Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Generation

I am an unlikely source of insight on race and immigration issues. I live and grew up in New Hampshire, a state for which the Onion once suggested "Affordable, racially pure living" as an alternate motto. My family tree has white English protestants in all directions.

I grew up in the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. If, as the name suggests, it was founded by pilgrims from the Middle East, they have long since moved on. Lebanon was not a place of vast cultural diversity. I remember returning after a year of college in upstate New York and a good friend asked me "Are there Jews there? What are they like?"

I married my high-school sweetheart, who grew up in a house 2 blocks away from mine. Her father is French. This fact seemed mostly unremarkable until my father-in-law retired after working in the US for 36 years and returned to the village where he was born, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. We went to visit him, bringing our young son to meet that side of our family. In a medieval mountainside village of stone houses, we enjoyed long lunches of wine and wild boar with a dizzying, extended cast of aunts and cousins. Listening to the conversations in Corsican and French going on around me, it occurred to me how far I had come. This was my family too. My children might grow up in a little New Hampshire town as I had, but this too would be part of our lives. Suddenly, the family tree had branches extending in some different directions.

As I pondered the fact that I had married into new cultural traditions, I considered the choices made by my close circle of friends, the kids I grew up with, and the few good friends met along the somewhat circumscribed journey of my life. Given my homogeneous beginnings, there was some surprising variety.

Jeff, the friend who asked about the mysterious Jews, had become one. I was the best man when the rabbi officiated his marriage to Alison. The large wedding crowd consisted of Orford farmers on one side of the aisle and Hartford lawyers on the other. Erik moved to Baltimore for a while, where he met and married Krista, who is black. They returned to Maine to make their home. Lee, who is first generation American via German and English parents, married Jennifer whose family is from China. Josh married Talita, and spends his mornings at the Brazilian embassy in an effort to bring his son to meet his grandparents in Sao Paulo. Scott's parents came from Portugal. Anna's are from Serbia. Ömer was my roommate in college, direct from Istanbul. After Hamilton he stayed in the US and married Kate, whose family is Korean. They live in New Jersey.

These are not bonds along the lines of who we will tolerate, or learn to respect, or accept as a neighbor or colleague. These are bonds of matrimony. When given the chance to choose one person who completes us, with whom to share and build our lives, to have and to hold, these were our choices. Our children have sets of grandparents that look different, or speak different languages, or celebrate different holidays. Constraints of mobility, culture, tradition, tribe, and history that guided our parents and our parents parents for generations do not seem to apply us. The cultural divide is not that divisive.

The first US President to come from my generation, is a self-described "mutt" with a story that runs through Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, and Hawaii. His parent would have met during a very different time. But today he stands as a powerful emblem of our era. A colorful first-family may seem novel to us, and stunning to those who have been alive long enough to see this history in the making. For our children it will be normal. This is how a president looks.

I look at my boys and I wonder who they will meet, where their lives will take them, and what choices they will make. I think about their world. Already, their friends include two cooler and more popular boys, born in Cambodia, being raised by two adoptive fathers. Their perspectives will be broader still.

I think that family tree will keep branching.

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