The Outsider

Home is where you don’t have to explain where you’re from — which means for some people home is an entire country but for more and more of us it’s a much smaller place.

There was a time in my life when that place was my grandparent’s kitchen. Anywhere and everywhere else involved having to answer this question.

While I think Fred is right and that the issue of being Dual more often reflects other people’s confusion than our own, their questioning cost me more than it did them. They were just having a conversation and forming an opinion. I was busy being accepted or rejected.

In my mind when people ask: So … do you feel more American or more Irish? it’s always a trick question.

Whatever my personal truth may be, this is the sort of interrogation that crops up at first introductions or fresh acquaintanceship and it’s a thin veil for

“I’ll decide if I like you depending on how you answer this.”

There is, of course, only one correct answer.

People want us to admit that we are exactly what we seem on the outside — which in my case is what I sound like. Because I want to be liked, I’ll reply, “Well, obviously I am an American.” To which there is a visible relaxing of my questioner’s brow.

But I mean really, isn’t it better to ask personal questions where what the other person thinks of themselves might actually be the answer?

I don’t know why I’m obviously an American. It can’t be at that at 5 minutes into my life I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin (though it sounds like a nice place to be from.) Zero to two years old is no time to be learning to act like a local.

And it isn’t because America is where I call home, otherwise I wouldn’t have left and made my home in other places.

What makes me American is the way I think and the way that I talk. Not my family history. Or my sense of where I belong.

But what used to really get on my nerves is I swear that I think and talk the way I do because I’m me! And I hated it when everything that I might be got brushed aside with the cursory “Sure, but you are American.” I suppose a lot of us think we are who we are because we’re individuals when all the evidence suggests that’s half the story at best.

America isn’t just a nationality — it’s an idea. It always has been. First a series of outposts for pioneers and religious outsiders, later an invitation to the rejected of the world to come to a place where hard work would save you and now a flailing Super Power at the heart of any international debate about morality. So it’s not like people are stating a simple random demographic fact when they decide you must be from that land.

Fortunately for me, I’ve grown up just enough to become a lot less sensitive to all the things that other people tell me I may be. But, no kidding, it used to really, really piss me off.



Filed under Identity, Relationships

5 responses to “The Outsider

  1. I have a friend with one brown eye and one green eye. I asked him once if he thought of himself as having green eyes or brown eyes. He looked at me incredulously and shrugged: “Neither. I think of myself as having one green eye and one brown eye”. It’s always stuck with me. I try not to ask questions like that anymore. It’s not quite the same thing, but I think it kind of relates to what you’re talking about.

    (You’ll recognise this story in the novel if I ever get that far, by the way!)

  2. nathaliehourihan


  3. Fred Schelbaum

    Isn’t Wisconsin the state where women wear socks with their sandals?

  4. I still get frustrated at (some) people’s need to define others according to labels (nationality, education, profession, name it), to draw conclusions from these facts and, as you say, determine based upon this whether they like us (without knowing anything real about us). But then I remember all of my friends who don’t fit neatly into categories and who appreciate nuance, and I feel a lot better.

    For me people have insisted on calling me ‘such a New Yorker’, despite the fact that I have lived in the UK and 3 other countries for nearly half my life, that my mind and heart are much more than one city, and that few of my behavioural characteristics even hint at New York. Aside from when my sister and I kick in with our best NY accents to say ‘I want a bagel and some cawfee and I want it now.’

    I love New Yorkers and have some of that city in me, so maybe I’m resisting the idea that I’m being wholly defined but that one dimension of me. But people like things simple so I now just roll with it.

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