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Secrets of the Chameleon

Sunni Maravillosa

When you're PTing it, a common concern is blending in with the natives. After all, it makes little sense to try find a place where you can get some privacy, only to be the object of everyone's attention because you're obviously different. This can happen even if you're an American citizen going mobile in that country; different areas have different accents, customs, and cultures, and to misstep is possibly to announce that you're an outsider. Depending on the privacy you want and your flexibility about certain things, you may be able to blend in well enough to fool other outsiders, or be so convincing that you're taken for a native.

Chameleons are well-known masters of camouflage; they have the ability to change colors to blend into the background. That might be all you need--or want--to do. Other animals use protective coloration, and take other steps to blend in to the environment. For example, some lizards, insects, and fish twitch from time to time, in order to simulate plant movement around them. This a more effortful investment into blending in--it requires more resources from the animal. You might wish to make a greater investment into blending in to your adopted environment, too. I'll cover a number of possibilities along the continuum in this article.

Throughout this article I'll use the scenario of an American trying to blend in either locally or abroad. I chose it because our readership is mostly American at present, and because most Americans have more obstacles to overcome in trying to blend than other peoples do. I'll defend that assertion in my discussion.

Looks aren't everything, but they are a lot

Your physical appearance can say a lot about where you're from. If you're 6 feet 4 inches tall, no matter how dark your hair and eyes are, you aren't going to pass for Mexican; most Mexicans just aren't that tall. Obviously, you can't easily change that aspect of your physical appearance, but there are plenty of other things you can do to help make yourself be more invisible in your surroundings.

Try to take an objective look at yourself and see where you will blend in best. If you're willowy and blonde, you could make yourself at home in many European countries, and be fairly inconspicuous in the Scandinavian countries as well. If you tend to be on the plump side, perhaps the so-called lowland or slavic countries might work better--say, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Russia, Hungary, and places like these. If you're florid and dark, perhaps with a little tweaking of body language you could pass as Italian or Greek, or Caribbean. In essence, you're seeking a stereotypic look for an ethnic group that you match fairly well. Now, before you get all incensed, I'm not suggesting that everybody in those places looks like that--just that you're less likely to attract attention if you fit the stereotype.

You may or may not want to go to these places as PT destinations. Some might be acceptable if you can fit in well, but almost all these places are too friendly with the US thought police to make them truly viable options for a serious PTer. Many have their own challenges with socialism and some are downright scary for a freedom-loving person. But you might be able to use your ethnic look to lessen the possibility that someone will twig you as an American somewhere else. You can create a persona based on that look to help, as well as to throw off potential problems should a genuine native show up and want to get friendly. An easy way to do that without a lot of subterfuge is the "I was born there but raised in the States" story; that explains lack of familiarity with the claimed country (and language) and will explain the Americanisms that are very difficult to shrug off. To make such a persona even more believable, study up at least a little on your claimed country of origin; almost every individual who isn't an anarchist has some nationalistic pride (and it's good cover for your political beliefs). It would be quite suspicious if you wanted to pass for Norwegian but had no idea what lefse and lutefish are, or when to say, "Uff da!".

Let's say that, instead of all that razzle-dazzle, you want to blend in more with the people where you are. Some steps you can take to accomplish this are fairly straightforward. Dress as they do. This doesn't necessarily mean dressing in traditional ethnic garb, but do avoid obviously American things like jeans (especially ripped jeans or trendy styles) and T shirts. Examine what the typical native wears to run errands or as casual wear, and emulate it. If there are ethnic styles that are commonly worn, such as the guayabera in southeastern Mexico, and you feel comfortable in it, by all means wear it. If native skin tends to tan or fair, take steps to match it. That might be as simple as seeking or avoiding the sun, but there are other ways to do this; use of makeup is one. If your hair is noticeably different (or you wish to add or remove a few years, thereby helping to foil any govgoon searches for you), dyeing it is an easy option. Permanents or chemical relaxants (to add or remove waves and curls, respectively) also offer suitable cover. But beware using coloring and other chemical treatments on hair together for extended periods; they can be very harsh and lead to hair loss or unexpected results, such as greenish, frizzed hair instead of black hair with sleek waves. Tinted contact lenses can give you a native eye color even if you don't need corrective lenses.

If you're really into blending in, but are having difficulty, and cost--financial as well as personal--isn't an object, you may want to consider plastic surgery. The possibilities range from sculpting a nose, chin, or an entire face to look more native, to liposuction to sculpt a body. (Many countries don't have the varied bounty and nutrition that America offers--or the profusion of junk foods--so overweight people might not be as common.) Depending upon where you are, finding a skilled plastic surgeon may or may not be possible, and there are the usual risks that accompany surgery. You might wish to do this before you embark on your PT life (but that has the disadvantage of you needing exit papers with photos that match your new look, thereby blowing at least some of the cover that plastic surgery can offer). Also, you'll need to consider what you may look like ten or twenty years from now, as your body ages--will you still look fairly natural?

Talking the talk

Unless your PT destination has English as a major language (and possibly even if they do), it's likely you'll need to learn or brush up on a foreign language. "English" in other countries can range from fairly close to quite different from American English, in terms of words used, inflection, and idioms and slang. Learning high school Spanish may help you in terms of some of the basics of getting around, but every Spanish-speaking country has its own linguistic idiosyncrasies. Some Spanish-language programs will cover some of the differences for larger countries such as Mexico, but they may still be dated, and won't be very detailed. Language programs offer a good means for learning the basics of a language, but they generally don't cover the more informal speaking you'll do when living in your adopted country. Your best bet is to practice with a native in advance if possible (or at least have him or her give you some pointers and lessons), and try to learn as quickly as you can once there. An accent is unavoidable, but with careful attention to enunciation and a patient friend who'll correct you, it can be greatly minimized.

One of the more powerful ways of blending in is to use idioms. These are structures that differ from the norm for the language, or phrases that aren't literal, such as "straight from the horse's mouth". They can be challenging to learn and use properly, but if you do, even slight accent problems can be overlooked. And, just as in the United States, in larger countries or those with geographically isolated regions, dialects may develop and idioms differ. You don't need to learn each one; it would probably be more valuable to select one or two to learn well. If you do travel to places where the language differs a bit, having a set of idioms and slang that are internally consistent will help folks label you as a native rather than a foreigner trying to bungle his way through.

Walking the walk

Customs and traditions also differ greatly from place to place--just consider the myriad ways Christmas is celebrated around the world. To blend in, absorb as much of these as you can, and adopt those that you feel you can perform naturally and comfortably. If you move to a predominantly Catholic country and you're an avowed atheist, it's probably not wise to try to go to Mass every day to blend in; unless you can completely tune out the service and the waste of your time it is to be there, your body language will not look like that of a normal worshiper. But if it's the custom to kiss good friends on the cheek in greeting, try to give and receive in the manner you observe. If it's a custom to put a red stone in one's navel and dance until it falls out at weddings, what will it hurt you to do likewise? Again, if you can feel comfortable doing it, smile (or not, as the custom may be) and join in. You'll be blending in, and most likely enjoying yourself while doing so.

A native guide is invaluable for this, but you'll still need to be watchful, because even a native guide might not think of everything to mention in advance. Some behaviors are so routine that the individual might not think to mention it. For example, in one region of a predominantly Catholic country, I noticed that everyone crosses themselves, then kisses their thumb whenever they pass by a church. My guide hadn't mentioned it, nor did she seem to notice doing it herself until I asked her. It wasn't common throughout the country--just one region, but not doing it there is quite noticeable.

Blending in goes way beyond adopting customs and traditions, however. It encompasses how you do things, what you cook, and even, literally, how you walk. From my experiences abroad, I've observed the following: some places don't use hot water to wash dishes; common cooking ingredients in the states are rare and expensive, or even impossible to get elsewhere (brown sugar, maple syrup, and peanut butter come to mind); speaking openly and directly can be extremely rude; and not having at least one servant is a sign of poverty. Most countries have much sharper class distinctions than the US does, and there are ways people of different social status interact--or don't. Not doing things the local way can cause raised eyebrows, or possibly even a call to the authorities.

It's in this area that most Americans tend to give themselves away as such. Because our society is generally less formal, structured, and class-conscious, our entire manner tends to be quite different from other peoples', even Western Europeans. Americans tend to be much more open: our emotions tend to be visible on our faces; we walk with head held high, erect posture, and observe our surroundings as we pass; and we engage in conversations and consider acquaintances to be friends more readily. It takes ongoing, deliberate effort and great care to try to change these elements of your way of being consistently.

Books have been written on the customs, body language, and etiquette of other countries, but they tend to be written for a short-term visitor in mind--a tourist or business traveler, usually. While they can be helpful, they almost certainly won't cover all the situations you'll find yourself in. To help fill in the gaps, ask a native friend what to expect of a new situation before going in, and perhaps even practice if it's something quite alien to you and important for you to do correctly.

Hiding in plain sight

After reading all that, you might be tempted to say, "Damn, I'm not going to blend in, so why try? I'll dress like a tourist and act like a tourist and blend in with that crowd." It is a tempting strategy, but I don't recommend it. So many Americans don't bother trying to blend in that if you are the subject of a manhunt, the tourist community is a natural starting place to look. In many countries the stereotype of "the ugly American" is based on the way many tourists actually do behave; it's not going to endear you to the locals. This may or may not be important, but if your hideaway is a place where the local cops can be persuaded with cash, you want them to be at least open to the possibility of helping you. If you're going to act the part of the tourist, you should expect to be treated like one. That isn't always positive.

In short, going abroad and being an obvious tourist has shortcomings associated with it. These can be so serious that this strategy could cost you, financially and in other ways, in the long run. Even if you are finding it difficult to blend in with your surroundings, at least trying is better than staying in tourist mode.

Blending in at home

The preceding discussion may leave you thinking that the only way you'll blend in is if you stay in the US, going mobile in country. You will have fewer significant hurdles to overcome, most likely, but blending in here can still be a minefield if you aren't informed and alert.

Language differences go beyond accents and dialects. Quick, in what city does "Please?" mean "Excuse me?" or "I didn't catch what you said"? In what part of the country is an order for iced tea assumed to be for sweetened tea? Even in places without obvious accents a shift of enunciation can lead to a non-native standing out. The upper midwest comes to mind--Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Perhaps because of the large Scandinavian population that settled there, the O's of natives have a subtle but noticeably different quality. And don't think that your Tennessee twang will pass for local in Texas--there are differences in southern accents and idioms, and if you aren't careful you'll be sniffed out.

Food differences also highlight cultural differences across America. Do you know the difference between northern and southern cornbread? What's the "right" way to cook chili? Or barbecue? Preparing these foods differently will almost certainly label you as a non-native in a given locale.

Fashion and clothing etiquette differs too, sometimes significantly. In some areas, it's considered bad taste to wear white shoes after Labor Day and before Easter (although a shade known as "winter white", which to me looks like beige, is acceptable). The jokes about Texas women and "big hair" are based on reality. What might be considered mildly revealing in some areas might get an X rating elsewhere. Such issues are generally more strict for women, but in some areas the unstated dress code for men can be fairly specific.

Now the really bad news

If you become proficient at all the above, well, first off, my hat's off to you. But even then, you may still be as noticeable as a wolf among sheep. Why? Because of a difference between freedom-lovers and the general population that in my experience is almost pervasive. We tend to be more intelligent, and to stand out from those around us because we're more aware and engaged than most individuals. The urge to ask questions, make a quick pun, or even just watch those around us singles us out even among Americans. Can you change this about yourself? Maybe you can--after months I was able to slow my walk to the leisurely pace characteristic of those around me in a country I was visiting--but I never was able to manage other things that gave me away as American. Even among Americans I tend to stand out. Could a person do better? I'm sure that if your life depended upon it, you could do amazing things to blend in--but it'd still be a challenge. A double-edged sword about the PT life is that one needs to maintain some level of awareness of the surroundings, yet not be obvious about that in order to maintain one's security.

It might seem like blending in, wherever your PT destination might be, is an impossible task. But the lessons of the chameleon and other camouflage artists need to be kept in mind. It takes a chameleon time to change its colors to blend in. It takes more effort sometimes to be hidden, but it can mean the difference between surviving and being preyed upon--and it doesn't hurt to try. If you attempt to go local, and the clothing and idioms don't come across quite right, you won't seem any less foreign for having tried. The natives--even the proverbially snooty French---will appreciate the fact that you tried to act civilized. Whatever strategy you decide on, keep practicing and observing and learning as if your life depends on it; it just might.

(c) 2000


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