(Image by Folke Lehr)
Along with millions of other Americans, I used to boast a bit every March 17th: “You know, I really am Irish.” It’s a common American pastime to cite one’s known heritage, either as demonyms (“I’m English and Irish and… ”) or percentages (“I’m a quarter Irish, one eighth Polish…” ). I still believe in self-determination, but having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, I have ceased to rattle off these titles. Not only is the latter a vain attempt at exactitude with no chance of ever being exact—we’re not even really sure if my great-grandmother was Polish or Belarusian—but it resembles the sort of puzzle-piecing that only pseudo-scientists of suspicious political convictions find relevant. And it makes Europeans laugh. And then correct me. “No, you’re not Irish. Your ancestors were Irish.” Which is true.
While Americans sometimes refer to their ancestors’ nation as their “homeland,” they usually can’t construct a sentence in the country’s official language and certainly cannot name the country’s current head of government, the second largest city, or any of its history that isn’t directly related to U.S. history. At best they know a handful of expressions, a recipe or two, maybe the region where their parents’ parents’ parents lived. For this reason, their claims to nationality usually strike the natives as silly.
But the melting pot concept is often admirably used to celebrate diversity. It bungles any sense of loyalty and prevents jingoism. I can’t really argue that the English are “naturally” evil for what they did to my Irish ancestors when my last name is Sanford. My known ethnic heritage is a split between some of Europe’s most notorious conquerors (English, German) and their victims (Irish, Polish). To claim only one or two of them as “my people” feels ridiculous. If I ever have children, their great-grandfathers will have fought on opposite sides of World War II.
Then again, not everyone’s heritage is such a hodge-podge, and plenty of conservative genealogists try to prove why the blending of certain cultures is “better” than the blending of others. That the perpetrators of segregation, Nazism, apartheid, aristocracy, and the internment camps are the most famous fans of genealogy causes me to cringe whenever anyone claims pride in having Irish or Italian or Icelandic “blood.”
Such pride is much more understandable when coming from minorities who have been made to feel that they don’t belong in the country they were born in. My grandfather, Michael Sullivan, was the grandson of Irish immigrants to America. He was the oldest of 9 children, my mother has 43 cousins, and I’ve never tried to count how many of us there are in my generation. He often began sentences with the word “ ’Twas,” and liked to sing folk songs that seemed to have come from Ireland, but may very well have originated in immigrant settlements in the States. This is the extent of my experience with his Irishness, but his was far more profound. He grew up in a time when he could easily find signs reading, “Irish need not apply,” and “mick” was a word he hated in the way that only people who have been called a slur do. When he married Barbara Tupper and her grandmother found out he was Catholic, she crossed my grandmother out of the family Bible. All this made John F. Kennedy’s election in his lifetime radical. It is my grandfather’s story and it is important. But it’s not my story.
An attempt to make it my story would feel intellectually dishonest and pretty flaky to boot. As Andrew O’Heir writes this week at Salon: “Irishness [in America today] is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, ‘Celtic’ tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything.” Indeed, my middle name endows me with no expertise when it comes to picking out Celtic music or Irish books and films. I can’t tell what most Irish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists any more than I can tell what Finnish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists.
As said before, taking an interest in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia. But it often comes with the temptation to flaunt minimal efforts like feats of greatness. Claiming credentials based on ancestry feels not entirely wrong, but not entirely right either.
The boundaries of countries and ethnicities are as blurry as our sense of self. Heritage is often seen as the recipe that resulted in an individual, yet there are so many more ingredients to the recipe. Yes, I wouldn’t be here today if the branches of my family tree were arranged any differently, but I also wouldn’t be here today if my parents had slept together in April 1981 instead of March. And placing too much importance on genetics insults any families who cannot or choose not to have children using only their own reproductive cells. Family is what you make of it.
This is not to say that everyone should always downplay their roots. Children with at least one parent who emigrated from another country often have undeniable ties to their ancestral culture – in any case, ties that are far more likely to be based on fact than fictitious romanticizing. Most of what constitutes our inexplicable sense of culture comes from traditions and foods and pastimes we experienced growing up, and great writers like Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart, and Sandra Cisneros show that growing up with two cultures affords you special insights into both. If my German partner and I ever have children, we plan to raise them bilingually (English and German) and bi-culturally (Thanksgiving and St. Martin’s Day), teaching them anything there is to teach about where their mother grew up and where their father grew up. Whether or not to add some Swedish into the mix—my mother-in-law came from Stockholm—is a point of endless debate between us.
If we ever have grandchildren, it will be interesting to see how they approach their American heritage. If they’re at all ashamed or excessively proud, I’m determined to discuss it, but if they’re merely disinterested, so what? I predict that my great-grandchildren will not feel any strong connection to their American heritage, nor should they. As my partner points out, maybe they will be half-Czech or married to a Burkinabé and have their hands full raising their own children bilingually. Cultures and people move and morph constantly throughout time and space.
When I finally traveled to Ireland two years ago, there were traces of culture that seemed somehow familiar. And that was moving. But most of the charm—“The Irish Sea really is that green! They really do sing in the pubs!”—came from recognizing things I’d grown up seeing in movies, not in my grandfather’s house. And I also found traces of culture the following year in Amsterdam that were faintly familiar to me because, although I have no known Dutch forebearers, I grew up on Long Island.
My most impressive sense of belonging in Ireland came from the fact that I was not the palest person around. Not by a long shot. (Hence my captioning the above photo taken on the cliffs of Howth in an e-mail sent to friends: “If there’s anything Sullivan about me, it’s my complexion.”) Lookism can be a very powerful force. But it does not have to be. In Dublin, we were never once served by someone who didn’t have a Slavic accent. If the current flood of Eastern European immigrants end up staying in Ireland, their children will have much more of a claim to the place than I do.
They’ll at least be able to remember the name of the prime minister, after all.