What are you?
My whole life, I have been asked “what are you?” usually referring to my ethnic heritage.
I always told people I was not quite sure, because my mother was adopted and my father’s mother was adopted. From what I was told, my father’s father’s family came over from England long ago. My mother was told that her parents were Italian and German, my father’s mother always said she was Irish. The fact of the matter is, no matter what they were told, they just don’t know for sure.
Let’s be honest, though. I’m an American. So are my parents. I was born in the United States, as were they, and at least in my father’s case, his parents and his father’s family too.
If you did not come to the U.S. from “the old country”, then you are an American. If you are born in the United States, you are an American. Maybe you have heritage from another country, but if you have to go back more than two generations, well, you cannot claim that country as a homeland, really, only as a site of ethic heritage, and possibly distant relatives.
I am sure this post will make people mad. For some reason, people in the United States want to be anything but an American. I remember talking to a group of people at a college party, and they were all discussing what “percentage” of what they were. One person said “I’m half Norweigan and half Swedish,” another said “I’m three-quarters Swedish,” and so on. They turned and asked me “what are you?” and I answered “I’m an American.” They all laughed and said “good answer.”
It is a good answer because it is true. Let’s say my mother’s parents were from Italy and from Germany. That still means I am two generations removed from it. That still means I was born and raised in the United States.
Why do Americans want to identify with something other than America? As I am finding out daily, I was very, very lucky to have been born and raised in the United States. It is one of the richest countries in the world and it is a democracy, both of which make it highly desirable. Why else do so many people want to live in the U.S.? They want a piece of the “American dream” they have been told about, or that they see in movies and on TV (not the best depictions, true, but better than most of the rest of the world). People in the United States take their lives for granted because, for the most part, they don’t know about (or some don’t care about) how people live in the rest of the world (too much being reminded of it brings about compassion fatigue, which I will write about another time).
America used to be called a “melting pot.” I took a class as an undergraduate called “Immigration in America,” which discussed the different waves of immigration (up to the late 20th century, as that is when I was in college). It was a fascinating class, and I learned a lot, about who immigrated when (trends), discrimination of people based on when they immigrated (of course the earlier immigrants felt “superior” to the later ones. This still goes on today), and how American culture developed as a result of the contributions and work of immigrants.
When people first arrived from another country, they generally did one of two things – tried to maintain their customs and heritage, or tried to assimilate. Both approaches are valid – by assimilating, it is easier to be accepted. By maintaining customs and heritage, you contribute to the culture which is not a melting pot as much as a patchwork quilt. This still goes on, our taking in immigrants and, when we are smart, learning about their cultures and histories. Most of these immigrants are so proud when they become citizens and can say “I’m an American,” while we who are born in the U.S. seem more concerned with “where we came from” and want to be anything but an American (well, based on how Americans often act when they are in other countries, I sometimes understand this feeling).
Knowing “where you come from” seems to be of paramount importance everywhere, though. Every time I run into new people here, especially older people, they ask where my parents and grandparents are from. Generally, I tell them America, or sometimes I tell the truth – if I tell them “The United States” they often press me for more information – where were they FROM? When I do tell them the truth (re: mother and father’s mother were adopted), I hear “well, maybe you are Ukrainian.” I always find it amusing that when a person does not know exactly where “the old country” is, they automatically claim it to be here. It seems so important to people to know where your ancestors are from. To me, it is not terribly important, as I did not grow up in one place, nor did I grow up in the same neighborhood where my parents did. Life is very different in the U.S. now than 100 years ago, when people found neighborhood enclaves of ethnic/country identity. The different ethnicities have merged into one – United States citizen. This cycle continues, and continues to add to the richness of our culture.
I personally find the future more important than the past – this, by all accounts, is a really “American” trait. It is not that I do not value the past – history is interesting, and has many valuable lessons in it. But when it comes to the question of where I “come” from, well, the answer is simple – I come from the United States. I am proud to say so.
(Note: On a completely unrelated subject, I have published my updated mailing address on the “Contact Information” page, for anyone who is interested in sending me anything – a letter, a package…my birthday is coming up soon :))