02 February 2014

The Melting Pot of Identity

I have always thought of myself as American because of, and not despite, the immigrant status of my paternal grandparents. It wasn’t until I took an interpersonal communication class at Erie Community College that I realized that this was not the norm. Before being issued a survey about myself, I had never thought of my family as atypical of the standard American Family. Most of the people associated with my father’s family had accents or only spoke Polish; this always seemed normal to me. The amount of immigrant’s that I had contact with growing up led me to believe that most people’s grandparents were born outside of the United States.

While filling out the survey, we were asked to check a box if we were second generation Americans. This is not a term I had ever heard, let alone associated with my identity before, but it definitely applied to me. My father was the second Pisarski born in America (Although, he had a green card, so that might make me a first generation American. Not sure). Only one other classmate, out of roughly thirty, also checked that box. The rest were all like the maternal side of my family, being generations removed from any immigration to this country.

To me, the melting pot metaphor about America had always been true and part of my everyday life. America was a place where people from all over the world came together to start over. I am an American whose ethnicity is Polish, German, and Irish. Being American has always been my nationality, even though I consider myself to be ethnically Polish, German and Irish. Most people I have met do the same, introducing their ethnicities in a variety of ways regardless of how long their families have been in the country.

Identity, for anyone, is a tricky subject, especially since it is such a fluid concept. Our personal identities are constantly shifting and changing as we have experiences and reflect upon our past and present situations. Add to these complications that we don different identities around different people and it becomes impossible to nail down. Even my name differs depending on which group of people I am with. My college friends all know me as Matt, my High School and work friends all know me as Pisa.

To discuss identity, I suppose the best thing to do is break it down. A lot of a person’s identity comes from their interests. Looking at identity through this lens, I would have to say that my identity is my love of folk music, Wes Anderson movies, reading ‘good’ books, and so much more. To my overall life goal, my love of literature, reading, and writing would probably be the most important. It is because of this love that I am an English graduate student at Fredonia. I have no choice but to think of being a graduate student as a huge part of my identity, because during the semester there is little time for much else besides school (when you’re doing Grad school right, that is).

On top of that, literature affects my future identity as well. If everything goes the way I hope it will, I will be an English Professor (maybe even by the end of the decade. Fingers crossed). If I do become a professor, it will be as important to me as being a student is now. All of this stems from the fact that my father instilled a joy and appreciation of reading in me from a young age. I would refrain from saying that my identity is inextricably tied with reading and literature or even my desired career.

Music is just as important to me as literature. I don’t think that once a person has heard music that a life without it could ever be worth living. I am more scared of going deaf than blind because of this fact. You can still read books when you’re blind, but you can never hear music again if you go death. I can’t imagine what Beethoven went through. Despite this, I am not a musician, nor will I ever be based on the talent (or lack thereof) that I have exhibited on instruments.

Outside of interests, past experiences are also instrumental in forging a person’s identity. As the pool of past experiences grows until death, so does the shaping of an identity. During my formative teenage years, I had to deal with the death of my father. My dad died June 22nd, 2002, shortly after my sixteenth birthday. He went to work like usual, but had a heart attack while he was there.  His death was one of several that devastated my family. At the end of what was about a five year span, my cousin, father, grandma, uncle, and grandfather had all passed away. 

My relationship with my father, while not perfect, was, and is, still extremely important to me. He was my best friend and despite the fact we did not always see eye to eye on things, I hold the lessons he imparted on me with a special weight. After his death they became even more important to me because I feel I have to carry on his legacy and so that he doesn’t regret bringing me into this world. He taught me that generosity, hard work, open-mindedness, honesty, and loyalty are the characteristics of a decent human being. While I try to incorporate all these things into my being, it doesn’t always work out the way that I want it to. I often find myself wondering if I strive to be a good person because I actually want to be a good person, because of the lessons that he taught me or due to his death. I still cannot point to one of those things and say ‘that’s why I try’, maybe its all three. I’m not that great of a person anyway, so I suppose its not that important. Besides these issues, his death shaped me in other ways as well. 

Before his death, I hated cigarettes and tried to get him to quit everyday. When it turned out that they attributed to his death ( they cause atherosclerosis) I decided to start smoking to figure out why it was so hard for him to quit. After a little over six years I managed to quit smoking for the first time. Cigarettes had become part of who I was by that point (yet another fun part of identity: substances we indulge in). The first time I quit smoking, I lasted three years without smoking. Even throughout the last year of non-smoking, I still had dreams about smoking cigarettes. Eventually, I decided I didn’t really have a reason not to smoke cigarettes and started again. I quit again after another two or so years smoking. This time is worse than last time, but its lasted for about six months. I feel like I will forever be, technically, a smoker. When I smell burning tobacco I cannot help but wish I was the one smoking it. Were it not for my father’s death I probably would never have picked up a cigarette. Trying to live up to my idea of his expectations and coming to terms with his death have played a huge role in shaping me.

The third and possibly most crucial factor in my own identity is probably the fact that, as I said, my grandparents were immigrants. Like I stated previously, this has always made me feel more American. My grandparents move here from Poland have always made the melting pot that much more real to me. I’m positive that if they had gone to Australia like they wanted, I would be a much different person right now. Growing up hearing Polish spoken (even though I don’t understand it) was important to me. Hearing it spoken now still calls to mind childhood memories, even though for all I know the speaker is insulting me (maybe that was part of my childhood too; who knows?). Holiday’s with a mix of Polish, American, and German traditions were something I got to experience.

My mother’s parents came from families that had been established in America in the later half of the 19th century. The Ehmke family was rather successful in the small town they had settled in, my Great Grandfather owned his own lumber yard and constructed several of the buildings and houses in town. The Kissinger’s lived in Buffalo after the death of my other great-grandfather ( which was around the time my Grandma was two). Luckily, a blind date brought their two families together before my grandpa left to fight in World War II. My grandpa was always listening to records, cassettes, or CDs and its probably from him that I get my love of music. His last words to me, the day before he died, were “keep the family together”. Maybe he knew I was the designated mediator in fights between my brothers and mother (any formulation of the three of them fighting probably happened). 

Anyways, the eventual arrival of my grandparents in America, coupled with the established family of my other set of grandparents,  has always made me feel more connected to the American tradition than those whose entire families have been here for hundreds of years. I got to experience both sides of the tradition. This ‘multicultural’ upbringing allowed me to experience things that many children are not exposed to. Learning about immigration and how the country was founded by immigrants coupled with stories of bilingual homes made me feel connected to the foundation of America. My grandparents were more like the pilgrims than the grandparents of children whose families were colonists in my mind. I was an American, but I was also Polish, German, and Irish. For a long time I felt that this was my concrete identity.

The importance I had placed on ethnicity was challenged when I met a guy from Ireland. When I mentioned I was Polish, he wanted to know when I moved to America. After explaining I had been born here but my grandparents moved here in ‘52, he told me I wasn’t Polish, I was American. Before this point I thought I was, basically,  just as Polish as I was American. The irony of this, of course, is that it is only in America where we put this emphasis on ethnicity making it part of our ‘American Identity’. 

Based on this, my idea that having immigrant grandparents or parents is a very American thing has been reinforced. The importance that we, as a culture, place upon ethnicity and where ancestors came from shows that our population is one based almost entirely on immigration. Barring Native Americans, even the earliest ‘American’ families will be able to tell you what ethnicity they are and, most likely, the town or city their ancestors came from. Whether we track this for bragging rights of who has been here longer, or because we hold pride in our ancestor’s homeland, the fact that we keep track is enough to show the importance that we place upon where and when our families came here.

This gives us an interesting perspective about our collective idea of American identity. The United States has always, since being established as the United States, had an immigrant population. The pot is real, but people inside that pot don’t want to fully melt. Rather than becoming one, we choose to stay somewhat fragmented by hanging onto these connections to our heritage from outside the U.S. This is why, when asked about ourselves, we divulge the fact that one hundred and fifty years ago, our Lithuanian ancestor settled in Pennsylvania. Its why Dyngus day is a huge holiday in Buffalo and St. Patrick’s day parades are all over the place as a celebration of Irish Heritage in a country other than Ireland. 

The existence of these cultures coming together in America shapes the identity of Americans. Rather than tearing us apart and making us into factions as these issues once did, we celebrate that we have the best of everything. We have the best Irish whiskey, the best German food, awesome Thai restaurants and easy access to an Americanized chinese food. People who are not Irish get just as drunk as those who ‘are’ Irish. People who aren’t Polish are still welcome to grab squirt guns and pussy willows. These are not divisive traditions; they have become American celebrations that welcome anyone who wants to have fun and celebrate that all these cultures are housed under the umbrella of ‘American’. 

Part of being American is the fact that you are more than just your nationality; you have a unique heritage. There is also a solid chance that you traditions from some other ethnicity that your family is not part of, because it looked good to somebody observing it. Just as American is a smattering of people from all over the globe, traditions that make us American are a hodge podge of things that each of these people brought to America. Rather than keeping these traditions they became part of a collective culture, to be shared by everyone.

I think there are several ways through which we can think about both personal and American identity. The most interesting belief I have about American identity is there is not a single, uniform identity that applies to Americans. We all have varied backgrounds and views. Part of being American, to me, is that we are not forced to fit into a certain ideology or strict definition of what it means to be American. The only real requirement is being a citizen. It is not even necessary to live in America to be considered American.

To respond to the question on the assignment sheet of ‘Who ought “we” to be?’, I think we do not really have to be any specific thing to be within the realm of the American Identity. Variety seems to be the American Tradition. Our political system even demonstrates the varied nature of American culture. We have the two major parties, but we also have several smaller parties. There was even a ‘The Rent is Too Damn High” party.  

I feel like this is a good representation for my view of American Identities. Being American means different things to different people, which leads to the formation of all sorts of different identities and views on what it is to be American (even though they may not be at odds with each other like in the political system). There are the major ways in which we think about this, which is mostly Independence, Freedom and our forefathers who wrote the declaration. It has to do with history and tradition. The smaller parties, that might incorporate the larger ones, represent little things that we as Americans think in terms of what it means to be part of this country.

I think one commonality that unites views of American Identity throughout American History is the view of America as a force of good in the world.  From the Revolutionary War to World War II, we have stood up for principles that, at least the government, determine to be American Principles. These usually include fighting oppression, freedom, rights, etc.  Freedom and the rights we have as spelled out in the constitution seem to be common things that people in America value. Most of the wars we have fought have been said to be about these things. Although, throughout our history we have often limited the rights of groups of people (and still do today), America often strives to do better. While the government gets involved in wars that we are told are ‘for the greater good’ the citizens of America often protest when we disagree with their formulation of the ‘greater good’. While citizens do not always agree on these issues, they stand up for what they believe in nonetheless. Trying to do what is right is, at least in American Propaganda, what we have always strived to do. This seems to find its way into the ideological structure of most Americans.

Examples of this in history are the Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights movement, the current activism for LGBT rights and gay marriage and the list goes on. These are things that people are willing to stand up and fight for. Fighting injustice is something that I think most American’s would rank among the top ‘American Values’ as evidenced by things like the commemoration of Dr. King’s ‘I have a Dream Speech’. Of course, there are still huge strides that have to be taken; progress has been made since the speech was given. Our celebration of that progress is evidence that we value equality and justice in America.

Part of my identity is the music I listen to, the books I read, and my hopes and dreams; the things that I'm interested in and interested in doing. Another part is the way that my family taught me that I should act; the beliefs and values that they instilled in me. The third is my identity and what I think it is to be American. Being American does not pigeonhole us into one particular way of being. On the contrary, we are able to adopt traditions and beliefs that might otherwise be unavailable to us if we lived elsewhere. We can think and believe what we wish. The open ended nature of the question of American identity allows everyone to formulate their own answer. I'm a fan of folk music, a book lover, and an American.

1 comment:

Joseph Best said...

I concur with you. Citizenship is chosen, molded and instituted by experience, uprightness and contribution to society. It's not something that we are born with. This is important to understand as thousands of American immigrants are treated as if they should not be. They should be provided with as much protection as possible, so that they can not only fully realize their citizenship, but maybe even enrich everyone else's.

Joseph Best @ Best & Associates