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Monday, September 9, 2013

Plum Dumplings and Other Cultural Confusions

Have you ever eaten a plum dumpling? The kind you steam rather than bake?

I'm going to say probably not. As far as I know plum dumplings are slightly rarer than unicorns in the United States. I grew up with them. They're as normal as sushi and jicama in my house (we never did apple pie or meatloaf - sorry). We ate them when Italian prune plums were in season and I loved every squishy, butter-soaked ball of sugary dough stuffed with those tart little plums. And I thought they were normal.

Going to grade school in a Chicago suburb I thought plum dumplings were something everyone ate... right up until the day I mentioned them at school. And everyone stared. They blinked. Someone asked if I meant APPLE dumplings, as if I might get the two confused. Since that day I've been on a quest to figure out where plum dumplings are from. They're an edible part of my hertiage and by thunder I want to be a proud, card-carrying member of the wonderful ethnicity that invented plum dumplings!

I think, maybe, they're Slavic? Maybe? I'm not sure. My family picked them up somewhere like they did the sushi, the jicama, and the tacos. We picked up bits of culture, fascinating little customs, and curious ways that belong to people we're only broadly related to. We're all human after all.

My family picked up their ethnicity the same way even though I grew up identifying myself as White. The more I learned about "White History" or "European History" the more culturally confused I became. Other people got to wear shirts that said: "Proud to be Irish!" or "I love my big Italian family!" or even "Kiss me I'm French!"

I'm not the child of any European country. Not one still in existentance one at any rate.

My ancestors were never mentioned in the history books except for, occasionally, as a passing footnote about the holocaust.

Now, I consider myself Other.

It fits. Most the time my family is treated as biracial or mixed race. All my mutt genes created a very dark-skinned, dark-eyed eldest daughter and two cute little gray-eyed blonds at the end of the mix. Even in the middle of winter Eldest is olive skinned and we've gotten used to the questions...

"So, is she yours or your husbands?"
"She's so exotic! Is she from your first marriage?"
"She looks like her Dad. Does she ever get to see her mom?"
"So, the baby... is she really his? You both have brown-eyes so ... I mean... does he know its not his?"

It's reduced my second daughter to tears more than once when she's been teased at school or sports about not really being Eldest's little sister.

It's turned me into an eye-twitching lunatic more than once as I have to patiently explain to idiots who didn't pay attention in high school biology that, yes, it's possible for two brown-eyed people to have a gray-eyed child. And, yes, it's possible for brunettes to have blondes and redheads.

Like my beloved plum dumplings, my family doesn't fit the definition of American - Normal.

In a lot of ways it's been a blessing. I've had a chance to experience American life and prejudice the way a good half of the population doesn't. I've had a chance to dig deep and search out my ancestors and my culture. I've had a chance to really study cultural identity and what defines us as human beings.

We're a label loving species. We like to pigeonhole each other with stereotypes and prejudices. We like the narrative of "Us verse Them". We understand that we need to belong to the mob and reject dreaded other... or not. It really depends on how you want to live.

Personally, I have mutt genes, I'm the child of bastards, refugees, wanderers... a child of a forgotten people with no history left to call our own. My grandmother doesn't even know what country she was born in, World War II took it away along with her innocence. I accept that. I've come to terms with the idea that my heritage is, in essence, the stolen memories of people who will never claim me as their own. I take recipes, beliefs, and ideas from everywhere.

I'm telling you all this because my next book, EVEN VILLAINS GOES TO THE MOVIES, has a mixed racial cast. Not everyone is white. I wrote characters that don't all have my racial background and profile and I'm scared to death someone will hate it.

I'm so, so sososososososososo worried that somehow I will have misstepped and offended someone. That some phrase will be misread. That I'll have put too much of one culture or not enough or that someone will think I'm using their culture as a gimmick because I don't treat every characters' ethnicity and cultural background with the intense devotion you might find in a more literary work.

But, you know what? That's a label. People aren't born into a culture, not really. They may be raised in a culture like you would raise them in a religion, but as adults we make our own culture. We conform only to what we want to conform to. Being born in California doesn't automatically make me Malibu Barbie or imbue with the magical ability to surf every wave just as being born to an Italian family means you can make spaghetti at the drop of the hat and eat pasta at every meal.

American culture is a melting pot. It's the best thing in the world, the ability to take the best of everything and combine it into this fun mix of ideas and acceptance. When we live that ideal we get amazing results and that's what I wanted to show in my book.

Well.... that and superheroes and the scariness of certain sheets and why you shouldn't take a boy's pizza just because he offers it. It's a busy book.

So, consider yourself warned. I wrote a book with characters who aren't all the same. I hope you don't mind.


  1. Being Canadian myself, the difference between American culture and Canadian culture has always fascinated me. Especially the contradictions.

    America is known as the great melting pot where people of any nationality and culture can come and merge their culture with America. The claim is that all people are accepted as American no matter what their heritage is.

    Yet, the reality is that more people in America define themselves by their heritage and prejudice is still a major problem.

    Canada accepts and welcomes all cultures in and includes them as part of it's own. We are the great northern quilt. We encourage multiculturalism and define ourselves as Dutch-Canadian, French-Canadian, Italian-Canadian, etc. Except the English for some reason. We're just Canadian.

    We have our prejudices, usually language based, and we laugh at ourselves and our regions, especially Newfoundland, but I've found that people get accepted for who they are rather than who their ancestors were much more easily in Canada.

    Also we know that genetics are weird and don't assume that because a child doesn't look like either parent that it's adopted or from a different marriage.

    The ideal of the melting pot is great. The reality is that it isn't as common as it should be. Let your book stand as an example of how the ideal works. If anyone says anything, laugh at them and tell them to help make the ideal reality rather than letting reality kill the ideal.

    Don't worry about the people who don't like what you write. You aren't writing for them anyway.