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Monday, November 28th, 2011

When People Confuse my Heritage

heritage/ © Jacek Chabraszewski -

I interrupt my regular posting, to bring you a post from my wife, Souad.

At the doctor’s recently, I received a funny question about my accent and heritage. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a cataract in my left eye (I was only 33!). For the last two weeks, I have been experiencing some pain and loss of vision in my right eye, the “good eye”. I went to see an ophthalmologist who diagnosed me with a uveitis, an auto-immune inflammation. Now I have steroid drops in my eye for at least three months, which means I can’t wear contacts anymore. If any of you are very short-sighted, then you will know how depressing negative 12D prescription glasses are.

This eye doctor is a renowned ophthalmic consultant, with an impressive resume and loads of acronyms following his name. He asked where my accent came from, since he guessed I was not English. I said I was from Algeria but my accent can sound a tiny bit French. He agreed.

I went out for 20 minutes to give my pupils time to dilate for further examinations. When I came back in, the surgeon had become more curious.

“Excuse my curiosity, but I am personally interested in ethnic minorities, and interactions with indigenous people. I know Algeria used to be a French colony and is now independent. How is your colonial minority treated by the indigenous Arab population?”

I went silent for five seconds, confused, but then it dawned on me. With my fair skin, straightened hair and generally Caucasian features, he thought I was of French descent. I was dressed as a European. I explained that I was 100% Algerian. “I am actually of Berber descent, but there are loads of us in Algeria.”

Doctor: “Do you mean you do not stand out in a crowd in Algiers?”

Me: “Uh, no. There are all gradations of skin colour in Algeria, and I certainly blend very well on the street there.”

Needless to say, the poor man was a bit embarrassed and apologised profusely for his prejudice. I found it funny. I was glad that he spoke his mind with such clarity. When I used to live in France, I would get these kinds of remarks quite often. French people always assume I am French, because of the way I look and speak. I actually make a point of telling them I am Algerian, which usually elicits either surprise or a knowing, “Ah, you must be Kabyle (Berber).”

Here in England, it’s different. People have no idea where Algeria is. When told it’s between Tunisia and Morocco, they express surprise there is even a country between these two. Well, yes, it’s hard to miss 1200 kilometres of coast and 2.5 million square kilometres even if you tried! So when I say I am from Algeria, people in England usually either assume I am Nigerian and lift an eyebrow at my skin colour, or think I am Albanian and wonder if Albania is part of the European Union. But the English being English tend not to ask for further clarifications. They either don’t care or don’t want to embarrass me or themselves.

So, thank you Doctor L for being yourself and for your curiosity about me. There is no need to be embarrassed, I like to confuse the cards and break prejudices from time to time.

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsRea   |  Monday, 28 November 2011 at 1:46 pm

    One of my neighbours in Spain insists that I am Ukrainian, although I repeatedly insist that I am Canadian. I suppose they sound similiar. She just waves here hand and says “From over there somewhere.” I’ll take awkward honest curiosity over indifferent ignorance any day!

  2. CommentsSouad   |  Tuesday, 29 November 2011 at 2:42 am

    I’ll take awkward honest curiosity over indifferent ignorance any day!” great way6 of putting it, will try to remember it :)

  3. CommentsJustine Ickes   |  Tuesday, 29 November 2011 at 9:32 am

    What a great attitude, Jan, and you were so patient with your doctor. I love this line in the last paragraph – “People have no idea where Algeria is. When told it’s between Tunisia and Morocco, they express surprise there is even a country between these two. Well, yes, it’s hard to miss 1200 kilometres of coast and 2.5 million square kilometres even if you tried!” It’s amazing how poor our knowledge of geography is!

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