When I got to Austin in the late 90’s there were no high rise condos and the stats showed around a hundred new people were moving here every day. Having traveled around the country dozens of times, I can say that other American’s just don’t understand us at all. I’ve been to the South (Texas doesn’t really qualify), the Midwest, the Southwest, and the West coast on numerous occasions and it’s painfully obvious that people interpret us based on…
…ridiculous preconceived notions. I’ve even seen this happen in my own family when visiting the Midwest and here in my own back yard with the steady stream of American migrants flooding our once small town. This sounds like the beginning of an anti-change rant from an ultra-conservative traditionalist but don’t worry. I don’t really concern myself with the ills of growth (like high rent and property taxes) since the alternative, economic depression, is worse and Austin was headed in that direction back in the 70’s when the city council voted to keep Austin small with the attitude, “I we don’t build it, they won’t come”.
I’m good with progress, but I also have to insist on respect for our traditions because otherwise it would give credence to uninformed opinions, bad attitudes and capricious gossip influenced by the afore mentioned, preconceived notions. Like, when I was a kid visiting family in Wisconsin, we were at our regular vacation spot in the north woods.
Some of the other kids from more local families heard about the Texas family and ran to find out for themselves. Two kids ran up to my sisters and me and asked if we were from Texas. We verified that we were and, they demanded that I, “Say somethin’ ”. With confusion, I stuttered, “Uh…what do you…want me to say?” When they heard my accent, they reeled in delight and then ran off. A few minutes later they returned with five more kids and the cycle repeated, followed up by questions like, “Do you ride your horse to school?” and “How many oil wells does your family have?”. Being from Texas, we were raised with a strong sense of hospitality so we always assumed that others were laughing with us, not at us. It took many years’ worth of trips to other places to figure out that our homeland is widely misunderstood. By contrast, attending college at the University of Texas during the years that the Austin campus became the largest public University in the U.S. by student population gave me the opportunity to meet and socialize with lots of people from lots of places including foreign countries. None of these foreigners knew anything about my culture and so there were no preconceived notions to cause a clash. Most of them didn’t even realize that I had an accent.
Roberto was one of my college roommates, and to this day he’s still a good friend. Sounds foreign right? That’s because he’s from Mexico…..which makes him a “Mexican”. One day Roberto, his girlfriend Semone and I were hanging out at an Austin event joking around. Being from south of the border, he and his girl were doing that Mommy, Daddy latin PDA thing. Jokingly I made a comment about how I needed to get me a “Mexican Mama”. Roberto and Semone thought this was funny and we all laughed. A bystander overheard the comment and was not as amused. A transplant who had just rolled off the turnip truck from the east coast, she approached with a look of solidarity and interjected with, “Uh, excuse me. The correct terminology is Hispanic”. With astonishment we all turned to look at her as she stood there waiting for an apology with her arms crossed. Then we looked at each other and my two friends grinned at me waiting to see what I’d say. I was also amused as I tried to figure out if she was serious or not. Her look said that she was and so, the first thought to come to mind was, “Uh…No. Actually the “correct” terminology would be middle eastern or American since my friend (that I’ve known for over two years, last name Elhaj) was born into a Texas family that emigrated from Iran over three generations ago and they all grew up in Houston”. But I didn’t say that because I felt it would have been rude. I was an idealistic and conscientious student, and my attitude towards the University institution was that its knowledge should be held in the highest regard. I was studying the science of communications which obligates me to adhere to the SMCR model that describes the structure of dialogue for the purposes of responsibly dealing with the social problematic identified by the Maxim, “The nature of communication is mis-communication”. So rather than be a smart alec, I kindly turned to the Neo-Austinite and said, “I think you mis-understand. In order to know what I mean, you should know a little more about my background”, at which point I begin to recount the story of my genetic goofiness that I got from my dad, that he got from his dad (the whitest white guy to ever be born, 110% Scandinavian) who married an Italian immigrant girl (My Grandma) in the 1940’s when many Italians were heavily discriminated against.
My Grandpa Naleid was from a wealthy family. His dad, my Great Grandpa Art, was the son of immigrants from Norway. As a kid, his family was too poor for him to finish school so, instead of going to High School, his mom insisted that he get a job in order to support the family. The rumor is that he never forgave her for that but did as he was told. Without a degree, he eventually found a job working in sales for a publishing company, a job which at which he excelled. He did so well that he eventually rose to the top of the department and became VP. His son, my Grandpa Naleid, was so meticulous with numbers he kept a register of all of his finances even as a teenager (My aunt still has it).
As a teenager, he was given a job at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder in the accounting department of the publishing company and worked diligently for a couple years part time before heading off to college. His first semester, he spent only a few weeks in class when he was given his first exam. He stuck around for two minutes just long enough to put his name at the top. He turned in his exam and walked out, saying to himself, “well, that’s enough of that!”. He loved telling that story and I think it speaks volumes about his sense of humor. He then married my grandma, volunteered for the war and after a couple years on a ship, the bomb was dropped, he was discharged, back home to the Midwest to pick up life where he left off.
It may be my Italian heritage, or maybe it’s my Cherokee Native American blood that I got from Mimi, my Mom’s Mom, but I’ve always been a little partial towards brunettes (and red heads). My Grandma’s family, the Pavia’s, had immigrated from a remote village somewhere in the hills of Italy.
It’s so remote they have their own unique Italian dialect even to this day. In Italy the Pavias were Catholic but converted to Baptist in the U.S. They must have had trouble shaking some of the old world tradition because Grandma Naleid grew up in a household with twelve kids…..TWELVE! They say that when number twelve hit the scene, the head minister made a special trip to the Pavia household, sat Great Grandpa Pavia down and was like, “Dude…You gotta chill.”. Apparently he took the hint. As a youth, my Grandpa’s family lived on Main street only a mile or so from downtown in a nice neighborhood right across from Lake Michigan. They could afford it.
Great Grandpa/Grandma Naleid were modest and carried themselves with integrity which made them well respected in the community. As such, their son probably could have married just about any girl in town and still he chose an Italian immigrant girl at a time when this ethnic group was getting to be very unpopular due to the war.
Part of the reason my Great Grandpa Art had gotten to where he did is because of his work ethic, a lesson I’m sure he taught his sons. Grandpa Naleid was an accountant. He was serious as a heart attack when it came to numbers, but with everything else he was always joking around. One of the Grandpa-isms that I remember the most is his nickname for women. Jokingly he referred to them as “Chickies”. Chickie, being a derivative of the word chick would be offensive to modern liberals but when my Grandpa used it, everybody laughed. Sometimes it was used to describe family members and other times not. I remember vividly at family reunions when he would call my cousins chickie, they would die of laughter…and these are very progressive women. One is a federal immigration judge, another has been highly regarded in the advertising industry since graduating college, and a third is a guide on remote wilderness adventures (if she gets lost, people die). The reason there was never any offense taken is because everyone knew Grandpa. We were all familiar and had a common background which makes interpretation more accurate. !Nerd Alert! The SMCR model of communication shows, to be effective, you need a feedback stage after a message is sent from one person (the sender) to another (the receiver).In a family, you have feedback built into the group dynamic because when there is a mis-understanding, you can’t just walk away. After years of interaction, and countless cycles of messages being sent (encoded), received (decoded), and feedback requests/responses, you just start to “get” one another. The same thing happens with roommates and close friends.
The goofy Naleid sense of humor was passed down to my dad. There’s even a picture of him in his youth, in what should have been a serious family photo, where he’s not paying attention and grinning at God know what as the camera snaps the shot.
My dad’s humor had the same Midwestern flavor as Grandpa but he moved to Texas in his 20’s where he met my mom and settled to raise his family. As you can imagine, Texas and Midwestern culture are about as similar as night and day. So, the Midwestern Grandpa-isms transplanted into Texas Dad-isms sometimes went from goofy to the level of absurd simply because of the irony injected by the new cultural context. One of the goofy Dad-isms I remember the most is his nickname for my mom…”The Red Radish”
He was always goofing off with her, goosing her and saying, “you Red Radish, you”. She’d blush and try not to laugh. I think that was probably one of the things that attracted her to him…his sense of humor. I mean, who doesn’t like a good sense of humor? Nobody, that’s who!
So, back to the original story…as I recount our family history for my new self-absorbed, communication challenged friend demanding reparations since I must have offended the poor “Hispanic” girl who clearly can’t defend herself against the ignorant “white” guy in spite of the fact that we’re both from the same place, have a similar family origination story and were both raised speaking English as our first and only language, I ended my tale with a rhetorical question (a little tongue in cheek) in order to drive home my point.
“Since Grandpa Naleid got his Lil’ Chickie, and Dad got his Red Radish….If I want to get my Mexican Mama…who are you to say no?”