One of my pleasures in travel in the United States and Canada is running into, and having short enjoyable conversations with, immigrants from Ethiopia. A little game I play, when I have an interaction with someone–typically in a cab, at a retailer in an airport, or in a hotel–who looks Ethiopian, is to say, “Let me guess where you’re from.” The person then waits and I say “Ethiopia.” Typically the person breaks into a smile, happy to be identified correctly and the next question the person asks is almost always “How do you know?”

That happened this morning when I went down to the lobby at my hotel in Toronto to get a plate from the restaurant so I could eat my Chinese leftovers for breakfast. I asked the woman if she was Ethiopian, she beamed, and then she asked me how I knew. I answered that it was the combination of her high cheek bones and her particular color.

Incidentally, I sometimes run into people who seem to think it’s wrong to comment on those things. The people I run into, though, are virtually never the people on whom I’m commenting. The whole thing reminds of one of my favorite passages from a book by Steve Sailer, a frequent commentator on this site, usually critical of what co-blogger Bryan Caplan is writing on immigration. In his book, America’s Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama’s “Story of Race and Inheritance”, Sailer has a section discussing Obama talking about why his skin is relatively dark for someone whose mother is white. Obama explains that it’s because the tribe on his father’s side was particularly dark. Sailer comments that virtually no one seems to be comfortable talking about this and then ends with this line (I might not get this exactly right because I’m in a hotel and not near my copy of his book.):

We’re supposed to celebrate diversity–but not notice it.

Well, I both celebrate diversity and notice it.

I came back to my room with my plate and, after I finished breakfast, I decided to take the plate back to the restaurant because I thought of another part of my answer to why I thought she was Ethiopian. Fortunately, Yet (that’s her name) was still there. I said, “It wasn’t just your physical characteristics. It’s your spirit. You smile a lot and you’re happy. You seem to enjoy your job and appreciate that you live here.”

She broke into an even bigger smile and then got serious. She said (I’ll quote as accurately as I remember):

I tell my daughter that we are so lucky. I can have this coffee (pointing to the coffee machine) and it’s delicious. I thank God that we are here. (Then she does a little jig.) We are not back there dealing with hunger. We aren’t threatened by terrorists. We are lucky.

She’s a more extreme version of me.