Saturday, August 01, 2015

Alphabet Club: A for Ancestry

They only met online, but it
changed their lives forever
The Alphabet Club is the brainchild of Serendipitous Jo and Chiara of the Grey Tail. You can read about it here, but the short answer is that each month a group of stitchers will talk about words specific to our languages (dialects, regionalisms) related in some way to our stitching. You're invited.

I signed up, but let me tell you, I've spent the last month racking my brain. Just what "A" word would I share?

Then, when the dude and I were walking around Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, I had an idea. (We were traveling home today so this post is a little later than I would have liked.) As I've reviewed what other people have written about, I realize that my take on the exercise is a little different from other people's. But I'm sticking with it.

My word is ancestry. I know you all have ancestry, whether you know much about your forebears or not. But there is a sort of slant way of looking at it in America, which I think is pretty particular, but may be shared with some other places where there are many immigrants. Maybe not; let's find out.

What are you?

In America, if someone asks, "what are you?" they have a very particular meaning in mind that almost every other American understands immediately. They are not asking whether you work as a lawyer or plumber or teacher or doctor. They are asking what your ancestry is.


Almost no one will answer "American" even if we have been here for generations. Oh, when the Olympics are on or on the Fourth of July, people will embrace that identity, for sure. But when faced with the question "what are you?" people will go to great detail to tell you what their ancestors' countries of origin are. Usually, I stick with 3/4 French Canadian and 1/4 Polish, even though my great grandfather left Vilnius when it was Russian, and there's possibly a little Lithuanian in there. And the French Canadian--there are claims to Native American blood as well as the shame of being part Campbell. But generally speaking I round up. (There are those who will tell you they are 1/16 something or 1/32 something else.) 

This struck me particularly in the French parts of Nova Scotia because I realized 1) I had only vague knowledge of the Grand Deportation* --how can one claim a heritage when one doesn't know its history? 2) I came to the realization that names I knew from my youth--in the 1980s, three-quarters of New Hampshire natives were of French Canadian descent--were completely Anglicized (for example, we pronounced Gagne, "Gag-knee") (frankly I can't even pronounce my own name in French with a straight face**) and 3) related to number 2, there were names that were French that I had no idea were French. Interestingly the greatest of these was "Melanson" which was just everywhere in Nova Scotia, and especially important historically. 

I had a similar experience on a teaching trip I made to Poland, the land of my people. Where I realized that besides eating pierogies every now and again, and celebrating (in a half-assed sort of way) Wigilia, I was Polish only insofar as I was Polish-American. That is, I had much more in common with other Americans than I had with Poles.

Now this may be different for people who still speak their ancestor's language(s) in the home, or who live in ethnic encalves, but I'm pretty sure if someone who is 1/32 Italian shows up in Rome, they are going to feel pretty disconnected from the ancestry they hold onto with both hands.

I'd love to hear if people in other parts of the world have this sense of ancestry.

I will add a couple of photos of "French" and "Polish" Santas that I have stitched, but I need to dig them out of storage.

*To be fair, my people are from Bas Canada (Quebec) and not the Maritime Provinces.

**True story. In second grade, when I started CCD (religious education) each teacher read out the names from their list of students to gather their classes. Faced with my name, which isn't that difficult, the teacher called over an old French nun to say it. When I heard it, I had no idea she was calling my name. At the end, they asked if anyone's name hadn't been called, and I raised my hand. They assigned me to a new teacher, presumably one who could say my name in English. ;)


Jo who can't think of a clever nickname said...

Very interesting post. The posts for this SAL are as varied as the characters from the film! Which was the hope that I had.

I have noticed that Americans really do identify with their European ancestry while being fiercely proud of their own nationality at the same time. In fact the only European country I haven't heard someone claim is England! Scotland, Ireland, Wales but never English. Is that that Civil War and Independence thing?

By contrast the question "what are you" regarding ancestry is rather risky in England. Most of our migrants are very offended by this and will say "I'm British, just because I'm a different colour or religion doesn't make me less British". At the other end of the scale we have the "Home Rule" contingency. eg Home Rule for Cornwall. The joke in East Anglia is "Home Apathy for East Anglia" because we are so laid back!

Pamela said...

This is an interesting project! I like your choice of Ancestry. When I lived in the US I didn't think so much about being American. I just was. Living in Japan, where it is very obvious that I am not Japanese, I am often asked where I am from. In the US no one can tell whether someone is American just by looking at him or her.

I'd like to join in on the Alphabet Club, but maybe it is too late for this month. it might take me a month to think of something. If I can think of something before the link-up closes, maybe I can join

Silvia Saxosue said...

Lovely post. We Austrians are a mixture of different ancestry, too, for example DH and I both have Czech ancestors. A hundred years ago Austria was an empire that consisted of many different nationalities and our family names often still tell about our ancestry.

Linda said...

Interesting post Nikki. I'm a Heinz 57.


Bea said...

I really enjoyed this post. I'm one who is into ancestor tracing and, so far it's English, Irish, Scots and German. And I'm sure when I dig farther back in the German line there will be others.

Stitching Noni said...

Great post! In Australia, most of us come from somewhere else.... but we are all Australian :o)
My heritage is Irish and German (Prussian Lutheran) on my mother's side and Scottish and English on my father's side. I often say that I got my hips and backside from the German side!!
My husband is English and has French heritage on his father's side. We have managed to research his history quite well but haven't got very far with mine yet!
Thank you for sharing your ancestry - it was a great read and I look forward to reading more of your TAC posts going forward :o)
Hugs xx

MelissaD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Funny story about ancestry. I grew up in South Louisiana where most every one claims to be French or 'Cajun' but there are many other origins. But the majority of my ancestry is French.
So for the story--we moved away for a number of years and then I got homesick and we decided to move back home. Well, we moved to this small community where the questions were "Whose your daddy? Where does he work? & Are you Catholic? Once that was out of the way we next heard how great it was to have someone new in the house, because those 'Americans' were just not friendly enough.
Ah c'est la vie! or something like that. Gwen

Julie said...

Interesting post.

Brigitte said...

Very interesting to read. It must be really exciting for Americans and Canadians to trace their family history.

mary said...

what a wonderful post ! I am french but from immigration too, immigration from poland by my grand parents (sorry for my english...)