Beyond the pale

A few days after I got back from Cyprus, an acquaintance of mine – who was, to be fair, quite drunk at the time – commented on my tan and then said “You look completely different. Usually you look – and I mean this in a good way – like a pasty Jew.”

It’s taken me a while to process this and reach the conclusion that there is no “good way” to look like a pasty Jew. It simply isn’t, whichever way you parse it, a compliment.

It’s also factually incorrect: I may be Jewish (well, sort of, and only partly) but I am not and have never been “pasty”. Pasty means pale, and I am not pale. I know this because I have spent my life being asked “Where are you from? No, but where are you really from? No, but where are your parents from?”. Aged about eighteen I got bored with trying to convince people of the actual answers to those questions (London, London and London) and started making up alternatives. “Iran”, I used to say, or “New Zealand”. People seemed happier to accept that.

You can get stuck in a way of thinking, though. University was the first place I went which was full of people who looked like me, because at Essex the student population in the mid-mineties was about 10% Greek. Having never looked like I belonged even to my own (green-eyed, freckled) family, I suddenly looked like everybody else. It was great, and for the first time I felt pleased to look the way I did. Do.

At around that time I briefly went out with a man who was newly separated from his South American wife. Before he introduced me to his mother, who had Alzheimers, he warned me: “If she says anything strange, don’t worry about it; she doesn’t always know what she’s saying.”

“Strange how?”, I asked him.

“Well”, he said, “she might say something like you’re not as exotic-looking as Paola“.

Not as exotic-looking? Exotic-looking was all I had. It was my USP. If I couldn’t compete on that level, I had nothing left.

Of course, the mother was perfectly charming and I gradually came to realise that the problem in that relationship lay with the boyfriend and not his dementing parent. But it left its mark, because I’d just started to come to terms with the fact that I would never be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess, and suddenly I wasn’t  foreign-looking enough either. It took a while to get over that one.

These days, I avoid answering at all. “I’m just dark”, I say. “Just dark. Nothing else.”

Because the troubling aspect of this question, and the regularity with which it is asked, is that I don’t understand why it matters. What is it about me, about you, about my relationship with you, that means you need that particular piece of information? What difference does the answer make? It wouldn’t be so surprising if I lived in a country with a less diverse population, but in Britain, and especially in London, everybody is from everywhere. So since I am obviously English, what is it, really, that you want to know when you ask me that?

But part of the reason I think I like visiting Cyprus and Spain and Italy so much is that I look more like a local than I do at home – sunburn, poor command of the language and enormous straw hat aside.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the pale

  1. Kate

    I was asked where I was *really* from about once a week in my early years in London, and am cadaverously pasty – I don’t know about you but I was only ever asked by non-white people, who for whatever reason seemed to identify mixed race features more easily, even when they are all but invisible (the darkness of my eyes would seem to be my only ‘exotic’ feature).

  2. elsiem

    I am most often asked it in kebab shops. I don’t mind it so much from people who think I might be from where they’re from, though, because that’s about hoping to find something in common. I find it less appealing coming from white people’s racist uncles.

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