Mirrored from brigidkeely.com/wordpress.
Nesko gets asked that a lot.
“But where are you FROM,” people ask, when looking at his ID or debit card (so usually when he’s trying to buy something).
“Evanston,” he answers, which is true!
“Oh, no!” they persist. “I mean, originally.”
“Ahhh!” he answers, like everything is coming clear. “Well, I was born in Chicago.”
Obviously, he’s had lots of opportunities to work out a pat, humorous answer to nosy people. Because, you know, there are certain names that are “American” and certain names that are foreign.
I used to have an “American” name. Sullivan! It’s actually a really awesome name to have when you live in Chicago, because Chicago prides itself on being all “Irish-American” and shit (Irish people! Now they are considered White and not scum!) and has lots of “Irish-American” politicians and chiefs of police etc. I used to bust out my ID or debit card or whatever and people would nod knowingly at my name. It was a correct and proper name. I fit in. Nobody ever suggested I change my name to be more “American,” as Texas state rep Betty Brown (R) suggested that every Asian in the USA do, you know, to FIT IN. And people didn’t really grill me on my name and heritage! It was awesome!
Then I got married to a dude with a silent “J” in his name, changed my name to match his because I am a baaaad feminist who buckles under the Patriarchy’s massive weight, and things changed.
FOR INSTANCE! I once had a temp job at a state agency, and had to call IT to get my email account working. Man, where they glad I could speak English! Because obviously with a name like mine I would be an old fat Russian lady with a hairy chin and a thick accent or maybe poor English skills! Well… I was 30 at the time (almost old), fat, have a hairy chin, and am obviously from the Midwest. I drop my G’s a lot lately. That’s kind of like having an accent! I guess! They were DREADING speaking to me, based SOLELY on my last name, and actually told me (in a relieved voice) all that they had assumed. Stay classy, state departments!
And then yesterday I was headed in to another temp job (more counting passengers on trains, which gave me the ideas for 2 different Secret Chicago pieces… or 1 piece and a longer short story, not sure which) when I stopped into a convenience store in Union Station to get some water as I was going to spend 8 hours locked in a moving metal box in Chicago Summer Heat (90F*+, tons of humidity; I actually started getting sick to my stomach from the heat at one point). I grabbed a magazine and a bottle of water and went to check out. There were two women behind registers. One was, I think, Vietnamese and she had a little accent but nothing unusual for the USA! Many people who live in this country, who work in this country, who study in this country, have accents! For instance: every single person who lives in Maine has an accent! Anyway, the white woman behind the counter said she’d take me (I assumed the other woman didn’t have an active cash register or was in training or something, nothing out of the ordinary). The white woman then started, every time the other woman said something, interrupting her to say “chin chin chonnnnng ching chon chon ching.”
I was… baffled.
If I’d had my wits about me, I would have abandoned water and magazine and gone someplace else. But no! I did not!
She scanned my things and I gave her my debit card. It did not go through! This always twists me into a moebius strip of uncertainty and anxiety. She asked for my card and ran it through again, and I was so upset that I didn’t hear her question at first. She repeated it.
“THAT’s an interesting last name!”
“Where are you from?”
“Well, I mean, I’m American. My family’s all been over here forever, so…”
“No, I mean, Originally!”
“Jesus. My ancestors have all been here for over 200 years, ok? I really don’t feel any connection to my European antecedents.”
“I’m just askin’, hon! But what ethnicity is this name?”
“My husband and his family are from Montenegro.”
“The former Yugoslavia.”
“Wow! Your husband and his family, huh. So what was your maiden name?”
I should have just grabbed my stuff and walked off, but I was flustered and she hadn’t handed me back my card yet! I was trapped! She also, I kid you not, GOT OUT A SHEET OF PAPER AND A PEN.
“OH! So you’re IRISH.”
“Well, I mean, no. I’m American. I identify as American.” (I want to note that lots of people identify as Irish-American or Polish-American or Guatemalan-American or whatever and that’s great! That’s part of being a citizen (or resident) of the USA and it’s totally awesome! I’m not trying to present myself as being, like, the Ideal American Citizen because I am All American, I just think it’s ridiculous to lay claim to European Ancestry that has very little impact on my personal life other than, like, going to St. Patrick’s Day parades. But if you feel a strong connection to another country, that is totally entirely 100% awesome.)
She started getting offended at this, called me “hon” again, said she was JUST ASKING, and launched into some convoluted tale about how both her parents are immigrants (Polish, and German). Mine… are not. My grandparents… are not. My most recent immigrant ancestors, as far as I know, came over during the Famine. You know. During the 1850s. That… is not recent. I mean, in the grand scheme of history it’s an eyeblink away, but you know. (Also: they might have come over earlier than then, a lot of my family history has been romanticized in the telling. FOR INSTANCE: there is no actual royalty in my bloodline! ALSO: there is actually a lot of inbreeding! Surprisingly!)
She started pushing, like aggressively, to find out what I “am,” what I “identify” as. Like it’s impossible to not cling to the Immigrant experience. I snapped at her that I had an Irish last name, but genetically, I was more Belgian than anything else– which is true. I have very mixed European ancestry (to a degree) (I mean, Scottish/Irish/Welsh/English is more cultural differences than, like, genetic and then there’s some French and several sources of Belgian and a dollop of German and probably there is some Native American and African blood in me that nobody really talks about at all, and there’s some other stuff I think I’m forgetting, also a lot of my ancestors spent a hundred years or so in Canada before heading south to Wisconsin) and she started rabbiting on about how she knows someone from Belgium and it’s so beautiful and blah blah blah and she called me hon again and I realized I had my debit card and had signed the slip and I left while she was still talking.
I don’t really know anything about Belgium (they make beer? Belgians tend to be blond? They have a mild climate?) other than what I’ve seen on, say, “Rick Steve’s Europe.” In fact, my dad thought we were mostly Dutch until he talked to a cousin who said that no, although there’s a “van” in my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, it’s actually a Belgian name, and he gave some more genealogical info. I really have no interest in Belgium, or at least no more than I have in other countries that sound like vaguely cool places to visit if I can ever go on a Grand Tour Of Europe. Sorry, Belgium, it’s not personal.
I have to go pretty far back to be able to point to an ancestor and say that that ancestor is 100% anything; that that ancestor is 100% Belgian or Irish or German. (And even then, all my gallo-celtic ancestors were born from a series of viking raids and rapes that turned them from a short, dark people to a tall, fair people who fear the sun.) And I like that. As far as I can tell, my ancestors came over here against their will or out of dire necessity for the most part. They were convicts and indentured servants, they were fleeing starvation and oppression. They came to a totally new country and did well for themselves. They trapped animals for fur, farmed, dug ditches, constructed rail roads, founded towns. Some of them became very rich (then lost everything in the Great Depression). Others didn’t. But they helped build this country and make it what it is today, just like my mother- and father-in-law, immigrants, are building and shaping this country. Just like every person who lives here who doesn’t have an “American” name is building and shaping this country. Just like every brown-skinned resident of Arizona is building and shaping this country.
I spent 29 years awash in the privilege of having people assume that I was a citizen of the USA– a “real” citizen; that I belonged here. That I was an integral part of the warp and weft of “American” culture. I didn’t have to explain myself or where I was from. It was super awesome! And now, sometimes, I do have to explain myself and am pressed to answer detailed questions about where I’m from, to prove my… I don’t know what I’m expected to prove, actually. But it’s harassing and unsettling and puts me on edge.
And for a country of immigrants, a country founded on immigration, that’s total bullshit.