For two years, I tracked down dozens of . . . Chinese in Upper Egypt [who were] selling lingerie. In a deeply conservative region, where Egyptian families rarely allow women to work or own businesses, the Chinese flourished because of their status as outsiders. They didn’t gossip, and they kept their opinions to themselves. In a New Yorker article entitled “Learning to Speak Lingerie,” I described the Chinese use of Arabic as another non-threatening characteristic. I wrote, “Unlike Mandarin, Arabic is inflected for gender, and Chinese dealers, who learn the language strictly by ear, often pick up speech patterns from female customers. I’ve come to think of it as the lingerie dialect, and there’s something disarming about these Chinese men speaking in the feminine voice.” . . .
When I wrote about the Chinese in the New Yorker, most readers seemed to appreciate the unusual perspective. But as I often find with topics that involve the Middle East, some people had trouble getting past the black-and-white quality of a byline. “This piece is so orientalist I don’t know what to do,” Aisha Gani, a reporter who worked at The Guardian, tweeted. Another colleague at the British paper, Iman Amrani, agreed: “I wouldn’t have minded an article on the subject written by an Egyptian woman—probably would have had better insight.” . . .
As an MOL (man of language), I also take issue with this kind of essentialism. Empathy and understanding are not inherited traits, and they are not strictly tied to gender and race. An individual who wrestles with a difficult language can learn to be more sympathetic to outsiders and open to different experiences of the world. This learning process— the embarrassments, the frustrations, the gradual sense of understanding and connection—is invariably transformative.
In Upper Egypt, the Chinese experience of struggling to learn Arabic and local culture had made them much more thoughtful. In the same way, I was interested in their lives not because of some kind of voyeurism, but because I had also experienced Egypt and Arabic as an outsider. And both the Chinese and the Egyptians welcomed me because I spoke their languages. My identity as a white male was far less important than my ability to communicate.
And that easily lobbed word—“Orientalist”—hardly captures the complexity of our interactions. What exactly is the dynamic when a man from Missouri observes a Zhejiang native selling lingerie to an Upper Egyptian woman? . . . If all of us now stand beside the same river, speaking in ways we all understand, who’s looking east and who’s looking west?
Which way is Oriental?
For all of our current interest in identity politics, there’s no corresponding sense of identity linguistics. You are what you speak—the words that run throughout your mind are at least as fundamental to your selfhood as is your ethnicity or your gender. And sometimes it’s healthy to consider human characteristics that are not inborn, rigid, and outwardly defined. After all, you can always learn another language and change who you are.
Q. A French ethnographer decides to study the culture of a Nigerian tribe. Which of the following is most likely to be the view of the author of the passage?