I’ve always hated St. Patrick’s Day. Growing up in a small, parochial, predominantly Irish town, St. Patrick’s Day and its parades and festivities, its raucous, prideful celebration of cultural heritage underscored my feelings of ethnic inferiority. To have not one drop of Irish blood running through my veins confirmed my childhood fears—that I was uncool and didn’t fit in, that I was different from everyone else, and not in a good way.
My grandparents arrived in the U.S. from Poland and Portugal and the Ukraine. As a Sixties child, I grew up subjected to Polish jokes, to the belief that Ukrainians were communists (the worst possible thing one could be). In response to what was a regular question in those days—what is your nationality—people would say, Portuguese? You’d swear I’d told them my grandfather came here from Pluto.
I learned young to say, without a trace of sarcasm, American, when asked my nationality. Of course, they probed, and as I ticked off the countries that comprise my ethnic background, I’d hang my head, feeling as if I needed to apologize for not being Irish.
Leaving the small town for college, I left behind questions of ethnicity. No one cared where my ancestors came from or how long they’ve been here in the States.Temple University, with its campuses throughout the world, is one of the most diverse institutions in the country. I became just another white girl, a fact that was obvious and needed no further investigation.
I started traveling abroad in my early twenties, and those old questions of nationality began popping up again. This was the Eighties and Americans had bad reputations abroad. We were ungracious and uncouth, loud and overbearing. We wore denim everywhere. We didn’t fit in. On the occasions when a European would take a guess, before I opened my mouth, about my country of origin—Germany? Holland?—I’d nod vigorously. Anywhere was better than admitting to the U.S.
When the second George Bush became president, traveling abroad became particularly shame producing for me. Russians, Swedes and Dutch grilled me as if I’d personally installed W as president. The French looked at me as if I was an idiot. Explain to me, they’d demand, how you people could let that man run your country. In Kashmir, the locals had a different view. You Americans are so brave, they’d say. We love Americans. But we hate your government. I stayed quiet, grateful they weren’t accusing me personally for U.S. military actions.
Then Obama became president, and all of a sudden being an American abroad was cool. I was living in Antibes, France, on election night in 2008. The French celebrated as if Obama was their own. Two years later, living in Indonesia, I received praise for my wise choice of presidents.
I’m back in my small, parochial hometown on the eve of the big St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the second largest celebration of Irish culture in the U.S. More than 200,000 people are expected to turn out for the parade in downtown Scranton tomorrow. Right now, one of my ancestral countries, the Ukraine, is in political crisis. Portugal, I learned through reading Sugar Blues, is responsible for the African slave trade in the New World, a fact that broke my heart when I learned it. Poland is still Poland. And I’m still not Irish.
I have changed, though. I no longer envy a culture that gloriously celebrates itself. I no longer resent not being of cooler descent. I’ve seen enough of the world to be utterly grateful for my American roots regardless of how they came about. I’ve made peace with my ethnic background, and have, despite history, found reasons to appreciate my heritage.
And, besides, on St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve come to understand, Everyone’s Irish.