Who I Am

For the From Left to Write Book Club this month we read "Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English" by Natasha Solomon. This book inspired this post.

People often tell me I look different. A lot. I constantly have people ask me what nationality I am, as if I look like something they can't quite put a finger on. I like to make them guess. I've gotten it all: Asian, Hispanic, Greek, Hawaiian, Indian, Native American, the list goes on.

I grew up in a cookie cutter suburb outside of Chicago. There weren't many minorities, except for a few children of Mexican immigrants who lived in an apartment complex near our grade school and pretty much kept to themselves. They were all in ESL classes and our main stream classes remained very white. It wasn't cool or exotic to be different. One day a nasty kid in school called me Hispanic, as if it was an insult. So, I took it that way. I had no idea what he was calling me. I swore I wasn't Hispanic, that he was wrong and a jerk (which he was), and stomped home and told my mom. That's when she told she was Venezuelan and so was I. I always thought I was Italian. I had no idea.

My mom was born in Venezuela. She moved to the U.S. in early grade school and dealt with much of the same ignorant kids, except she was also trying to learn the language at the same time. She doesn't talk about moving here much, but describes it as being hard. I'm sure hearing me report little kids at school were repeating history was terrible for her. (For the record, she is half Venezuelan and half Italian, my dad is German and Bohemian.) Technically, I guess I'm a minority. But, I've never considered myself to be. I fill out every survey as Caucasian. I'm sure my mom does too. She would never outwardly classify herself as a minority, because I know she doesn't see herself as one.

People trying to figure me out has been a constant theme in my life. First it was nasty boys in grade school, then it continued in high school when a Mexican girl asked me why I was pretending I was white. (She was looking for a fight in the lobby of our high school and, again, I had no idea what she was talking about. I think I started laughing.) In college, I worked at a Mexican restaurant and often had to tell people that I "no comprendo Espanol." When I had a job fundraising for a domestic violence organization, race was a really big deal - And, for a lot of my co-workers who identified as being Hispanic/Latina/Chicana, so was the fact that I looked kind of like them, but lived in a white world. My husband has a photo from our wedding on his desk and is often asked by co-workers and clients what ethnicity I am. He takes it as a compliment and doesn't mind at all.

I've never understood what the big deal is, but it doesn't bug me. People never ask my mom what she is and both of my sisters have lighter eyes and hair, so never receive the same line of questioning. Something about the way I look seems to trigger people, I guess. But, as an adult I've found that it's a really good thing. I truly believe this. I'd rather be a little intriguing than just a face in the crowd.

Maybe my mom made some of these decisions for us when she totally assimilated into white suburban culture, like Mr. Rosenblum did in the book. But, I'm just being me. The only me I know how to be. Sure, there are some frustrations... I wish my mom had taught us Spanish. But, she grew up trying to hide that ability. She speaks without any trace of an accent, most people have no idea she can even speak Spanish. When we were born it wasn't something society was encouraging. (If we were born now, she agrees she would have taught us to be bilingual.) But, I know she has always made the best decisions and did what she thought was best for us. And I like to people guessing.

This post was inspired by Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomon, which I received complimentary as part of the From Left to Write Book Club. See how other bloggers were inspired by this book here.


Parent Grapevine said...

Why do people feel it is necessary to point out when something is "not like the other?" My own children are bi-racial, and they totally embrace that they are different. It's so great to see that in my own kids. Thanks for sharing your story. Your child in the photo to the right is absolutely adorable!

Windtraveler said...

Wait, you're not asian?!?! What the...???

Haha...I love you, whoever you are! ;)

Emily said...

It's amazing how obsessed people are are classifying other people. "Are you one of us or one of them? You have to choose sides." Perhaps we will be past this someday.

Natasha Solomons said...

Thanks so much for your post.

My grandparents were refugees from Germany, but wouldn't speak German to my mother. They just wanted her to fit in... but now a generation later, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to fit. Though, I quite like being an outsider -- I think it's useful for a writer!

Lisa Hanneman said...

Parent Grapevine and Emily -
That's really what it is, I guess... People's obsession with classifying someone or figuring out why they seem a little different. I've been told all my life that I come off as intimidating and I think that my comfort in my (non)"otherness" has a lot to do with it.

Emily said...

Why must people seek to classify who YOU are? My mother was Jewish, my father was Catholic, and I was raised Catholic due to my father having the stronger faith.

Whenever I mentioned I had a Jewish mother they would say, "You're a Jew, you are Jewish!" This was very confusing to me growing up.

By the way, I saw your picture and you are beautiful!

Michelle said...

Huh. And I always just thought you were gorgeous. What nationality you were never crossed my mind. Boo to the mean people!

I do find it interesting that Mister Man will describe people as "black skins" but he uses it the same way he does to describe someone with "blue eyes" or "red hair" - and I almost hate to point out that he has to be careful about that because he has no idea of what racism is or why people would think like that.