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What are you?

October 26, 2010

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 :))

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephen permalink
    October 26, 2010 3:17 am

    I have been a family history researcher for more than twenty years. I started with information on about thirty-five ancestors that my mother provided. My data base now has data on over nine thousand people, most of whom are related to me in some way or another, most very distant. Every week I find more “relatives”, some going back to Scotland to around 800. It is all very interesting, but I, like you, still consider myself first and foremost, an American.

    Of course, if you REALLY want to know where you came from, then DNA profiling for genealogical purposes will open up another way of looking at your “roots”, but the cost can run up to nearly $500. I am not that curious…

  2. Heidi permalink
    October 26, 2010 5:49 am

    I think it is important to acknowledge the past. Where your family comes from, why they moved the U.S. What struggles they overcame to succeed. And of course people in other countries what to hear about people moving the U.S. and being successful. It keeps them filled with hope.

    Of course when people ask me where I am from, I answer America. And I love America. I also love that growing up we went to traditional Norwegian suppers in small churches, ate the food traditional from Norway, sang songs… And growing up in WI, one can not escape learning about traditional German activities. I think it would be a shame for kids to lose this appreciation of their history.

    And absolutely I think it would be a shame not to venture out into the world and learn about other cultures other than one’s own and histories from other lands. : )

  3. Mom permalink
    October 26, 2010 7:10 am

    You are all correct, of course. In my own personal experience, we ask where someone is from because we are looking for a common thread. Something with which to identify that person with ourselves, thus easier to relate to. It is human nature–not to be discounted. The fact that America is a “melting pot” means it has many original pieces, much like a tasty stew. Let’s not discount those original pieces. They have a right to be claimed and their histories sought.
    And, for example, how well would a person from a WWII death camp want to relate to a person who might have been in the German military during the same period? There are many reasons for asking about a person’s origins.
    I intend to do a DNA test myself, and when I do, you will have a clearer picture of your own origins, my daughter.

  4. October 26, 2010 7:34 am

    Just a note – I am not discounting in any way where a person’s “origins” are. However, they are usually from long ago, as in generations. My point is that I do not understand why people from the U.S. are so quick to try to be “from” somewhere else, instead of being proud to be an American, while still recognizing your (long ago) heritage.

    • Stephen permalink
      October 26, 2010 7:48 am

      In the Saint Louis area, almost always when people meet for the first time socially, the question is asked “What high school did you go to?” – the answer providing an almost instant classification of the individual. While the answer is usually grossly inadequate, and often inaccurate, it does offer the opportunity to establish a common bond of some kind. To a degree, so does the question regarding nationality heritage. A path to begin to understand someone else…

  5. Mom permalink
    October 26, 2010 7:47 am

    I believe most mature Americans ARE proud to be where they are and are also proud of how they got here, i.e., their “origins.” Again, part of the whole story–the overall picture–the history of their own personal evolution if you will. And the more we look at history and what our ancestors went through to establish a place for their families, the more awe inspiring that history becomes.

  6. Helene permalink
    October 27, 2010 7:59 pm

    I was born in Finland. Moved to the U.S. (Waukegan, Illinois) when I was 8. There was a strong Finnish-American community in Waukegan at the time. And also various other strong etnic groups who clung to their roots from whatever old country they had come from. I grew up very aware of my ethnic heritage and one of the suprises for me in moving to MN in the late 1970’s was the lack of that. Guess if I’d moved to the Iron Range instead of the Minneapolis area, it would have been quite different.
    The best book I ever read about what it feels like being an immigrant in the U.S./Canada was Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman.

    • Mom permalink
      October 28, 2010 8:49 am

      You are so right about the Iron Range! Having married a “Finlander” I know a bit about what you are saying. The heritage and language skills are indeed alive and well “up North” with the “old timers.” Younger generations have moved away and become Americanized.

      I grew up in Chicago where there were distinct German, Italian, Irish, Chinese, Jewish, etc. neighborhoods. What fun it was to visit their shops and delis, sample their foods and hear their language.

      I always felt that a privilege and a thorough education and miss that today.

  7. Mom permalink
    October 29, 2010 7:48 am

    I made a new friend yesterday at the “health club.” She had heard me telling someone about my daughter in Ukraine. So she approached me to tell me there is a Ukrainian family living right here in my little town. She then went on to tell me that she is “Espania and Francea”(sp?) and all about her family history from the various European countries. Fascinating! And now I have someone with whom I can converse in Spanish when I am able to study it.
    P.S.-she also mentioned that there are similarities between the Ukrainian and Spanish languages. Go figure.

    • October 29, 2010 8:38 am

      I am curious as to what she thinks these similarities are. I know French, and other than the occasional word that is the same (which is rare), I see no similarities – the grammatical structures are completely different, the alphabets are different, etc.

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