For those who require real proof I have photos and an actual clipping to verify my claim. Yes, until I was four my head was adorned by golden curly locks. I don’t know what happened to those locks when I entered my kindergarten year. My hair turned dark brown like that of my mom and dad, my sisters, and all my cousins, uncles and aunts. My hair began living up to my Italian-sounding name.
That dark brown hair, what’s left of it on my head, is now wholly gray. And now I call my hair blond. It’s my way of establishing that I’m an all-American guy who belongs among the Viking hoards of Lake Woebegone land.
I fit in and don’t fit in wherever I am these days. When I visited Rome a few months ago I expected to be lost in enough crowds to look Roman enough. There a wide diversity of faces, hues, sizes, shapes, designer labels and languages manage to make room for each other–refugees from Albania, gypsies from Romania, the homeless from North Africa, Pakistan, the Middle East, and tourists like me from everywhere sharing the sidewalks with natives. All roads lead to Rome. Why expect anything but a stew of hybrid variations in a city whose legendary founders, Romulus and Remus, were, without prejudice, famously suckled by a wolf.
But I did a double-take outside the Vatican Museum. There a pert and very pretty Asian-looking woman had gathered about herself a group of tourists, a couple of them sporting New York Yankee caps. She was their tour guide. As I eavesdropped I heard her deliver extraordinarily learned comments on Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Dante, with asides that featured a few of the more corrupt popes. I heard her address the Yankee fans in seamless Italian, the Tuscan dialect that is now the official “high” language of the whole peninsula. I knew some Italian too, but it’s the southern Calabrese dialect that makes northerners wince as they dismiss southerners as “terroni“–peasant “earthlings.” I felt diminished listening to her. This attractive woman–whose ancestors might have come from China or some other exotic land–was crowding in on my cultural roots and making me feel like a weed.
When I feel like a weed my thoughts turn grim. I recall, for example, that China’s population is swelling toward the one billion four hundred million mark. I imagine that the tour guide (or her parents or ancestors) was one of several millions who at some point leave their homes to find a better life. Boundary lines can appear especially imaginary when hunger and desperation are real, and when multi-national corporations, willing enough to enhance their bottom lines by debasing the wages and working conditions of host countries, make it easier for border guards to look the other way. The multi-nationals know how cheap labor, uprooted like weeds for a harvest of profits, belongs to a classless society easily had.
Since my own parents were working class immigrants to the U.S. I should know better than to be hard on Asian-looking refugees trying to make a place for themselves in the world. Their diligence, resilience, thrift, intelligence, and practical good sense rewards many of them, as do the brutal lessons learned from long marches, totalitarian rule, cultural revolutions, and starvation diets. We offshore not only factory but engineering jobs to Asians now, and we’re told they work harder for less, and they produce a lot of what we buy, and we borrow billions from them to buy their stuff from them.
My wife Monica, impressed by the diligence, resilience, thrift, intelligence, and practical good sense of several Chinese women grad students we’ve encountered over the years, says it’s a good thing they’re getting out and about. “Chinese women,” she keeps reminding me, “one day will rule the world, and we’ll all be better off for it.”
It’s hard not to agree, especially if it comes down to a choice between a Chinese woman and a gaggle of Republicans calling the shots.
It’s not easy to visualize Chinese immigrants in the farm fields of Madagascar or oil fields of Libya, mainly because we don’t see much of anything going on in most parts of the world unless it has entertainment value. But when I looked twice at that tour guide outside the Vatican Museum I saw a class act. And some troubling questions hit me in the head: What was she doing in Rome, and what was she doing representing my culture to Yankee fans who probably also have Italian-sounding names? Is she the avant-garde ripple of a human wave tsunami coming our way? And it’s not just Asians coming our way. The French, nervous that the storming of the Bastille will come to naught because women in Paris suburbs prefer to hide their faces behind veils, are passing laws that make legal taboos of the preferences of some Muslims. In Germany the immigrant labor force is stirring up old talk about racial purity, and that angry conversation’s echoes have crossed the Alps down into Italy. My hair stands on end as I recall the ominous words of the eminent Dr. Frank Lydston, who in his 1908 book Diseases of Society and Degeneracy reminds us that, “A hair divides the ‘soul’ of man from the brain attributes of the lower animals.” Should I alert the U.S. Coast Guard to the specter of boatloads of Asians sneaking across the Pacific to invade San Francisco’s Chinatown?
My thoughts get less lowdown as I pause to wonder if eros is properly influencing my thoughts about the tour guide outside the Vatican Museum. One thing is certain: Eros, nature’s lubricant, is the leading cause of global warming. But unlike oil it offers itself to us as an endlessly renewable energy source, one experienced daily and worldwide by millions of normal teenagers and young adults as nagging volcanic tremors in the private parts. But alas, alack, eros is also single-mindedly stupid about its role in creating the dangers posed by the human wave tsunami gathering strength in overpopulated hotbeds of the world. Eros knows no geography, biology, psychology or languages. And it seldom knows how to count past one, even if it has a Ph.D.
What do my long-gone golden curly locks have to do with stupid eros? A little historical research leaves me with a better informed ignorance of the roots of my blond hair. Long before Romulus and Remus were fattening up on wolf’s milk, Germanic tribes were invading southern Sweden, the Danish peninsula and northern Germany, while the Celts were venturing into northern Spain and the Alpine regions. Six Germanic tribes–Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards, and Franks–took turns raping and pillaging their way south into the Italian peninsula, with Rome suffering blowback from its empire ambitions by being sacked by the Gauls in 390 B.C., the Visigoths in 410 A.D., the Vandals in 455 A.D., the Visigoths again in 476 A.D. and the Normans (of hybrid Viking stock) in 1084 A.D. The Greeks, of course, were already there in ancient times as colonists, and Helen of Troy was said to be a gorgeous blonde. And the invaders who came from North Africa and the Middle East getting lost in the crowds when Charles of Spain sacked Rome again in 1527 A.D., making a bloodbath from the gene pool bouillabaisse out of which new “Italians” were conceived. My golden curly locks no doubt had their origin as a DNA tendril learning to swim that murky soup.
So how does she, the pretty Asian tour guide with silken black hair, fit into the current stream of Italian history? Does she “belong”? Is she perhaps child of one of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” committing a subversive act of culture war presumptuously speaking on behalf of masterwork icons generated and located in a place called Italy? Even if she was able to hustle her way to citizenship and a job, and in spite of her command of the major Italian dialect, will she ever be Italian enough?
If she’s like me she does in Rome as the Romans do. When I’m in Rome the golden curly locks I had as a little boy that were transfigured into old man gray are no longer Viking strands. I tell everyone who asks (they don’t, since this conversation, like most unspeakable ones, goes on in my mind) that my hair is like a classic Italian red wine. In Rome my hair is Italian hair. I also remain mum about the swarthy and grizzled Greeks, North Africans and Middle Easterners who colonized southern Italy centuries ago. Though it lacks the silken noir luster that perfects the Asian tour guide’s face, I don’t want to leave the impression that my “terroni” hair is impure.
What claim do I have on Italian culture, my “roots”? In what sense are Michelangelo’s “Moses” or “David” mine, or Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” or Dante’s Divine Comedy? My fifteen year-old son, also named Dante, recently informed me, in no uncertain terms, “I’m not you, Dad!” as he escaped me (again) to do his own thing. Moses and David were from a land called Israel or Palestine, and I’m not. Mona Lisa does not resemble my mother or my Irish/German/American/Italo-philic wife, though I see hints of my eldest daughter’s face (she’s a gorgeous blonde) in the portrait. My second daughter is dark-haired, her name Leah taken from the Old Testament. Dante’s Divine Comedy is about Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, but I don’t believe in heaven or hell. So how “Italian” am I, and how Italian are the artists who created these masterworks? As with sinners and saints, is it also true of artists: We know them by their works, wonderful for all of us, or not.
While globalism is making homeless tourists of more and more hapless laborers, the world’s population tsunami is swelling the refugee lines. Religious objections to birth control persist, with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders aware of the importance of market share as population growth strains existing national boundary lines. Meanwhile, eros pushes its own interests, and prefers exogamy. As our bodies tell us to have babies our genes tell us to go out, not in toward the familiar. Biology suggests it’s a very bad thing to mate with our mothers, brothers, sisters and first cousins. It inclines us to leave home to mate with The Other, strangers who live in villages we’ve never visited, people with faces, body types and hues different from our own. In this way babies sporting blond curly locks will be born to parents with very dark brown hair, and biology’s good intentions for the future of the human race will be well-served.
Biological facts of life have always troubled me. They’re never cut and dried and they do not obediently respect the laws of culture and nation-states. As we keep spawning unprecedented population that keeps shrinking the planet and its resources, biology challenges us in unprecedented ways. How do we control this selfish urge? How do we adjust to the tide of refugees coming our way? How do we convert the creative force of eros into the politics, arts and sciences that make life efficient and worthwhile? How do we maintain rule of law when refugees get out of line to get to a slice of bread? How do we in good conscience deny them that slice of bread?
It’s a problem that makes saints and sinners of us.
When I stand at attention while the “Star-Spangled Banner” is being played I try to remind myself that all my names–attached to the identities by which I’m said to be known (“American,” “Minnesotan,” “white,” “male,” etc. etc. etc.)–are also just noise. It helps me confront my prejudices, including the one that reared its ugly head to convince me that the Asian-looking tour guide in Rome was not Italian enough to be Italian at all. But if biology is absurd enough to encourage us to fall in love with perfect strangers, why not let the Asian/Italian tour guide fall in love with Michelangelo’s “David” too? Who knows what stranger perhaps already has fallen in love with her, and what lovely girl with blond curly locks (“like gold to airy thinness beat”) may come of their love, and how this girl-child one day may govern our world.