A former colleague of mine, Patricia Park, once wrote an essay called “My Least Favorite Question,” which was published in The Guardian. You can find it here. In it she described her experience of often being asked her least favorite question: “Where are you from?”
In asking this of Patricia, the questioner did not usually mean “where in the United States are you from” but “where outside of the United States are you from?” They asked her this because Patricia has Korean ancestry and so she ‘looks’ Korean. And because of this people assume she is not American, that she was not born and raised here. Hence the question.
As a nation, we are still accustomed to think that only those people who look some kind of European are “American,” when in fact people like Patricia born and raised in New York, are as American as anyone of European descent. They may even be more so, depending on where and how they grew up. Maybe they did not grow up with an “ethnic” culture the way many of us did in the North End. Maybe they grew up what we would call “very American.”
Now growing in the North End, and back in those days, many of us of Italian ancestry always spoke of ourselves very un-self-consciously as “Italians” or at least “Italian American.” In Boston at that time (and even today for some of us), your American-ness was given, assumed, so that what really mattered was your so called hyphenated identity because it made a difference if you were “Italian” or “Irish” or “Black,” “Chinese,” or “Jewish,” etc. These word did reflect different cultural styles of food, speech, mannerisms, and in some cases even dress (Of course, I’m sure many of us from the North End viewed “Chinese” Americans as more ‘foreign’ in the way Patricia has experienced being labeled as other; but how many of them were born here and so just as American as us).
I grew up thinking of myself as “Italian” – not even “Italian American” – though I knew that the kids from Italy (the “greasers”) were the real Italians. I also knew that to some people outside the North End we were all “greasers” – all Italians and for some even not quite as American as they were. Yet, I always thought of myself as American too: 100% American. So where did the Italian part fit in? I can’t say for sure: it was just there, in and within the American: a mystery. I don’t feel “proud” to be Italian American. It is just something I grew up with; it is in my bones; it is what I am. My children can never be Italian American the way I am, and that is fine for me. America is our home now and Italy really is the “old country.”
In her essay, Patricia talks about going back to her “old country” – Korea – and finding out that she really does not come from there. As she puts it: “What my experience in South Korea affirmed for me was that you can’t go (back) home again – that home was never yours to lay claim to in the first place” (I felt the same the first time I went to Italy).
Patricia really has some good points in her essay. It is worth reading and thinking about. All of us Americans, whatever our ancestry, ethnicity, race, whatever you want to call it, do need to see ourselves as American – and as American beyond the physical image of the European American. That perhaps is one of the most important points in her essay. I fit in as Italian American because of the European connection. Patricia is as American as I am and doesn’t need that European connection. I don’t either. What we need, and what we have, is the American connection. That is enough.