Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Team I Play for

Sometimes I have this strange fantasy, a daydream really.

I'm at a massive reunion of all four sides of my family. My parents and two brothers are there, as are my extended relations, but also many, many more people whom I've never met before. I'm standing in the middle of the four groups, who are picking the teams for the big family volleyball game. They are all shouting, asking me to join them. And the strange thing is, they're divided into the strains of my ancestry: the Irish, the Germans, the Poles and the Russians.

"You've got our last name; it's a done deal," shout the Irish, smugly nodding.

"You were raised Polish; don't turn your back on us," yell the Poles in their red shirts with the white falcons.

"You do everything at the exact same time every day without fail; you're a Teutonic clock," exhort the Germans, pointing at their watches.

"Don't listen to those bastards," scream the Russians. "You're passionate, and you love to drink and dance like us. Get over here!"

What begins as an amusing flight of fancy to occasionally pass the time in some boring place ends with me, in my daydream, curled up in a fetal position on the lawn. In real life I just furrow my brow and frown one side of my mouth. People on the bus probably wonder what the hell I'm fretting over.

I grew up in the Rust Belt, particularly in Chicagoland for long periods. I would describe my background as "white-legacy-working-class-Northern-Midwestern-ethnic-conscious."

When I was a kid, all my older relatives lived in the city, and they still carried with them some of the Old Ways handed down from their parents, most of whom had immigrated to this country in the early 20th century like so many other millions.

By the time I showed up in 1976, these customs mostly had to do with food and stuff around the holidays. All the older relatives proudly considered themselves Americans, but underneath this they would spar — sometimes playfully, sometimes not — along ethnic lines when they wished to differentiate from one another.

They gave this tendency to my parents. And in my house at times it was a battle, not always in jest, of Team West (my dad) vs. Team East (my mom). My dad would jibe at my mom's decorating and "Polock" laugh, and she would criticize him for being a cold, rigid "German" when he refused to touch the food on his plate with anything but a fork.

It got a little weird. Maybe your family was like this, too. We weren't WASPs. We weren't Jews. We were Catholic middle class people just trying to get by. Ethnicity was a valve that helped my parents relieve marital pressure. Sometimes it was hurtful, but sometimes it was really funny. And they did compromise. My dad would (ruefully) eat Polish sausage and pierogies, and my mom would play the Bing Crosby album of Irish songs on St. Patrick's Day and sing along to "The Bells of St. Mary's."

It might seem hard, especially if you're not white, to understand why different kinds of white people would try to separate so vehemently, considering their home countries are probably only a three-hour drive apart — maybe a longer boat ride to Ireland. Aren't we all part of the Vanilla Rainbow?

For whatever reason, this kind of thinking seemed more prevalent in Chicago. As kid, I used to like looking at a color-coded map of the city that showed the old ethnic neighborhoods, and I'd wonder how and why they divided themselves up so neatly, the Germans in red on the North Side, the Lithuanians in orange on the South Side, etc.

I came to understand this mentality a little more from living in the Ukrainian Village for a few years. The immigrant community there was very insular and did not care for people like me, even though I was as white as the lead tenor of the Mt. Greenwood Irish-American men's chorus. I had been subdivided, and the little old ladies in their babushkas on Leavitt would turn their faces away from me much like they probably did to S.S. men way back when. Gee whiz, was it something I said?

Society is based on cowardice, Freud posited in "Civilization and Its Discontents." We are all weak and huddle together for protection, not wishing to be alone, powerless and ostracized outside in the cold. That's how laws have been able to work for thousands of years. Rare is the person who can resist this tendency to group up. I do it. You do it. We all want to feel part of a select membership. And with that comes the satisfaction of refusing those not like us.

But frankly, I'm not sure what my "group" is anymore. Or I'd rather not admit what I, in fact, know it to be. I'm a fourth-generation white, middle class, college-educated American in my 30s. I see "my people" every day. They're the ones looking at their iPhones the entire ride on the bus, a New Yorker on the lap, little earbuds in place. They probably grew up in the suburbs like me, hung out at the mall, went to the homecoming game, went to University X, got a job and moved to this huge city.

Maybe, if they were hipper, they were at some point part of an arts subculture that attempted to stand out from the overculture our square brethren embraced. Those youthful days — our one white chance at wild, stylish differentiation — are generally done for most of us and now we just ride the bus to the office.

When I left home at 18, I hid the ethnic trip I grew up with. Out of embarrassment and also because I began to meet people from other parts of the country who viewed the white origin experience differently (as well as whites from other countries). I generally enjoyed getting a fresh perspective, one that helped me forget the outdated sniping I grew up with.

But there was some part that was unsettled by how people could, for example, consider themselves "Southern" and not "Irish." It was perfectly normal to do that where they grew up, and "Southern White" is very much its own culture that is supra-ethnic. But it still rankled, and I would feel ashamed in a parochial, backward way.

I eventually ended up marrying a woman who, under her hipster trappings, had been raised in the very same Chicago Catholic ethnic manner. And I think a part of me secretly liked that. When I went to that first family party, the old trip reawakened. I looked around: the people numerous and loud, the red sauce and sausage boiling in a crockpot. These were Italians. My parents had told me about them when I was little, like they were mythical beasts that lived on some mountaintop. In person I found them fascinating and felt a little like a spy. Italians. Wow.

How could any intelligent, educated person think this in 21st century America? Well I did and I won't apologize. It's just the way I grew up. But I would never, ever accuse Erika of doing something simply because of the stripe she embodies. I can at least say that that hasn't endured, and I certainly won't pass it on to my kids.

But I do feel sad for us, these white college-oids on the bus. Long gone are the ethnic songs and dances and theater of our immigrant ancestors. Maybe there's some special dish that comes out at Christmas, but that's about it. I walk the streets of Chicago and see how my fellow Americans of minority backgrounds celebrate their ethnicities. They feel they're still part of an exclusive group, and it's a lifelong thing, like the color of your skin. The music scene could never do that because it's only really about being young. You grow older and what's left? A pretty good iTunes collection?

These days I sometimes indulge in another daytime fantasy. When I do certain tasks or activities, I try to envision an ancestor from one of my four sides doing something similar: carrying wood (garbage bags) through the snow, soaking in a mountain spring (sitting in a hot tub), dancing at a country wedding (ditto, except in Oakbrook). All like a Breughel painting.

I guess I want to feel part of something more solid and eternal than consumer choices. A lifetime group. All I seem to have right now is this daydream. I know it's a fictional construct but enjoy it anyway. I really think it's kind of healthy, at least for me as a white guy.

And I really do think I would've made a good peasant.  


Carol Wilson said...

Very interesting post. I'll be interested to see how your kids view their ethnicity and how you will view theirs, in the context of other kids. I grew up in a very white-bread suburb, in a family that had no ethnicity beyond "American" and only discovered this "ethnic group" thing when I moved to Chicago. Then I raised my kids in a suburb where there were 63 language groups spoken in their elementary school district, and they felt disadvantaged that, on the many international nights, our contributions to the potluck weren't as fun, as exotic or as tasty as their Filipino, Jewish or Indian friends. I found myself longing for some ethnic identity beyond "west Kentucky hillbilly." But if you find your generation of white folks scary, don't look too long at mine. Many of us are so frightened by the idea that we are losing homogeneity that instead we sacrifice our humanity.

Phil Wielgus said...

I NEED to wear a "Part of the Vanilla Rainbow" shirt.