Friday, July 30, 2010

On Being Pale and Hyphenated

Between my sophomore and junior year of college I did a literature study abroad program at the University of Greenwich in London, England. I kept a meticulous travel journal about mostly factual or mundane things, but one day I reflected on what it actually meant to go to England as someone with ancestors who emigrated from there. What follows is an adaptation of what I wrote. I did not date the entry, though it would have fallen between July 22 and July 28, 2007 - just over three years ago.

I arrived in London not knowing the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom. I knew nothing about Greenwich except that the Prime Meridian made it the “center of the world,” and that I had relatives from somewhere in this country. I sought my “roots,” finding them scattered. I searched for exoticism in every blade of grass and summer breeze. I found McDonald’s.

I did not have to seek the relevance this or any other place, for my country seemed to insist on its import even outside of its own borders; while exploring my European origins I found America vomiting all over the world. America felt too young for me to claim her as my own, and to escape the guilt over her ugliness I clung to Europe, desirous of finding her real truth.

Saying I was American wasn’t enough when I filled out the application for the school. Saying I was white wasn’t enough. I had to own what had come before that, and that meant checking ‘other’ and using many nationalities separated by hyphens and finishing with -American. I have never been othered.

I wonder why the Essex family, who only account for a quarter of my heritage, left this place. I think about the Irish O’Neals and the great famine and the shame of their Irishness that quietly annihilated the ‘O’; I wonder who the German Hammonds were or why my Norwegian great-grandmother, Mina, journeyed across an ocean to live her adult life in an Iowa farm town. Finally, I want to know the stories that were never recorded, or simply rendered historically insignificant because they were not godly or rich or heroic enough to be told.

The documentation of marriages, deaths, and legitimate children born don’t matter. Percentages - 40% of this nationality, 8.27% of this tribe - miss the point. So does allowing my Americanness to define me: worrying my loud voice and rolls of fat fulfill a stereotype, defensively explaining to a store clerk that I can in fact locate Europe on a map, being too terrified to order at a French restaurant. It is also pointless to try to feel the past via osmosis from the bones of those who are, by varying degrees, my ancestors.

A clairvoyant told me to go to London, for according to him I had had past lives there - as a writer, a painter, and a missionary, among other things. I would feel “at home there,” he said. But as I stood on English soil and tried to feel things that I could claim, I realized that the lives of those people before me - whether technically lived by my actual soul and reincarnated into the present or experienced by predecessors - were mine.

These things, in some small way, live inside of me. All the gardens and graves - and the shame and heavy choices - have been paved over whether or not I claim the new land. But I will, and indeed must, for there is no singular “homeland” entity anymore - not for me, and nor for today’s other hyphenated Americans.

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