Thursday, October 29, 2009


A blogger who I've enjoyed reading thanks to a Tillerman tip, is calling for a writing project regarding identity. This guy, called something like Walter Mitty, gives an interesting account of what inspired him to ask everyone to write about identity. Then he calls for the following:

I want to hear about an aspect of your cultural identity and to counterpoint that, an aspect of the rivalry with another group that surely must, by definition, exist alongside it.

I was struck by this idea and after reading Walter's call for submissions I was puzzling it over as I drove to pick up my kids from school. In the car Teri Gross was interviewing a Pakistani man who'd moved to the US at a young age and has found himself searching for a deeper understanding of his identity, which is a mix of an American identity and a Muslim in America, as well as a struggle with who he is when he goes back to Pakistan for the occasional visit.

I think Americans are, by definition and necessity, at a constant crossroads of identity-seeking. My own story in America is only three generations old on my dad's side. My great-grandfather having sailed from Cork to San Francisco in 1886. My dad's maternal side came around the same time and ended up in the same Irish neighborhood in SF.

On my mom's side, there are similar stories, including one set of ancestors who sailed to Panama, which was a common thing to do, walked across the isthmus and sailed up to SF. However, they had their walk interrupted by civil war in Panama, which turned their 2-3 week trek, into a year-long odyssey.

Many of my Irish ancestors were escaping abject poverty, overcrowded homes, and severely limited futures.

My grandmother also traces roots to Captain John Smith, who's middle name may or may not have been Randy, as he seems to have quite a prolific family tree in the waning centuries of his North American adventures.

So, there's the background for me being dropped here in the Western US in the late 20th century. I've got a pretty solid grip on my cultural heritage, however, smoothly translating that into an identity starts to get a little squirrely when I think about the geographical aspects of who I am.

My dad joined the Air Force and I was born on Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California's Mojave Desert. Two years later, we found ourselves in Alaska for a three-year stretch. After that, I spent spots of time in the range of 2-4 years in Salt Lake City, Colorado, Texas, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Oregon.

Some years in Hawaii, a few in New York City, and one in Florida round out four-plus decades of itchy feet.

What is my American identity and how is it influenced by rivalry? I got beat up for being a Catholic in Mormon country, a Yankee in Texas, and white in Mississippi, which is plenty of rivalry; none of which I chose. I eventually learned how to stick up for myself and figured out no matter where you go, if you're not careful, you'll find the person who has a problem with you.

I'm not sure I'll ever understand the Texas perspective on what a Yankee is. I tried to explain to the guys who jumped me when I was twelve, that my family was from Ireland, by way of California. Neither place had anything to do with the Civil War. I think Yankee may just mean "doesn't sound like me," or "arrived here from a bearing generally North."

Ultimately, I feel like my identity is in many ways influenced by geography, including the landscapes of the West; the seascapes of the Gulf of Mexico; the reefs I surf in Hawaii; and my urban American living.

Cars and long-distance drives through American landscapes are a large part of my identity, which is what guys like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch are trying to tell me, I believe, with the quantity and quality of those shots in their films.

I served in the Navy and sailed around the Pacific Rim, hitting ports on the way. I went through the Moluccan Straights and into the Indian Ocean, which still inspires dreams of The Maldives.

I have three daughters and a son, who certainly influence my identity, as do my sister, three brothers, and my parents. Although, as I grow older, I find the influence of my family of origin fading and more like a memory I take out of storage occasionally, than any sort of anchor.

My children, on the other hand, reflect back to me who I want to be, my struggles to become that person, the ways I've succeeded and the ways I've come up short.

To bring it back to Mr. Mondale, I imagine a guy with a thoroughly English-sounding name, living in a small village in the UK, probably has a pretty deeply-rooted sense of his own identity from the geographical and historical perspectives, and it's curious to me, what that must be like. In what ways is it limiting and in what ways is it empowering?

I'm sure that the freedom to move and change and, in some ways choose my identity, that I'm afforded here in America is something that I may never be able to put a value on. I know it's the one thing I want to give my kids.

In other ways, I wonder what it would be like to have a home and an identity that are less ephemeral.


jomamma said...

Great post! I love hearing and reading about this sort of thing. To be able to trace your roots back and know all those stories to pass on to your kids is a great thing. It makes them go out and find out who they really are. Look at my kids... one is living up to her Pirate heritage.

Being a life long Texas (only lived outside of the state 3 years of my life) I'm embarrassed at my fellow Texans for treating you badly. We're not all like that. You nailed it with your comment, anything north of Oklahoma is a Yankee to some of them. Please visit again... we've run all those red neck bastards out years ago in the 80's when the economy dipped and everyone from Michigan came down. You just have to overlook our ego sometimes, when you live in a state as big as ours it goes to our heads.

Greg and Kris said...

I should say that I made peace with all of those places and I travel to Texas on a semi-regular basis. Of course, I travel to Austin, which is kind of like finding a vegan burrito stand in the middle of a gunshow; elements of Sarajevo, circa 1994.

We have friends who moved down there a few years ago. One of them is originally from Bryan, which is where I was living, while dad went to Texas A & M for his MBA. A woman from there heard my story and said, very graciously and unprompted, "On behalf of all Texans, I apologize for your having to put up with that nonsense." It was very touching and helped me put a close on that chapter that I thought was already finished.

I think you should be proud of how many folks there are like you, and the littlest pirate, in Tejas. :)

Emily Fabpants said...

Having grown up in a small English village, with parents from further afield, I find your 'Texas' comments amusing. My sister was bullied into bullying me at school because she was the only girl in her year who wasn't the sister or the cousin of another.

The rural villagers do love the phrase 'you're not from round here, are you?' Mondale is a 'small town boy', with some local roots, so I'd love to hear his perspective, especially as one that has lived overseas. He knows 'my' village well and can no doubt visualise the above!

jomamma said...

One thing about Native Texans, we are proud of where we're from. But now days we accept the fact that everyone wants to be from Texas... "It's like a whole other country" you know.

And we are very proud of our little pirate, she's traveling the Caribbean promoting the state. I have no doubt she'll return for good someday to live out her life on the open prairie where the blowing grass looks like the rolling waves of the sea.

JP said...

Interesting post.

One thing that I find interesting is that none of the US sitcoms that I've seen have had a single Muslim character and wonder a) why that is and b) what the impact is on US perceptions of Islam

Have I missed an example?

Greg and Kris said...

I'm not a sitcom fan, but I recall the Cosby show having some muslim characters during their run. Briefly, I'm sure.

I see the occasional muslim, as do most of the Americans who live in large urban areas. However, I think your average, small town middle American, probably doesn't see too many kaftas outside of Fox News.

Let's put the negative image on Rupert, yeah?

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