All my life I have been trying to figure out just who I am. I know that many people struggle with this question. I feel that years ago, when people had fewer options, it might have been easier for them to come to grips with who they were; or at least it was easier to know what was expected of them. Nowadays, everyone seems to be on a quest to find themselves. It might seem like it should be an easy thing to determine, but there are a lot of things to think about which determine who we are — not who other people think we are. Not to mention who we want to be, which is yet another issue.
Many things determine who we are. Our upbringing, which is different than our environment, our heredity, our sense of community, our attitudes, our reactions, our memories, our gender, and of course the color of our skin. Then you take me and my sister, who are quite different from each other, even though most of the above list is the same for both of us. It is so easy to blame any given thing for it, when two people are vastly different; especially if the color of their skin is different, or they were raised on opposite sides of the globe, or speak a different language. But what makes my sister and me so different? What makes the two of us think, act and react so differently from each other? I really don’t know the answer to that one; although, I do have a thought about it. Before I can tell you my thought, I have to give you a little background, a mini biography of myself.
Racially (yes, this is important to mention), I am one-half Norwegian, one-quarter Swedish, and the other quarter is a mixture of English, Irish, and German. So, as you would probably guess, I am white-skinned, blond and blue eyed. What you won’t have guessed is that I grew up in a primitive indigenous tribe, as the daughter of a missionary family in Colombia, South America. For many years, we lived in a mud-walled, dirt-floored hut, complete with thatch roof. Everyone around me, as I grew up, looked completely different from my family. When I was a baby, I was not conscious of the difference between me and my little friends. I knew my parents looked way different, but I identified more with my friends than with my parents. Part of my misconception was due to the fact that my parents were at least a whole head taller than anyone in our village, but I was short just like everyone else. Also, even though my parents dressed in western clothing, my mother used to dress me in clothes like my friends. I suspected that I was different, but I was too young to figure out why that was. I guess I hadn’t figured out yet, that I would probably grow up to look like my parents.
As I grew, it did come as quite a shock to me that I was more different than I had ever thought I could be. I stuck out like a sore thumb. However, due to the customs and culture of the tribe, it took longer than you might think. For one thing, children were not allowed to play; jumping or running around was prohibited. When all of the children my age were out in the fields working; I was home doing my school work. So even though that was different, when children came to our house to visit, we didn’t play with each other. As you can imagine, we children did not have the opportunity to converse much among ourselves, at least not without having to interrupt an adult to do so, which was prohibited. We were expected to sit quietly and listen to the adults, which we all did without question unless we were given some task to perform. I thought this was perfectly normal, and my friends and I were happy for it to be so. We didn’t know anything else.
I remember the first time that I saw my mother running around playing a game; I think it was dodgeball. I was shocked. I felt that it was wrong on so many levels. I must say that she did not do this in the tribe; we had gone on a trip somewhere outside of the tribe when this happened. I soon came to understand that there was a certain set of rules that we had to observe when we were in the tribe and a whole different life that we lived when we were not in the tribe. The one thing that has always remained constant is our Christianity. No matter where we are we have our own set of Christian standards that our family lives by, no matter who our neighbors are or how they live. I think this was easier for me to understand, already being different in so many other ways, than if I had had to grow up in a “Christian” culture.
As I got older, it became more and more apparent that I was different from those around me. It got very real when my closest friend was married off to a very old man who had lost most of his teeth, when she was just thirteen years old. As she slept in the hammock next to mine, I could hear her crying for weeks before the marriage. My father pleaded with the elders of the village for her to be spared, but to no avail. It was her duty as a member of the tribe to produce as many babies as she was capable of during her childbearing years and the sooner she got started, the better. She was married off, but the old man brought her back after two weeks complaining that she was a very bad wife and wouldn’t obey him. She was very happy to be cast off, and we were happy to have her back. I was old enough by this time, that I wasn’t too frightened that this might be my fate; as I knew that my father was highly respected, and we were allowed to follow the customs of “our own people”, whatever that meant. My father had wisely let it be known that we weren’t normal non-tribal people (who were not to be trusted), but that his grandmother had been a Sami, an indigenous tribe in Norway. He showed them pictures from the September, 1977 edition of the National Geographic Magazine. Thereafter, we were treated as similar, but a different kind of real-people. My father told the elders that according to our customs the girls could not marry until they were as tall as their mother. By that rule, I should never have gotten married as I never grew as tall as my mother.
The mission that my parents were members of, at that time, had a rule that the missionaries could not stay for long periods of time in the tribes for fear that they would “go native”. Therefore, we had to return to the missionary base periodically, and it was there that I was exposed to the ex-pat mostly American culture. We (the children) were all the same, but yet again different from each other. We were the same in that we each had another life that we lived in an indigenous tribe. We were the same in that we were not in the country of our parents’ birth. We were the same in that we made up our own culture, sort of. I don’t know if I was the only child there at the missionary base who still felt different from all of the other kids, or not. I know I had an aversion to playing with the other kids. I got spanked once because I didn’t want to go to somebody’s birthday party, and then I was dressed and taken to the party by force. I liked eating cake and watching the kid open her presents, but what I didn’t like were the games that we had to play. School was fine I guess, but I hated P.E. I think I still clung to my upbringing that children should not be running around but should sit quietly and show respect for adults. Strangely, I didn’t enforce that rule on my own children (except for when we attended church or went to a restaurant), but it was thoroughly ingrained into me.
When I was ten years old, my parents resigned from the mission and became independent missionaries. We moved to a little Colombian town and became the only “gringos” in the town. It was much different than being the only non-members of an indigenous tribe; not only were we different, but we were now held to a whole different standard of behavior that they expected from us. At that time, Americans were thought to be more educated, more sophisticated and much richer than any of them. The same people who looked down on indigenous people, as being lower on the social ladder from them, expected us to be the opposite. I still didn’t know who I was, but whoever I was, it was not what they wanted me to be. It was easier for me to avoid casual relationships, than to try to explain over and over again that I was not and would never be what they expected me to be. I ended up sharing my bedroom with five girls who only spoke Spanish, and they were happy to teach me how to be just like them. As it turns out, they had never been to school, and I ended up learning to speak and act like the poorest rung of Colombian society. If I had known, I would not have changed a thing; instead I am proud of that time in my life. The poor country people in Colombia have a very different mindset than those who are raised in the cities of Colombia, and I have to admit that a lot of that mindset has rubbed off on me. In fact, I regret that I couldn’t give my own sons the same sort of upbringing.
So, by the time that I was twelve years old, which is considered to be a very important age in the Jewish culture; I not only had been exposed to three very different cultures, but I had been totally immersed into them, and had assimilated much or at least parts of them.
It was when I was twelve that I had my first interaction, however unaware that I was at the time, with my husband-to-be. It was in the Spanish speaking town, and he would try to sit right behind me in church. He says it was then that he made the decision to marry me. We met officially, two years later when we were both fourteen years old. Physically, we looked as opposite as possible, but amazingly we thought and felt the same about a majority of issues. He was one of only two black boys my age in town, although they were not related. Everyone in town called them “los Negritos”. I remember the first time that I heard someone call my husband-to-be by that term. From my US homeschooling books, I had learned that this was a racist term. So, I asked him about it.
“Do you mind when people call you Negro or El Negro?” I asked him.
He turned surprised eyes to mine, “Why should I mind when it is the color of my skin? Do you mind when they call you white?” he turned the tables on me.
“Of course not, but really. You don’t mind?” I insisted.
He laughed, “That’s nothing. My best friend calls me morado.” (His best friend was not the other black boy and morado means purple.)
“Why does he call you that?” I asked.
“He says that I stayed in the water too long and turned purple,” he grinned. “Want to know what my mother calls me?”
“Mi negro,” We both laughed.
“What do you think about what they call me?” I asked him, suddenly serious.
“Gringa?” he said, hesitantly. “Does it bother you?”
“Not really. I was just asking your opinion. It’s just that I am not an American. I was born in Colombia. I am just as much a Colombian as you are.”
He gave me a serious piercing look, “But you aren’t, are you? Not really. Anyway, people have to be able to call you something. What do you want to be called?”
“I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it before.”
“Well, what do you think about yourself? What race are you? You need to embrace your race and be proud of it. It’s what gives you depth and roots, and makes you special. Without a race, you become like a disembodied leaf that just floats around and doesn’t have anywhere to land.”
“Well, I am something of a mutt, but I am three-quarters Scandinavian.”
“Oh, so you are a Viking,” he laughed heartily. “I like that. From now on, I am going to call you Vikis, is that ok?”
I nodded, “I guess so, I must have some Viking blood in me, even if it is just a tiny trace.”
As it was the first time a guy gave me a personalized nickname, I thought it was great. Now that I think back on it, I think I fell in love with him right there and then. He was the first and only guy that I ever felt truly comfortable with, and he always had such great words of wisdom to give me. I really loved that he didn’t sweat the small stuff, like what name people called him. He was proud of who he was, and he made me feel proud of who I was, too. He gave me a sense of my own identity, by giving me permission to embrace my race. I know that I shouldn’t have needed it to come from him, but for some reason, I did. Up until then, there was some part of me that was trying to fit into my surroundings. He gave me the idea that I had the freedom to choose for myself who and what I wanted to be for myself. More importantly, that he would accept me for who I truly was and not who I was pretending to be. Not that I wasn’t a Colombian; just that I wasn’t a Colombian like him, and I didn’t have to be. I was a Colombian born of Scandinavian descent. Instead of being less, I was now so much more than I had been just a few minutes before.
I remember when we got married a girlfriend of mine accused me, “You are just marrying him, because he looks like Michael Jackson, aren’t you?” I had to laugh, because he really did look a lot like Michael Jackson, when Michael still looked like himself, that is. When we got married Michael Jackson was at the pinnacle of his career, it was soon after he released Thriller and before his album Bad. I have to admit that I thought that Michael was very handsome, at the time. My husband and I were both nineteen when we married. As my husband got older and filled out, although he never went in for the bodybuilder look, now he looks more like The Rock – Dwayne Johnson, at least in the face.
When we were married, I worried that I didn’t have a culture to impart to my children. I mean, I don’t know that much about Scandinavian culture. By blood, I am a mixture of races and by culture, I am also a mixture of my upbringing. That doesn’t make me less; it makes me more. I have three distinct cultures, including dress, music, literature, cooking, expressions and ways of thinking. Now my kids have all of what I am, plus all that their father is, as well. They are truly multi-cultural. Unlike me or their father, their skin color does not immediately classify them as any specific race. They could be anything from one extreme to another. Well, I guess no one would think they are Asian but other than that they could actually be from any country on the planet.
Basically, that means that they can be called by all kinds of nicknames, from negrito to gringo. My brother has been called “Gringo medio-indio”, which means Gringo who is half Indian, both of which can be viewed as derogatory terms, but he never viewed them as such. As a mother, I have never worried about what names my children are called, and I have tried to make sure that they don’t pay attention to those kinds of things. Yes, sometimes the names are meant to be hurtful, but that doesn’t mean that they need to be. What is the worst name that a person could be called? Why does it hurt? Is it because you believe there is some truth to it? So what? If you know who you are, it doesn’t have to hurt. Anyway, if a person doesn’t know you and calls you something derogatory it should not affect you, because they don’t even know you. Who cares what they think? Look at it this way. Say a person shoots an arrow from their bow in your direction, you have a choice. You can stand there and let it hit you and cause you injury, or you can move out of the way and let it fly past you. Well, with an arrow you can do that if you are fast enough, but the principal is the same with words. You can let them hit you and cause you damage, or you can turn away and go about your business and forget about it. As a parent, I would much rather teach my children to turn away from the arrow that was intended for them, than to make a big stink about it. We cannot teach our children to try and control their environment; that is pointless, because we can never control another person. We can control ourselves though, and we can teach our children to control themselves. We can teach our children to deflect and not react to stupid people.
In 2005, my parents and I had the opportunity to visit Sweden and Norway. First we attended a conference hosted by the Sami people in Kiruna, Sweden. It was very cathartic for my father and me to finally be able to see the Sami people up close, in their own land, and in their native dress, and eat reindeer meat. After a week there, we spent the next two weeks traveling around Norway visiting my father’s first cousins. His mother was the only one from her family who moved to the states. I was apprehensive as to how they would receive us. One of the cousins who is my age and I hit it off from the start. He had recently married a Filipino woman, and we had lots to talk about. I don’t remember which of us made a comment of what our relationship might have been if we had been able to grow up together. I remember that I said that I would have learned to speak Norwegian and then I could speak to all of my cousins and not just the few who could speak English. My cousin then said something that hit me like a chiropractic adjustment. He said, “It was you who left.” His voice sounded sharp, but instinctively, I knew what he meant and I agreed with him. He was saying that he was accepting me, but that he was also sad that we hadn’t been able to grow up together. We had both been robbed of what might have been. I have always felt that my grandmother robbed us when she made the decision to never speak Norwegian again and only spoke to my father in broken English. My father still speaks English with a Norwegian accent at times, something that never would have happened if he would have learned Norwegian at home and English at school and from his friends. After my cousin said that, everything finally felt “right” like after a chiropractic adjustment. I was among my own race, at last.
Of course, I still live in Colombia, and you can argue that if I were to move to Norway, that I would soon begin to feel like a fish out of water. I know that is probably true, especially since I can’t speak Norwegian, yet. But now I have roots, I know where I come from, and that is a feeling like no other. It is like I am finally a complete person and not just this hodge-podge stuck together with duct tape. This especially true after spending the last ten years actively researching my family tree. Well, actually I began doing my family tree when I was fourteen and it just struck me that the idea must have come after my conversation with my future husband.
So what makes my sister and me so different from each other? It would be easy to say that it is because she is six years older than me, that she was born in the states and already had a sense of identity before the family came to Colombia. Maybe or maybe it is something else entirely. I think it has to do more with attitude and our perception of things. Where I accepted certain things, she rejected them and vice-versa. Where I identified with certain things, she identified with other things. When some things made sense to me, maybe they didn’t make sense to her. It seems a strange thing to say, yet is absolutely true; that while she and I are the most similar in many regards, including DNA; she is also the most remotely different person from me on this planet in many other ways.