7 years ago today, I spent my last day in Los Angeles. Alone, I went to Venice Beach. I had lunch and walked along the boardwalk, reflecting on my 15 years there. I was born and lived the first 24 years of my life in Central New York, a very provincial region close to the Canadian border.
When I lived there, the area was largely inhabited by the descendants of Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants. The community celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, ate corned beef, lasagna and Golabki. The majority of my friends and co-workers were Catholic and Evangelical Christian and many of them hunted or fished for sport.
As I walked along the boardwalk, past all of the shops and performers, I became aware of just how much Southern California had changed me. Upon first arriving, in many ways, I felt like an immigrant. Despite being in the same nation, L.A. offered a far greater amount of diversity. Along with Irish and Italian traditions, I came to love the art, culture, music and cuisine of cultures I had heretofore not been exposed to. I experienced Chinese New Year, Dia de Muertos, ate Kimchi, sushi and mole pablano. I worked and hung out with Jews, Buddhists and Wiccans. There were very few hunters or fisherman but plenty of surfers and mountain bikers. It is one of her greatest assets that America is comprised of such diversity both culturally and geographically.
Yet, despite all being American, we are chronically obsessed with identifying our ancestry. Particularly on the East Coast, we often ask each other “What are you? Are you Irish, Italian, Latino or what?” I’ve never been certain of the purpose of this exercise other than to categorize people so that we might judge them based on our own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a member of a particular group.
In 2011, I moved to London – ironically to get my Masters in Japanese Studies. In a few short months I will be applying for British citizenship. My new home has once again transformed me. Instead of basking in the sun, I take vitamins B12 and D to stave off the seemingly endless months of dreary weather. I can still get Japanese and Korean food, but instead of eating Mexican food (which I miss terribly), I eat Spanish tapas and Indian cuisine. I still go to great museums and probably enjoy an even greater degree of different types of music and art.
Living outside my homeland has changed my outlook as to what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be American and most importantly, what it means to be human. Rather than being asked about my ethnicity, I am now seen by all British, regardless of their own ethnic heritage, as simply “American.” Because the UK has a long-standing tradition of judging people by the economic class they are born into, I am an enigma to many. Normally, it’s easy to judge a person’s education level based solely on how “posh” their accent is. With me, they hear only an American accent. What follows is usually a covert conversational operation peppered with questions designed to reveal my family’s socioeconomic and educational status.
I’ve never been certain of the purpose of this exercise other than to categorize people so that we might judge them based on our own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a member of a particular group.
Interestingly, I have experienced this in my dealings with both the upper and lower classes, each deciding what kind of person I am based solely on what my parents did for a living and where I grew up. Both ends of the spectrum are equally guilty of their own forms of snobbery.
In the time that I have lived here, I have seen an increase in outward hostility and even violence towards immigrants. At the same time, I have watched in horror as the same dynamics play out in my home country. I don’t get it. Outside of Africa, there are very few humans on earth whose distant ancestors do not come from lands further afield.
As long as we have been to walk, people have sought out new places to explore (generally in search of new resources.) It is human nature to migrate and bring with them the art, music, language, cuisine and customs of their homelands. Thus, there is no such thing as “cultural purity.” Each only exists in relation to a moment in time. Over time, as different cultures come into contact with one another, each evolves into something new. As people move around, they make friends, fall in love and create new generations whose culture is built on everything that came before it. That pasta that Mrs. Vecchio used to make? It came from her grandmother in Italy. Going back many years further, we discover that pasta came from China in the 13thCentury. There are no absolutes ever. What we are left with instead, are commonalities.
Of the two countries I have called home, the common element seems to be the tendency to label and judge “the other” despite all we have in common. Whether the judgment is based on race, class or immigration status is irrelevant. We inevitably form ourselves into little groups and scream “intruder” at the first opportunity. Because this characteristic lies in direct conflict with our inclination to move around on earth in search of new horizons (and resources) the results are very often violence, oppression and war. Carl Jung would perhaps describe this dichotomy with the human psyche as a collectively unresolved “shadow-self.”
After seven years, I am now only a few months away from applying for permanent residence and then full citizenship. If both are accepted, I will be able to fully participate in many aspects of British society previously restricted from me, while still retaining all of my American rights. On paper, I will be both British andAmerican.
In the future, when people ask, “What are you?” or “What does your family do?” rather than indulge the shadow, I will answer simply, “Me? Oh, I’m human. Been that way forever.”