Shortly after I was married, my husband, Ron, and I joined my brother, Matt, and his girlfriend, Carmela, for a dinner we prepared together. The main course had been agreed on in advance: gnocchi, the Italian dumplings that all of us - Matt and I, as well as our Italian-American mates - had grown to love as children. We would use my Italian-American mother's recipe for a smooth marinara - and Carmela's mother's recipe for gnocchi, which called for rich ricotta cheese instead of the more pedestrian potatoes our family used.
Because my brother was living with my parents, and their house had the largest and best-equipped kitchen, we held our dinner "at home." Although my parents had plans that evening, on their way out the door my father stopped to watch our meal preparations. After inventorying the menu, he turned to me. He had a sad yet defiant look on his face. "So, now you think you're Italian," he said. "Well, you're not.''
My father is Lebanese-American, and proud of it. He raised his five children to be proud of it, too. Although none of us is fluent in Arabic, we all learned at an early age how to make hummus, when to kiss people on both cheeks, and the Arabic words for, among other things, "peace be with you," "to your health." and "underwear head" (a pseudo-Arabic phrase my brother coined). But my father was worried. I had married an Italian; my brother's girlfriend was Italian. My sisters' husbands were Irish and Scottish respectively, and my elder brother's wife also was of Irish descent. My father saw his cultural legacy slipping away.
He needn't have been alarmed. Once you've developed a taste for buklawa there's no turning back. Like my father, I can spot a Lebanese name at 20 paces (although I'm not compelled, as Dad is, to invite its bearer home to dinner), and I instinctively follow news reports from the old country. My sisters and brothers feel the same pull. And yet we are drawn to the Italian, too, with a yen for pasta fagiole and vocabularies spiced with the Italian expressions our mother and grandmother had taught us. "Half Lebanese, half Italian, and all American," my sister once said. Two halves, forming a unique whole.
Despite my ethnic pride, or perhaps because of it, to be a Lebanese-Italian-American is to be easily offended. TV commercials featuring rotund Italian "mamas" proffering pizza and pasta make my skin crawl. Even more discomfiting is news of unrest in the Middle East, when people's emotions tend to mix with their prejudices.
"The Arabs are all crazy," a friend remarked to me emphatically at the height of the Persian Gulf War. "I don't mean you, of course," she said sincerely when I objected. "But you know what I mean. Those people over there - they're not like us." I felt the same mixture of humiliation and fury I'd felt years earlier, when a co-worker asked me about a family wedding I had attended. "Are your ears ringing?" she said good naturedly. "I mean, with all those Italians screaming and everything?"
I know these people meant no harm, but the images they hold of my ethnic background are deeply ingrained, and they are not easily shaken. And no wonder: Such images are reinforced daily by the media and prevailing opinion. People talk a lot about race in America and the divisions between blacks and whites, but rarely do whites talk about the "degrees of whiteness" that many hyphenated Americans understand intuitively. The Census Bureau tells us we are part of the majority, but our neighbors tell us differently.
We carry this alienation with us, sometimes as a cross, at other times like a banner. "Why does everyone who's even a little bit Italian say they're Italian?" my friend Chris once asked. "Lisa's only half and you're only half, but you're both always talking about being Italian." It was true. When Lisa and I discovered that we shared Italian ancestry we felt a sudden connectedness. We spent lunch hours comparing recipes and traditions, and pooh-poohing the "Italian" food our co-workers ordered from restaurants. We were proud to be different. And yet I knew we were reinforcing our lunch-mates' stereotypes with our tales of seven-fish dinners. I was left to wonder who was the true author of the notion that we were not like everybody else?
MY brother Matt has decided not to tell people his ethnic background, even if they ask. "What difference does it make?" he says. "They're only asking so they can make assumptions." Although I agree in principle, I cannot be so dispassionate. I am an American, born here of parents born here, and I speak no language but English. Yet my ethnic background is the heart of me.
Two years after I married, my husband joined my parents and me at the funeral of a Lebanese friend. As we greeted the late man's brother-in law, I introduced Ron. "He is a one of our people, isn't he?" the man exclaimed, sizing up my dark-haired, bearded mate. I began to explain that Ron is in fact Italian, but my husband interjected. "Actually," he said, "I'm Sicilian on my mother's side. So I guess I am one of 'your' people, after all."
"Ah yes, a descendant of the Moors," the man replied cheerfully. "Yes, you're one of our people. One of us."
My father, standing nearby, said nothing. But I'm sure I saw a hint of a smile.