Monday, May 9, 2011

"Where are you from?"

Jami and I ushered at Wednesday chapel last week.  Last week was Alumni Week at Luther Sem, when the school hosts a reunion, and welcomes the almost-graduated seniors into the alumni circle, and has a donor dinner to recognize alums and others who donate and make it possible for a lot of us to afford school (myself included).

So there were a lot of older people at chapel on Wednesday - a lot more people than usual, and a lot older than usual.

One gentleman asked me, as I welcomed him to worship and handed him a bulletin:

"Where are you from?"

And I said:  "Here?" because I didn't understand the question.

He said:  "You live here?"

I said:  "I go to school here."

I found this puzzling, but thought he was just being chatty.  But a minute later, another older gentleman asked me:

"Where are you from?"

And so I said, now prepared:  "I go to school here."

And he said:  "Where are you from originally?"

So I said:  "Saint Olaf College."  And he was an Ole too, and we chatted a bit, and so on.

I was asked by five different gentlemen, "Where are you from?"  By the fifth I decided that it was because they were older, and not expecting to see female students at the seminary, and therefore expected I was married to a seminarian or perhaps I lived in the neighborhood and liked to help hand out bulletins.

But I compared notes with Jami... who'd greeted just as many people but only been asked "Where are you from?" once.

And some other friends weighed in on the situation, and we determined that it was not my gender that puzzled the gentlemen but ...

Well, here's a picture of me and Jami.

Pretend you're an older gentleman.  Lutheran.  A pastor.

And you're white.

And Midwestern.

Now ask the girl on the right:

"Where are you from?"


When I was growing up, Mom used to tell me that we were Italian, that we were Unusual, that we Looked Different From Everyone Else.  I was raised on stories of My Italian Family Overcoming Trials - my grandfather's naturalization papers said "Italian-South" for race, his name was changed from Emiddio to Walter when enrolled at school because no one could spell his Italian name in English, etc.  I think this came out of Mom's own experience - being a dark-haired, very Italian-looking, Eastern-accent-having woman working in higher education in the Midwest in the 1970s and 80s.  There were probably a lot of older, male, Lutheran, white, Midwestern people saying:  "Where are you from?"

But I went to an elementary school that had a visible Hmong population, and then middle and high schools with African-American and Latino/a-American and Korean-American and Thai-American and Everything Else-American students.  My best friend Mandy and I got mistaken for sisters, and she was Irish.  I didn't experience what my mom did - I was just another White Girl.  I got the invisible knapsack full of privilege.  I couldn't borrow anyone's makeup because I had olive skin, and I tanned more quickly than all of my friends - that was it.

I remember sensing that dichotomy between what my mom said and what I experienced.  I remember being told I was Italian, Descendant of Mistreated Immigrants, Dark-haired Mediterranean Amongst Blondes - but by my peers, I was always treated like I was White.

The same thing happened at college.  I was aware of being Italian only because I was aware of being not Norwegian - of being unfamiliar with lutefisk and snowflake sweaters and the tune to "Jeg er so glad".  But I didn't feel like I Looked Different.

Yet "grown-ups" - Boomers and Gen Xers - want to know:

"Where are you from?"

I know that my same-generation friends notice that I have darker hair and skin than them, but only because they say "Oh, okay" when I say I'm half-Italian.  They notice that I'm darker, but they don't say that I Look Different, because to them, I really don't.

But older generations want to know:

"Where are you from?"

And my answer is:

I'm from Here.

I'm Minnesotan.  I'm upper middle class.  White.  Privileged.  Raised in a suburb. I speak with a Midwestern Standard dialect.  I eat lefse at Christmas and I own a Norwegian sweater.  I went to Saint Olaf, college in middle of a cornfield.  And I'm Lutheran.

I am about as White as a dark-haired dark-eyed girl can get.

I'm from Here.

1 comment:

  1. My experience of being Italian in the Lutheran church is somewhat different because I inherited almost every recessive gene my Dutch and German ancestors had to offer, so I am always read as white. And yet, my experience is not entirely different, as the questions and the odd looks begin when people find out my last name.

    I had professors at both Olaf and Luther literally do double-takes when the pasty white red-headed girl raised her hand as they called out "Ciccone" on the first day of class. Many old white male colleagues assume I converted from Catholicism since ordination of women is not really an option there, and are always shocked to discover I've been Lutheran from the cradle. I served my first call in a part of the country that's usually pretty formal in addressing the pastor as Pastor [Last Name], but I was Pastor Catrina from day one. That was partially a means to intentionally deconstruct their understanding of "pastor," but it was also simply practical accommodation because even after 5 years my PA Dutch parishioners and colleagues still couldn't pronounce my last name.

    My brother got the genes to fit the name and when we're together, it's kind of like the picture of you and your friend above. When people find out we're brother and sister, we generally get one of two reactions: people whose brains classify and sort by facial structure tell us it's obvious we are siblings; people who classify and sort by coloration tell us we couldn't possibly have come from the same parents, I think they secretly suspect I'm adopted.

    But now I'm digressing. . .living in marginal space is not always fun or easy, as you rightly note, but I'm grateful for the profound thinking it provokes in you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences via this great blog.