The first time I’d ever discussed ethnicity with anyone, it was in the third grade.
I skipped into the classroom, said hi to my friends, and sat down in my desk group. On the front board, my teacher had taped a world map, and above it had written “Where Are You From?” I didn’t quite understand it; weren’t we all from somewhere in America? But I didn’t say anything, I just waited for the class to start.
The teacher walked in and settled us all down and pointed to the map. “Today, we’re going to talk about our ancestors.”
Now, the only ancestors I’d ever heard about were the ones in Mulan that Mushu had to wake up, and they were all dead people who fought a lot. I didn’t think I had any, since no one had ever sent a little dragon to come and help me. But of course she explained, as teachers are supposed to, that our ancestors were our great-great-great-great-great grandparents. She pulled out little pins and started calling on people, asking where their ancestors were from.
I was shocked. It seemed like everyone knew where their family started off. Was this something your parents were supposed to tell you when you turned a certain age? Had mine neglected to do so? Was I supposed to know from birth where my family line was from? My palms started to sweat as she called on people closer and closer to me.
“Shannon?” She asked. Shannon was one of my best friends in my homeroom class. She was short with red hair and was really pretty and one of the nicest people I knew. She taught me how to firework-color, and we frequently held sessions to teach other people how to do it during indoor recess. Shannon looked up at my teacher and said with a smile, “Most of my family is from Ireland.”
Ireland sounded like such a wonderful place to me. I loved Irish accents, or at least the really cheesy ones I’d heard on St. Patrick’s Day. I imagined the whole country was a lush green carpet of tall grass populated by pretty people with red hair. I’d always wanted to try Irish dance, but my parent’s put me in ballet instead. This was my one and only chance.
“Senna, where is your family from?”
Something dawned on me. I did not have red hair. How would anyone believe that I was Irish? My little brain worked quickly. “I’m from two places,” I said. “England and Ireland.”
“You can’t come from two places!” A guy named Dylan who I did not like one bit yelled from across the room. Was it true? Could you really only come from one place? Then really, I was just from America, and so was everyone else.
“Dylan,” my teacher said reproachfully, “almost everyone’s ancestors come from more than one place. It’s great that Senna knows more about her family.”
I went home that day on a mission. I walked home from the bus stop hand-in-hand with my mother. I thought about asking right then and there if I was Irish, but my sister was there too. She couldn’t know. First of all, because If I knew I was Irish, that would mean she’d know she was Irish too. And I was the only one allowed to be Irish. And secondly, because if for some reason I wasn’t Irish, she’d probably tell everyone in my class and make them make fun of me.
So I waited. I waited like a raincloud that waited for the day of a picnic. My sister went up to our room to play on the computer, and I stood in the kitchen while my mother made dinner, and I asked a little loudly,
“Mommy, am I Irish?”
And she turned around and looked down at me, mildly confused. “No,” she said, “I don’t think you’re Irish. Mostly English. And your grandmother comes from a place called Wales.”
I did not care about the place called Whales. Ireland was not named after a silly sea animal. I began to cry.
“Senna? Senna, what’s wrong?”
“I wanna be Irish!” I blubbered. “I wanna be Irish!”
She turned the stove’s heat down and bent down next to me. “Why do you want to be Irish so badly?”
How could she not understand? How could I possibly explain to her why being Irish was so important to me? I cried some more and shouted, “Because! Because I wanna be Irish!” After about fifteen minutes of similar exchanges any myself beginning to hyperventilate from too much crying and not enough proper breathing, finally she sighed, “Okay, Senna. You can be Irish.”
I looked up at her through blurry eyes. “Really?”
“Yes, really. You can be Irish if you want. You can be anything you want, baby.”
And I squealed with delight and ran off to set the table so she would let me help her with cooking.