America Is More Patchwork Quilt Than Melting Pot
Who Are We?
Ask any American what his nationality is, and nine out of ten, he won’t say “American.” Instead he’ll say something like, “I’m half French and half Polish with a little German thrown in.” There are large organizations of Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Russian-Americans, Greek-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and other hyphenated Americans all across the United States dedicated to preserving the customs and language of the ancestral homeland. That homeland may be a country that was left behind six generations ago, or just yesterday. With the notable exceptions of Native-Americans who were already here, and African-Americans who were brought here as merchandise, and became fellow-citizens only after a long and bloody civil war, every American is the descendant of somebody who voluntarily came to America from somewhere else. And every American carries a piece of that ”somewhere else” inside him.
We are a patchwork people, a cultural and ethnic stew. Every big American city has a Chinatown and Little Italy along with dozens of other ethnic enclaves. Our roots are shallow, extending back only a few generations. We know little about our past. We live in the present and the future. As a nation we are very young. A proud Italian American may never have visited Italy, know not one word of Italian, but still thrill when the land of his ancestors wins the World Cup. We yearn for the continuity of place and family that is routine in Europe and Asia. That is why you find busloads of us touring England and Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and the rest of the world, trying to find a connection that was lost years ago. And when we find it, we are delighted. The stories are quite moving.
Forefathers by Dan Fogelberg
My great great Aunt Annie
Personal Stories are Moving
I have a friend who somehow got in touch with relatives in Sweden, the country from which her grandparents had emigrated a hundred years ago. These long lost cousins were as happy to find her as she was to find them through the wonders of the internet. She went to Sweden for a visit, and a big family reunion was held at which she was the guest of honor. She was overwhelmed at the warmth of the welcome given to her by people she had never met. “I am a stranger to you” she said. “No, replied her new-found Swedish cousin, “you are family. You have been away and now you are home.” Could there be a stronger testament to the ties of blood than that?
Few of us come from distinguished forbearers. Generally speaking, dukes don’t emigrate. In my own case, the original immigrant on my mother’s side was a poor Lincolnshire lad who joined the British army for “three hots and a cot” and ended up fighting in the American Revolution. Like fully a third of his compatriots, he deserted after the battle of Yorktown and went off to the American frontier to find his fortune. What he found was a hard life and an early death from consumption. I have a diary, written by one of his sons that details it all and it is one of my most treasured possessions. My father’s family came later to the American table. My Norwegian grandfather, a sailor, was shipwrecked in America in 1880. After a bout with typhoid fever in New York, he joined the American Navy and never looked back. His sons went to Annapolis and became career naval officers. His grandchildren have fanned out into the American mainstream. I have some old photos, and a family bible. That is my only connection to the land of his birth. The cord has been cut in two generations.
And then there is the other side of the coin. Because we are from every corner of the globe, everybody, everywhere, has a relative or neighbor or ancestor who immigrated here. Every remote village in the world has a resident who went to America and became a millionaire (or said he did).
I love to hear those stories too.It seems that the world feels a kind of proprietary interest in us as a People. Kenyans and Indonesians claim Barack Obama as one of their own. The Irish own John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Arnold Swartzenhager is the pride of Austria.
While nobody is claiming serial killers for their national family tree, the list of Americans whose heritage is celebrated by those in the old country is quite long. It’s not totally selfless, I suppose. Finding a rich uncle in America used to be the equivalent of winning the lottery. It sure isn’t any more. Maybe that is part of why the world feels so anti-American these days. The land of opportunity is shutting down in the wake of war and economic scandal. The lady who lifted her lamp beside the golden door is not so welcoming these days. But cheer up world, our patchwork is still intact—a little frayed and we are adding new squares here and there, but we’ll be fine.
We have hybrid vigor and we are good at re-inventing ourselves. Just give us a little time. Meanwhile, I think I’ll check that family bible. Maybe I have a rich uncle in Norway.
© 2008 Roberta Kyle