Saturday, May 19, 2012

An All-American Story

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a man born in Wales.  He came to the United States and he and his wife- who may or may not have been of Dutch extraction- had a son.  That son grew up and married a woman of English, Irish and- perhaps- Virginia Creek ancestry.  This woman's ancestors had been in North America since the early 17th century.  They had a daughter who later married a man whose parents had left what became the Soviet Union a few years before he was born.  They, like many other Ashkenazi Jews, left Europe as it was going through one of its many spasms of anti-Semitism.  That couple had a daughter and when she grew up she married a man who had come to the United States from Korea to study.

This is of course my story, and it is as American as apple pie.

Possibly, my Korean father is the most boring person on this tree.  After all, he is only Korean- maybe.  You see, my uncle, the oldest son of the oldest son ad infinitum, told me that the family legend is that the progenitor of our family line was actually a stranded Chinese diplomat who, for various reasons, wasn't allowed to return home and so settled and started a family in Korea.  This story goes back 1000 years, and my uncle warned me that while it's a well-known story in the family, I shouldn't put too much credence in it because there is no way to prove it.  You see, while this would be a semi-glorious story for my family, some family stories are used to screw you, and there were many people in Korea's history that were screwed by them, particularly the slave class.  Several times those people rebelled and one of their acts was to burn all of the family records that had been used to justify keeping them in bondage.

I regret not being able to get that documentation, but mostly, I want to high-five those rebellious slaves.  No one should be held down because of what they inherited.

But back to my story: that couple, my parents, had four daughters, three of whom have married and had children of our own.  As you can see from what I've recounted, most of my ancestors haven't married someone exactly like them, if only because finding someone exactly like us has gotten progressively more complicated.  Thus our husbands are not like us.  Of my parent's eight grandchildren, five look, basically, as if they could be my father's descendants.  However, three of them do not, at least not to most observers.  One of my sons looks a lot like my Ashkenazi father-in-law, one of my nieces looks a lot like her African-American father and one of my other nieces looks a lot like her Irish-American father- to the point that she has light reddish hair and blue eyes.  Not those weird blurry grey eyes that haven't "found" their color yet, but blue.

Did I mention that all of my sisters have dark hair and dark eyes?  Did I mention that my mother and father do as well?  Some people scratch their heads over the coloring, thinking about the big B/little b things we learned in basic genetics.  The best explanation is that my Ashkenazi great-grandmother had reddish hair and green eyes, and those little b's have been coursing through our genes without expression until they landed on my niece.

But that fair great-grandmother could be a lie.  I mean, all I have is my mother's word for it, and we all know how stupid it is to trust our parents about their families.  Yeah, there is also one picture, but that's black and white. And really, what good is a picture or any other document if it isn't officially verified?  Right?

No, of course not.  That's stupid.

The more I think about the Elizabeth Warren story, the more upset I get.  People just cannot believe that she could be of Cherokee extraction because she presents as white.  I think of my own son, whom most people would assume is white (or, at least, not Korean).  When he is older and I am no longer around, are they seriously going to give him a hard time when he tells them that his grandfather was a Korean national?  Are they going to doubt that I was his mother?  And what about my other son, his twin who happens to look like a miniature version of my father?  When my husband is no longer around, are people going to scoff when he tells them that his great-grandmother was born in the Soviet Union as a Jew?  Will they deny that my husband was his father?

I have never been scoffed at when I tell people that I'm part Native American.  Why?  I can only presume it's because I look the part.  So did my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother.  But what the Hell does that mean?  Are there no dark haired, dark eyed English and Irish people with high, wide cheekbones?

Conversely, my claim that I'm Ashkenazi and from the British Isles has been met with disdain so many times that I just steel myself automatically when the subject comes up.  Only once did I tell someone that I was Welsh and I didn't get a raised eyebrow.  Well, I've got good reason to believe that I'm Welsh, English and Irish.  The names Lloyd, Simmons, Tucker, Peyton and Lawrence appear in my family tree.  (Going even further back, I also see names like Mainwaring and... let's leave it at that.  Let's just say I'm not proud of everyone who shows up.)

If most people looked at me, they'd think that I had only recently gotten here, so to speak.  If you looked at my husband who is for most purposes considered white, you'd think his people had been here longer.  But that's not the case.  While my family has been here for hundreds of years- you know, if I can actually believe my family- both sides of his family have been here for less than 150 years.

That's okay- I'm here to show him how it's done.

Don't believe your own prejudices.  Question your assumptions.  Better yet, don't assume but have an open mind and be prepared to learn something.  I guarantee you, the truth will be much more interesting.

Deb in the City

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