I have spent a lot of time on my blog poking fun at generalizations about Germans. I think I may devote a couple of blogs now to weird things Americans do.The material on this one is endless from the European standpoint: ice cubes, big cars, and theatrical politics. There is one item however that I would like to explain, poke fun at and ask my readers to listen for a minute. Today I am going to explain the American phenomena of placing high importance in our ancestry. If you are a European you have undoubtedly heard an American greet you with “Oh I am Irish as well, my great, great, great grandmother immigrated to America during the potato famine.” I know you don’t have to be shy, you rolled your eyes and thought ” your about as Irish as a shamrock shake at McDonald’s.” If you’re American you might be hearing for the first time that Europeans are not so interested in your very distant ancestry. Sit down and breathe, everything will be ok, but not everyone cares about your 1/58th link to a Norwegian princess. Remember, I said breathe, I am going to try to work this out for us all.
The American POV
I am certified American so I will try to represent the entire country here for a minute (that was sarcasm). I grew up in New York. When I was growing I was keenly aware of the differences in ethnic backgrounds of my fellow Americans. In my little town, you were Polish or not Polish. Polish meant of Polish descent probably from your grandparents or great-grandparents who immigrated to America. But no one cared if your Polish ancestors came to America 100 years ago, you were by Riverhead, New York standards, Polish.
I did not have the Polish DNA but was completely enthralled with stories of my Irish and German ancestry. My grandmother told me many stories about New York City when she was growing up. We heard stories about German town, Chinatown and the best Italian restaurants. She even had a great story about how she was denied a job once because she was Irish American. She was born in America to two parents also born in America but deemed Irish American and denied a job for being Irish. My Grandfather had relatives who apparently arrived on the Mayflower. But his dad, my great grandfather was born in Germany. And I personally loved the sense of pride he had when he, who had never set foot in Germany, spoke about being German.
Do you see where I am going with this? Americans grow up taking pride in our backgrounds. I heard the stories and took interest in the fact that my beloved grandparents were of German American and Irish American descent. We often grow up dividing ourselves up not as Americans but into subdivisions of American’s. American is still relatively a new country made up of children of immigrants, who were taught about their heritage.
So why then does it drive Europeans crazy when they hear, “ I am one 58th German.” For them, we are American, they don’t know the folklore that has been passed down to us for ages. They look at you when you are saying that and think “ your about as German as the BMW that was built in Alabama.” I get it I really do, why be proud of your 14% Welsh background and you’ve have never been to Wales, must seem crazy to a Welsh person.
There is a small town in Texas known for its Czechoslovakian heritage. They throw a Czech fest every year and have bakeries with bastardized European versions of baked goods. However, try to tell one of them they are not Czech and you better be prepared to duck and cover. If you think about it for a moment, isn’t it wonderful that after 200 years of settling that area, the ancestors of the original Czech immigrants still hold their lineage dear? They still pass on traditions to their children. Can we really cast a stone at people holding on tight to a cultural identity passed down from their grandparents?
I often wonder for my children if they will have this sense of ancestry? After all they have now been in the American DNA melting pot for quite a long time. My daughter who has porcelain skin and blonde hair was reminded endlessly by her paternal grandmother that she had American Indian ancestry. Her grandmother even encouraged her to apply for school grants based on that. Thankfully, she never considered this or any hopes of a future political career would be in jeopardy. I do hope for both of them that they listened to the stories of immigration passed down from their grandparents; the good, bad and the ugly.
Recently I was on a trip to Gran Canaria and met an elderly Irish gentleman. Before I could stop myself I blurted out “ My grandmother was a Martin”. My inner voice told me “abort, abort, where are you going with this.” But my foolish mouth continued. I started muttering about my red hair and freckles and just dug myself deeper into the quagmire of my distant Irish ancestry. I just could not help myself. So I ask my European friends, to be patient when you hear American’s praise their 1/58th European background. American friends, take it easy! Not everyone wants to hear about your Great Great Aunt from Germany.