NY Times & Being American

I subscribe to the New York Times Morning Briefing, appearing in my inbox six out of the seven days of the week. It’s a round up of everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours, and there’s links to articles on health, the arts, tech, recipes, and more. Since the election they’ve even started linking to right-wing news sites, at least giving readers the option of fleeing our own echo chambers.

If you’re still reading The Skint (which, although this is one of the best movie monologues of all time, reads like Cher’s Haitian speech), I’d really push you to drop it and sign up for the NY Times.

Anyway, their Interpreter columnists Amanda and Max recently traveled to Canada, and their column yesterday aimed to explore the difference between what it means to be Canadian or American, or X-American or X-Canadian. They asked readers to write in, which I did after turning it into a long-winded writing exercise. My answers are below.

1. How and when did your family come to be Canadian or American?
My mom’s paternal family came from southwest England to the colony of Connecticut in 1637. There’s actually a small island, Betts Island, off the coast of Norwalk that is named after my ancestors, although we have no vested interest.

Through my mom’s maternal side of the family I’m a descendant of Anne Hutchinson via her daughter Susanna. She survived the brutal massacre of her 15-person family in what’s now Co-op City in the Bronx by a local Siwanoy tribe. It’s possible they were the Mamaroneck Indians, whose name gave sake to my high school and town where I spent my formative years. Susanna was taken captive by the Native Americans and spent her formative years in their society until she was traded back to white settlers, one of whom she married and bore children. Her granddaughter ended up marrying an ancestor of mine.

Both my mom’s maternal and paternal sides emigrated when America was still The New World, fought in all the many wars both domestic and abroad, moved continually west in the spirit of manifest destiny, participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush of the late 1800s, and eventually struck oil. Like the United States itself, our family has continued in cycles of boom and bust since then.

My dad’s side we know less about – My great great paternal grandfather’s last name was Egan, and he was from somewhere in Southern Ireland. Really narrows it down, right? He also immigrated to Connecticut, but about 200 years after my mom’s side during the Potato Famine. Not surprisingly, my dad grew up in Boston.

2. Other than Canadian or American, what is your family’s single strongest identity? Use that in place of X in the next questions.

At this point, both sides of my family have been in America for so long that that’s all we can really consider ourselves – American. No hyphen necessary. Being American is certainly not our single, strongest sense of identity – that I believe stands alone from nationality and ethnicity altogether – but this question of American culture and identity is certainly one I thought a lot about as a white, blond Anglo-American child.

New York is a melting pot – Always has been, always will be. Growing up in the city and in the diverse-ish suburb of Mamaroneck in Westchester, my best friends were all Jewish, “half”, first-generation American (Korea, Peru, Senegal), or not American at all. My family is not religious, not into sports, or even originally from the area, so being surrounded by New York Jews, first-generation Americans, and foreigners made me acutely aware of communities within communities, and the ties that bind us. So aside from “American” I’d say growing up I most often felt “goy” :-p

While none of my friends were particularly religious, being Jewish was an entire community and a mutual understanding that I could never quite be a part of. Sure, I went to Jewish pre-school (“Are you Christmas or Hannukah?” I’d ask new friends) and heavily Jewish schools and summer camps, and attended more bar and bat mitzvahs than all the times I’ve sat through a church service combined. I ate up all the matzah and challah and bagels and lox, schlepped around searching for the afikomen, spun the dreidel and devoured my gelt, and even routinely celebrated “Hannimas” with my neighbors, our OG version of Chrismukkah before The OC even aired.

But I didn’t have a bubby and my parents and grandparents didn’t tawk with that endearing Brooklyn or Lawng Guyland accent, to me such a blind marker of commonality, warmth, and togetherness. So many a playdate ask in elementary school received a, “Can’t today, I have Hebrew school!”, and when my school merged with three others in 6th grade, I realized what Hebrew school was really about – Meeting other kids in the Jewish community! I didn’t really know anyone from other schools or from outside of my cul-de-sac, but Hebrew school and temples were always a mix of many. So while my Jewish classmates spent years after school learning the Torah for that thirteenth year right of passage that I blipped right through, they were also forming bonds with kids from other areas and widening their social horizons. Hebrew school was just a decades-long precursor to Birthright!

We moved to the suburbs when I was nine, and our first house happened to be on a block where many of the homes were owned by foreign businesses, used as temporary housing for their employees who turned over every couple of years. When we moved in, everyone asked us, “So where are you from?” Our neighbors were from all over – France, Belgium, Mauritius, Kenya, South Africa, Holland, India, and Norway. There were linguistic cliques for sure, but kids pick up English fast and our neighborhood gang bulged and boomed over the years to the squeals and giggles of English, Norwegian, Dutch, and French, amongst others. While I never picked up these languages on the mean streets of Lundy Lane, I peered inside my friends’ home countries and cultures at their dinner tables, on their bookshelves, and through scoldings from their parents in their rapid fire native tongues.

My mother is a history buff, and growing up she’d take us to sleepy, colonial towns in Connecticut bearing the names of our ancestors on ancient plaques and withering graves, trying to impassion me and my siblings about our British and Irish, American roots. But on their own, and contrasted with my friends’ spicy, passionate backgrounds complete with colorful costumes and steamy dishes, English and Irish seems so boring, the closest you could get to bland old American in terms of culture and language. My neighbors, Anna and Monica, would dress up in traditional dresses and plaits on St. Lucia Day, and I started telling people my ancestors were also Norwegian – My mom had told me they’d invaded Britain as the Vikings and were a large part of that gene pool, so I figured I was just pushing the truth. I wanted in on those candle crowns.

We weren’t even Irish and proud, like many New Yorkers are – My dad grew up in Boston, son of an Irish Catholic father and a English Protestant mother. This particular Catholic-Protestant union in 1949 was so polarizing between both sets of their parents that my grandparents ended up eloping. Even choosing which church the children would be brought up in was a family crisis. My dad ended up with zero allegiance to either side. Additionally, he’s a very laid back guy, and I think getting roughed up a couple of times by some tough Southy guys perhaps made him a bit disdainful of that hardcore Irish loyalty prevalent in that corner of the country. Our most-prized family recipe were for vanilla sugar cookies with buttercream icing, which my mom would whip up and dye green for St. Patrick’s Day, and that was pretty much it.

If they weren’t Jewish, my friends were twentieth-century transplants to America, their “other” culture still close enough to permeate the smells, style, or language of their households. Gnocchi recipes cradled through three generations of close-knit Italian-American New York enclaves. Donna seemingly knowing every owner of every single Korean deli, nail salon, or laundromat in a 20-mile radius. Clint being able to charm the English-speaking customers at our restaurant job while joking around with the immigrant cooks and cleaners who made the whole establishment possible, people I did not yet have the language skills to communicate with. The part of my friends that necessitated the hyphen seemed to connect them to other people or parts of the world that I felt I had no natural “in” with.

When I say I’m American, no questions asked. That response, paired with my looks, my name, and my background are good enough for most folk. I never get that “But what are you?” that my first-generation friends receive, based on their names or on their outsides a simple “American” is not satisfying. Funny that because of my name and my genes I can on the surface fit in so easily in this country, I look like I’m part of the club. But nothing on the surface is ever as it seems, and I think from my friends with hyphens and halfs, I coveted that sense of immediate connection and understanding on that stems from shared experiences, a common history, and being on the outside, and not just feeling like it.

So you know what I did? I studied linguistics, learned some languages, and I started traveling, started talking with people, hand motioning, smiling, doing whatever I could to cross the barrier and connect. I’m grateful for the community of communities I grew up with/around/an honorary party of, they exposed me to differences that I never truly needed to hop on a plane to experience. And as I’ve grown older and learned about my “boring” American family – where they came from, who they were, the places they moved, the businesses they started, the lives they led – I no longer wish for something more. My family history is deep and rolling and part of the fabric of this maniacal society that is America, still finding our footing and figuring out who we are, what we’re made of, and where we’re going.

3. Did you grow up feeling more Canadian/American or more X?

As I said, I grew up feeling just American. And goy. And maybe a little vanilla.

4. Does Canada/America feel like a place where you can be proud of your X identity?

Am I proud to be American, no hyphen? Yes and no. I’m a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant – I’m a descendant of people who slaughtered Native Americans and took over their lands. I’m a descendant of people who held slaves and perpetuated centuries of abuse, marginalization, disenfranchisement, and systemic racism. Maybe through my actions or non-actions I’ve even done the same. Our history is that of a violent, racist, sexist, prejudice sweatshop and my family can be traced through its almost entire end to end.

But at the same time, I love America, or my little idea of what America is after having lived only in the liberal bastions of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. I love the melting pots that these cities are, the foods and the fashions and the architecture, the surface-level feels of cities touched by the world over. I love the hustle, the movers and shakers, the risk takers, the fluidity and ease of new words and ideas that spring up into our language that we move with and incorporate rapidly into spoken word and in execution. That you can be born in a small town in Korea, work hard alongside your parents to make it through life and school in another country, and become that pharmacist you dreamed of in 7th grade when your teacher asked you what you wanted to be and your English was still shaky. While many Americans are proud of where their families came from, this is a place where you can build yourself on top of their legacy or despite their legacy. Is it a surprise that I write this from San Francisco, from Silicon Valley, where people go out on a limb every day to stumble across gold or die a ferocious death like the Donner party? Nothing’s more American than at least saying you went for it, and that is something I dearly value.

5. Is your member of Congress or Parliament also X? Is he or she in touch with the X community?

6. For Canadian readers: What are the traits that make someone truly Canadian? For American readers: What are the traits that make someone truly American?

Trial and error. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t just stand there, do something! Determination. Perseverance. Grit. Going with the flow, but also going against the grain. Idk, all of it, being American is about wanting it all, just going for it, working so hard you have no sense of reality, not wanting to do anything but knowing the government isn’t going to take care of you because you’re on your own in this town. If you can’t make it here, well, you could probably make it in Sweden or Canada or somewhere like that. Breaking barriers, climbing the ladder, not being your father’s daughter or the next in line, but whatever it is you decide to make yourself. Thinking you know how it all works … and then it’s all turned up on its head and we’ve got a nativist, robber baron for a president after we overcame so much with the one before. Fighting for change and resisting change all at once.

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in America., Culture, Just for Fun, Musings, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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