by A. Catherine Noon
For those of you in the States, Happy Thanksgiving! For the rest of you, Happy Thursday! As my family pauses to take stock, and make a feast (and, to be honest, make stock when we take the turkey carcass on Friday and make soup out of it, but I digress), I got to thinking: where do I come from? I’m blonde, blue-eyed, and pale complected; to many in my multicultural neighborhood (and I’m not kidding, there are seventeen different languages spoken just on my block here in Chicago) I am a “White American,” or just, “White.” What does that mean? Am I?
When my father’s grandparents came here from Ireland to escape the crushing poverty of the Potato Famine and political unrest, they arrived to a New York City that hated Irish. Signs saying “No Irish” peppered the city and to be heard speaking in brogue was akin to being considered “White trash” today. I don’t know much about what my great-grandfather did, but I know they were very poor. My grandfather joined the United States Marines and became a full Colonel before he retired after the end of WWII. At one point he commanded the El Toro Air Base in Torrance, California.
My mother’s grandparents owned shares in several banks and ran a general store, among other things. There is a house on the National Historic Register on the Battlefield at Gettysburg that was in my family and is known by my grandmother’s maiden name. My mothers’ family has been here since before the American Revolution, in fact, and we trace our lineage back to a German soldier who served the colonial forces. I’m not sure if that means he was a mercenary, as many German soldiers of the time were, or if he simply came from German ancestry. I do know that he is the only person I’ve found in my family tree who isn’t from Ireland, England, or Scotland.
I remember once when a Polish-Italian-American friend of mine asked me about my background. I showed her the family tree on my mother’s side and explained some of what I know about my father’s and she seemed wistful. Her family could only go back about three generations because of the giant, gaping wound that World War II created. Even if she knew the town in Poland from where her mother’s family came, the records were destroyed when the Nazis and then the Soviets invaded. The information is simply not there.
It wasn’t until I moved here to Chicago and came in contact with a large and proud Irish-American cultural group that I realized what I’d been missing. I’d always felt a sense of not-belonging, whether it was when I was a child and didn’t fit in or as an adult when I didn’t know what “my culture” was. Other friends who had strong ethnic and religious backgrounds seemed to have a sense of place that I didn’t. I couldn’t even claim California as heritage; I was born in Boston. So who am I?
The Irish-American culture here felt like home in a way I never experienced before. All of a sudden, people talked like me and reminded me of my dad and his side of my family. Of course, the “eff-bomb” is a common swearword, but it’s deeper than that. It’s something indefinable. For all my years working amongst, and fighting for the value of, multicultural individuals, I never felt truly at home in any particular culture where I lived. I’m a good mimic and speak several languages, so I could “fake it,” but the bedrock never really appeared for me. Meeting others of my same cultural background changed that and all of a sudden I felt at home in a peculiar, unexplainable way.
I feel sorry for refugees. Not in the way the words “feel sorry for” evoke feelings of pity; I don’t mean that. I mean that there is a deep wrenching loss when you don’t belong. Culture shock is very real and very painful. Not being able to communicate due to language differences is jarring, whether you’re trying to talk about something meaningful or you simply want to order a pizza. I watch coworkers speed up when they talk to non-native English speakers, as though by impatience alone they will convey their meaning better. I watch friends of mine yell into a drive-through where a non-native English speaker is trying to take their order. This is unfair and interferes with the process of communication, of getting onto the same page so we can learn from each other and create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
That said, I don’t think I ever really “got it” that cultural acceptance can ease our minds at some deep, unspoken, pre-language place. There is a relief in knowing you don’t have to explain your cultural context, because it’s already understood. It wasn’t until I met the Irish-American community here that I experienced that. All of a sudden, I had a sense I knew where “my people” lived.
Wherever you are today, whatever your cultural or ethnic background, I wish you well. This country, despite what the recent political rhetoric would say to the contrary, was founded out of the simple desire of disparate people to find a place they could be themselves in peace, along with others trying to do the same. Maryland was for the Catholics, Connecticut and Massachusetts for the Puritans, the South to the British landowners, and all sorts of other groups besides – the waves of Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Mexican, Middle-Eastern… the endless list of individuals who live here and try to create homes and families together. To me, that is what Thanksgiving is about – giving thanks for this place we call home, despite its faults and because of its strengths.
Especially in light of what’s happening in the Gaza Strip right now, home is something we cannot take for granted. If we have homes that are at peace and safe, if our children can play without threat, if we can put food on the table, then we are wealthy indeed. And if you live in a place at war, or not at peace, then may you be safe and may the gods grant you speedy end to the conflict and that you and yours find safety and serenity.
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