My Flag is Cooler than Yours, Part 1

Jessie and I argue. We usually run semantic circles around each other until we come to the realization that our views aren’t that different. So, we decided to put these debates into written and largely unedited form and publish them, because… #ideasandstuff. One of us begins with a question, and we go from there until a conclusion (or new question) is reached. We’ll see how this goes the first time around, and then we’ll probably come up with a witty/ironic/thematic name for it. This will be divided into (at least) 2 posts.

Steve D: Remember when we talked about having philosophical debates with with each other and posting them as dialogues? Let’s do that. In this email chain. I will pose the first question, and we’ll keep emailing back and forth until we reach some kind of conclusion (or impasse). Then you pose a related, but tangential question to begin anew in a fresh email chain. This means that you should actually check your email. Like probably at least once per day.

So we’ve discussed nationalism and identity a bit in the past, but never in great depth. It has always fascinated me how easily people in the US (who would call themselves Americans) attach themselves to ethnic identities based on where their parents or grandparents or further removed ancestors are from.

Is it neat to think I have some innate connection to a Hessian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars? Or an orphan from Ireland who wrote unsent letters to her lost siblings? Or a palace chef in nineteenth-century Naples? Absolutely.

But what if those connections are fabricated by the part of my brain that likes to fantasize about times and lives that are not my own? Are ethnic and national identities just a piece of how we tell the stories of our lives? Do they – and should they – play a role in how we conduct our lives?

Jessie G: Hmmmm nationalism… nationalism… nationalism. Hmmm ok. So you started off by mentioning how fascinated you were by people attaching themselves to an ancestor’s place of birth, when it’s not their own. I guess it takes me a second or so to realize that that is technically strange behavior, because I myself identify that way. When asked at work, which I constantly am, what I am, I no longer reply ‘American’ because most customers take that as sarcasm – as if my being an American is so obvious that its unnecessary to say it. They want the deeper truth. So maybe the question is: What are you or Where are you from? But the intended question, the underlying question, I suppose, is: What’s your heritage? or What customs do you practice that are different from my own?

Part of me thinks this is just a way of labeling someone different from yourself so you feel a sense of either connection with them, if you share a common place of origin, or at least of knowledge about them, if you do not. We like what we understand, and a tidy, concise label helps immensely with that.

I guess the flip side of the expectations one has when asking about someone’s ancestry is what the responder feels. I can only really speak from personal experience, and for me? I feel pride and love. Pride because every time someone asks me what I am, I think about all my direct family has done to get to this the Land of The Free. America still holds this almost mythical importance in my psyche and I know part of that is due to the respect given to her by my grandparents and relatives not born here. People that found better lives here. And love, because it is family and all that.

So, you ask if nationalism and such should play a part in how we live, and I say, whether or not it should, that it is a non-issue, because it does. It’s just another piece in everybody’s puzzle of self. And maybe it shouldn’t be the biggest piece but it’s still very much there and you need it to see the complete picture.

SD: I can see the sense of connection angle, but remember, there is a key difference between how strangers interact with the two of us. People always ask about your heritage for the simple fact that you are a person of color who speaks American English with no hint of an ethnic accent. People generally only ask about my heritage when they hear my last name, and think that name sounds too “exotic” for a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes… where the hell is he from???

However, I also suppose that that same difference is what separates our ideas of ethnic identity to begin with. My mixed European heritage is so far removed from my ancestors who came here (and so common in this country) that it feels fake. Take the Italian side of my family. We all talk about and make jokes about how we’re loud and boisterous because we’re Italian-American! But, really… that’s not how I think of myself on a day-to-day basis. I don’t introduce myself as German-, Italian-, and Irish-American. I have none of those countries’ flags or heraldries tattooed on me. I don’t even have key chains or bumper stickers displaying the flags of my forefathers.

I studied German in college, but it is far from a second language to me. The closest tangible connection I have to my Italian heritage is when we eat antipasto and stuffed artichokes as courses 1 and 2 for Thanksgiving dinner. I even brought thinly sliced prosciutto and roasted peppers as an appetizer to my non-Italian-fiance’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner, just to show them “how we do it”. And my family’s Irish heritage died with my great-grandmother in 1925, leaving my grandfather as one of the only family members of his generation with blue eyes and fair skin.

I guess for me, because ethnic identity is just a label, it feels fake, like a caricature of people who are from Germany, Italy, or Ireland. Do you think there is a point-of-no-return type line, where one’s ethnic heritage becomes so far removed from the self as to make it negligible? Would that line fall on the loss of ethnic language/dialect, or on the loss of those who spoke the mother tongue? Basically, at one point is ethnic identity inextricably assimilated with national (American) identity?

JG: It’s amusing to me that you mentioned someone calling your last name ‘exotic’. I’m always strangely bothered by that word, because frankly I feel like it’s used way too often in regards to my general existence. It totally rubs me the wrong way. Exotic? I am not a plant, good customer, please describe me in human terms if you must describe me at all. But, you’re absolutely right: the way people interact with us is very different; working together provided tons of evidence for that.

Same clientele, same atmosphere, same job, different mingling.

Okay, so maybe they don’t ask you where you’re from, because they already feel a connection to you based purely on your appearance? Although honestly, the way I look wasn’t something I directly thought about when discussing self identity. You called me “a person of color who speaks American English with no hint of an ethnic accent”, which, yeah true, but it still took me a second to realize I fit that bill. Maybe that’s a diverse upbringing bias, but in my head, when unasked, I’m just an American, not all that above. My ancestry goes deeper than that, but I guess for me American is a huge umbrella under which everything fits, no qualifiers (beyond the obvious – born here) necessary… See, now that leads me to a peculiar train of thought: is everyone who is not Anglo Saxon/ white automatically a person of color? I mean I’m kind of olive-y tan because of the Greek side of my family tree, but my sister, my full-blood sibling, looks “white,” and I doubt anyone would refer to her as a person of color… but how does that make sense? Is POC only referencing one’s outer appearance? How can her ethnic identity be different from mine when we share everything but a skin tone? Strange.

As a side note: Who questions where D’Adamo came from? It sounds super Italian to me…
It’s also bizarre to hear that you think of your heritage as ‘feeling fake’. I get that maybe it’s not as hyper available as mine – go back a hundred years and none of my relatives were in this country yet – but don’t you have quirky old country traditions and/or family recipes to serve as reminders of where you came from? Those are the real marks of authenticity for me anyways. Who cares about bumper stickers or flags or key chains or tattoos? Those are all exterior decals to show what you already know. It’s like cake. Even if you don’t write ‘cake’ on there, it’s still a freaking cake and you find out the flavor when you delve deeper.
But I suppose that it could be that you have crossed that elusive point-of-no-return line, whereas I have not. Even without a full grasp on either Spanish (from my dad’s side) or Greek (from my mom’s), I am still Mexican and Greek. That’s the blood running through my veins and it has colored a considerable portion of my habits, personality, and perspective. Perhaps ethnic identity is more determined by assimilation into American mainstream culture than I had initially assumed, but then, does that make the line between American and something-American a matter of percentages? As in, if you maintain 100% – 51% of your ancestors’ customs you fall into the latter category but anything less and suddenly you’re simply an American?

You mentioned language as a deciding factor, but that can be taught, at least to my mind, much easier than an entire culture. In reality, I suppose it’s a sliding scale of numerous factors: language, holidays, traditions, rites of passage, religion, cuisine, etc. What other conditions do you think contribute or even decide when someone transitions wholly into our national identity?

PS: I also think it’s situational. Since this is the melting pot, it’s expected that most everyone came from somewhere else, but out of country, no one questions you further if you go by American. Example: in Mexico when asked, I only replied “American” without the usual follow-up questioning I get here.

To be continued…

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