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Overheard in London - helen-louise
Overheard in London
I overheard the most thought-provoking conversation today. This woman went up to a man who was working behind one of the market stalls in Camden Market and asked him if he was from some specific part of Nigeria.

He said "Yes, I'm from [place]."

She said "I knew as soon as I saw you that you were my brother! I'm from [other place nearby]." (The only reason I know that these places are in Nigeria, or indeed near each other, is because the woman explained it to her friend. I think she said they were ten miles apart.)

He said "That's so amazing!"

She said "Isn't it? I'm going to phone my mum to tell her."

He said "Yeah, I should do the same."

And she pulled out her phone to call her mum right away, and as soon as he'd finished serving customers, he called a family member too.

I just don't know how she recognised him as being from that very specific part of Nigeria though. It wasn't accent, because they both had broad London accents. I've been thinking about it ever since, how bad people are at recognising ethnicities beyond broad definitions like "black", "South Asian", "East Asian", "South American". I recognise the difference between north Africans, west Africans, South Africans, Somalis (they look like Mo Farah!), and people from certain parts of the Caribbean, but that's as far as I could get. And I suspect that's better than a lot of people who aren't themselves black.

The sad thing is, I could have a reasonable stab at identifying the origins of white Europeans - but that's based on things like clothing style as well as just physical appearance. So it is obviously possible even within people who look broadly similar. Is it cultural indoctrination of a sort, recognising people who are "like us"? Probably. It's probably related to whatever it is in childhood development that makes a baby of a certain age know how to recognise an animal as a "dog", even considering how many different and strange shapes of dog there are. (Don't get me started on some of the crazier specifications of pedigree dog breeds. Just don't.)

But how can a person who is interested learn as an adult how to recognise people's ancestry as belonging to a specific ethnic origin? Not because you're prejudiced - I'm inclined to think that a prejudiced person would simply label them all as "foreign" and not bother learning the nuances - but because people are fundamentally fascinating and you live in a huge city with people of every conceivable background. I suppose that's something taught in anthropology, but it's not as if you get to measure the bones and calculate the ratios of the measurements when you pass random people in the street! Hrm.

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Current Mood: curious curious

8 comments or Leave a comment
the_siobhan From: the_siobhan Date: 26th June 2014 00:07 (UTC) (Link)
Through circumstance of timing my sister ended up going to public school with a high concentration of East Asians in the early years. She could identify immediately if somebody's background was Korean, Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese. I always found that fascinating.
polyfrog From: polyfrog Date: 26th June 2014 13:55 (UTC) (Link)
I grew up around East Asians and Native Americans.
I can tell broadly where an East Asian person is from geographically, but not as accurately geopolitically, because the national borders don't always line up with the ethnic ones.

Native Americans I'm not as good at. But I can still tell roughly that this person is probably from a different nation than that one, even if I don't know which nation either is from, if you see what I mean.

White folks, I'm usually lost.
barakta From: barakta Date: 26th June 2014 08:53 (UTC) (Link)
When I lived and taught English to students in Romania I was staying mostly in a city 20km from the Hungarian border which was Hungarian territory until recentlyish. There are mini towns which still transact almost entirely in Hungarian. All the families I stayed with her Hungarian-Romanians speaking Hungarian at home and Romanian outside the home.

After about 2-3 months and talking to students about their backgrounds and culture and history I realised I could look around a room of young people and make a fair stab at identifying those with Hungarian background (common) those from central and South Romania (their faces had a different shape entirely longer and narrower) and then people with Serbian ancestry (they had very looong faces, black hair and very dark eyes). The Hungarians tended to have rounder almost East-Asianish heartshaped faces. I was always immediately obviously a foreigner, I could see people trying to work out where I was from. They also thought I was ill all the time cos I'm much paler skinned than most folk who had quite olivey complexions. I had to explain I'm of Scottish origins, palefaced is normal for us.

I guess the Nigerian thing is a bit like picking up tiny social and physical cues. I can tell you which part of Stockport someone is from (or used to be able to) by their accent. I knew kingginger was from where he said he was on the phone before we met IRL (we met on Internet) cos he had a twang in his accent of the area his parents lived on top of the Americanish twang he had from living overseas with international communities so long.

I suspect we can't even articulate many of the things we can detect about others cos it is all social markers.
From: artremis Date: 26th June 2014 08:57 (UTC) (Link)
I think you (one) learns this kind of stuff from habitation even as an adult - I can now identify people as "looking Estonian" when before I would have thought just some flavour of Eastern or Northen European - or guessed Slavic which would be Wrong.
But there's prolly a window of opportunity in childhood when you learn it best.

I'm a bit wary of reducing people to their bone structure or assuming that no one from less-diverse places has some kind of mixed heritage - if you are talking about very small regional differences then mixed could be one parent from a couple of hundred miles away.

There are also prolly social/cultural clues - styles of dressing and body language patterns. I'm not thinking about "tradional" dress - which would 've pretty obvious! But again using the Estonian example, they dress very much like any other Northern Europeans but are more likely than British Women to wear a triangular head-scarf in the sun or a shallow triangle shawl round their shoulders if it's a bit chilly. And like most people from snowy countries they'll take their shoes off indoors. None of these is uniquely Estonian but they build into a larger picture.
From: artremis Date: 26th June 2014 09:27 (UTC) (Link)
There are prolly linguistic clues too - I know you've said "broad London accents" just to mean not Nigerian-sounding but obviously there's no one "London" accent. So there are prolly subtle differences in a Nigeria-influnced Camden (or whereever in London those people actually lived) accent and say a Ghanian-influenced Streatham one.
And word use will show patterns too (as a Small in Streatham I apparently picked up a few Ghanian turns-of-phrase along with the fun mixture of accents and dialects I actually got from my family - though they mostly faded when we moved to the very much more homogenous Sussex)
thekumquat From: thekumquat Date: 27th June 2014 12:58 (UTC) (Link)
I think everyone learns to associate groups of people when there is a correlation with place - if there wasn't that correlation, we wouldn't learn the patterns. I don't think it's a problem if you manage to think of potential origins (or any other trait) of someone as a possibility, rather than a likelihood. For example I recently met someone I've been working with for a year. He has a fairly generic British Isles accent, and sounds quite rural - he mostly talks to farmers. He turns out to look like Ciphergoth with short hair and somewhat older. Combined with his surname and shape of his eyes, I wondered if he was originally Irish. Eventually we got on to talking about his family and turns out he was indeed born in Ireland, but lived in Sussex from a young age.
Equally people look at the shape of my eyes and face and wonder if I'm Polish. Half Polish by blood, but don't speak a word of the language - which is a bit embarrassing in a Polish deli when staff assume I will understand (people in Polish deli looking Polish generally being Polish, funnily enough). Ditto round Michigan where most people are of Polish origin, I pass as a local until I open my mouth, but in California or Texas I'm immediately clocked as English or at least European.
Nigeria is a huge country with huge ethnic diversity - way more than an equivalent area in Europe, so when school friends could identify each other as from different regions, I could start to do the same.
_nicolai_ From: _nicolai_ Date: 27th June 2014 16:48 (UTC) (Link)
She may have been also basing this on their speech. Some accents and speech mannerisms can be very local. If you are from the southern Netherlands you can often, I have been told, tell to within a few miles which village someone comes from.
_nicolai_ From: _nicolai_ Date: 27th June 2014 16:52 (UTC) (Link)
There's also a general social science research result that people inside a culture can tell all the fine differences apart in it but people outside it cannot. So often those inside react "But can't you see how that person is different from me?" and those outside react "What difference?".

(also why am I being made to solve a captcha for this comment? Most annoying)
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