When I spent two weeks traveling throughout Ireland in the summer of 2011, I encountered a curious shared sentiment among the Irish I met there. Before I describe this experience, though, I feel I need to first provide some background. I was born and raised in the United States, and my last direct relatives to live in Ireland were my great-grandparents on my mother’s side. So am I Irish? Technically, the answer is no. I have never held an Irish passport, nor had I ever been to Ireland until my 2011 trip (upon which I will elaborate shortly). I do have red hair and my favorite holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, but that is as close as this American girl has ever gotten to “being Irish”.
Despite all of this, I have always strongly identified with my Irish heritage. My mom’s family is one of those supremely organized families, with biennial reunions held in the small town in rural Pennsylvania where our Irish ancestors originally settled. I swear Saint Patrick himself frowns on you if you miss the Kinsley family reunion!
Genealogists have traced our family roots back hundreds of years in Ireland. I know the exact county and village they emigrated from on their way to America. I know the family crest, and the origin of our surname. In fact, I would venture to say that I know more about Ireland and my Irish ancestors than the majority of Irish citizens today:
So when someone asks me (as is not uncommon to hear in the United States), “Where is your family from?” or “What are you?” I do not hesitate to include “Irish” as one of my identifiers. To me, being “Irish” is no less a part of me than being a redhead, a soccer player, a writer, or a woman. I know that many of my American friends share this strong identification with their own heritage, be it Irish, Italian, Chinese, Dutch, or any of the myriad of nationalities that have immigrated to this melting pot of a country at some point in history.
Back to Ireland for a moment. My best friend and I spent months planning a backpacking trip through Ireland (more like “roll suitcase-ing”—we love adventure, but hey, we’re still girls!) that was to be our graduation present to ourselves. We are both history nerds, so Ireland was the perfect place for us. We even attempted to teach ourselves some Gaelic, in order to fully appreciate the Ireland that we were about to see. And I was ecstatic to finally be able to see the place from which my family originated. I had heard so much about Ireland that it felt like I wouldn’t just be visiting, but more like I would be coming “home.”
Multiple times during the trip, I made a point to engage in conversation with locals about Ireland and what their views were on American tourists in the country. After all, almost 900,000 Americans visit Ireland each year, a massive proportion of the approximately 6.4 million yearly tourists to the small island nation. The almost universal (and unexpected on my part) response was that Americans were lovely, smiling people, but that they were obsessed with pretending they were Irish. The locals were utterly confused by the waves of Americans that come to Ireland for the sole purpose of connecting with their past. Some even seemed to hold a sort of disdain for these American imposters, as if it were blasphemy for the Americans that visit to proclaim Ireland as their own. In their eyes, Americans are just that- Americans. They were curious as to the allure of Ireland for visitors from the United States, and could not understand the enthusiasm that we hold for rummaging through dusty piles of records trying to find mention of our ancestors. This revelation did not bother or offend me in any way when I heard it. To me, it merely represented an intriguing cultural difference between the two countries.
I did not think much more about it until very recently when I came across a blog post on the subject by a Dutch woman living in the United States. The post details the author’s annoyance at Americans who announce themselves as “Dutch” but in reality are long removed from their connections to the Netherlands. For the first time, I considered the notion that this disdain for Americans who assert their ancestral connections could be a widespread sentiment, and one not limited to the Emerald Isle.
The thing I cannot fathom is what exactly is so wrong about an American identifying with a different place. The United States was founded on a culture of shared ideological values, not developed from age-old traditions. Because we have only a short history in comparison to much of the rest of the world, American traditions are invariably formed from a mash-up of the various ones brought from immigrants to the U.S.—cultural syncretism at its best. Many American families have roots in dozens of cultures, to the point where it is difficult to say where they came from at all. In some cases this is a blessing. But I would argue that it is only human nature to know our past, particularly with respect to our own personal histories.
Being “American”, while wonderful, does not necessarily provide that feeling of being rooted to the earth, of having that place that is so ingrained in our being that we feel we belong. So we adopt a culture. Usually this is the culture of our immigrant ancestors. Perhaps an American who calls themselves “Italian” cannot speak the language and has never tasted a pizza cooked in a wood-burning furnace in Naples, but that does not make their experience as an Italian any less real. Who really has the right to decide whether someone is [insert relevant nationality here] enough or not? I dare say that the author of that post will still consider herself Dutch if/when she becomes a U.S. citizen. Yet at this point, she will also officially be an “American”. Where does the cut-off occur then?
Americans are the brunt of many stereotypes around the world, with the “ignorant American” only one of the most prominent. Yes, some of these unfortunate stereotypes contain an element of truth (something I am ashamed to admit, yet have often observed in fellow Americans while traveling). However, if an interest in one’s cultural heritage (no matter how distant) results in even one American learning something more about the wider world around them, then that is something to be admired, not lambasted.