup of tea, took the seat beside me and said “Drink, America. Tell me about where you are from.”
Long after we’ve returned from our journeys, much of where we’ve been dissolves into memory—snapshots of dusty landscapes, the silence of ancient stone ruins, fragments of nights spent on the town. What stays are those transcendent moments of raw and unfettered emotion, when the traveler’s caution and uncertainty give way to acceptance, a willingness to allow for more than just passing glances, when crossing boundaries challenges long-held beliefs about ourselves and others and renders useless all assumptions and abstractions, when a shared cup of tea becomes a shared humanity.
For me, this is one of the joys not only of travel, but of living: knowing that in this world, with all its enmity, divisions, and boundaries that separate and divide us, that moments of empathy, compassion, and human connections are possible, waiting for us to discover them, no matter who we are, no matter where we are from.
Augusto Andres is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.