The Power of Pride

What I found when I found my people

| September-October 2011

  • eric-portrait-new

    2009 © Chris Lyons / lindgrensmith.com

  • eric-portrait-new

Recently I was invited by the Twin Cities Tibetan community to say a few words at a ceremony honoring this year’s high school graduates. I gave a mini–commencement address, urging them to take advantage of the opportunities America has to offer while encouraging them to preserve their language and culture. “You Tibetans have a real sense of community,” I said. “Most Americans do not. Please hold on to what you have and teach the rest of us how to live in community.”

Minnesota has the second-largest Tibetan population in the United States, and for nearly 20 years my family and I have been sponsors in the Tibetan Resettlement Project. We’ve gotten to know a number of Tibetans intimately, shared in their challenges and joys, and participated in their community rituals and celebrations. Over that time, I must admit to being occasionally envious of my friends’ stalwart pride in their traditional culture.

Until recently I had no similar connection to my own roots. In fact, I was mostly embarrassed about my Norwegian background. When others celebrated their Viking heritage, I hid mine. I was afraid I’d be seen as a stereotypical hick, just off the boat, much less refined and sophisticated than my classmates and neighbors. Such insecurities are not uncommon among children of immigrants, but what to do with mine?

Both of my parents traced their roots to Norway. My mother was born in the far north, just above the Arctic Circle. She immigrated to Minnesota when she was 9 years old. Her parents wanted to become real Americans as fast as possible, so speaking Norwegian at home was forbidden. But over holiday meals at my grandmother’s house, I managed to learn how to speak with a Norwegian accent: Ja Mor-mor, Tusen Takk! Det var en reeeally good meal.



After my mother died I took her ashes back to Norway, as was her wish, and as she had done for her father. I sprinkled some in the fields of the little farm where she was born, and where her aunt Magda was then living. The interior walls of the farmhouse were covered with 19th-­century sepia-colored photos of our relatives, hung in oval frames. For four hours Magda told me nuanced stories about our family. She spoke no English and I, besides my ersatz accent, no Norwegian. But we understood each other perfectly.

Last May I made a pilgrimage to Oslo on business, timing my visit so I could be there during Norway’s Constitution Day, Syttende Mai, the 17th of May. The day was sunny and warm, with Norwegian flags flying everywhere and the lilacs in full bloom. The traditional Children’s Parade brought 100,000 people to the royal palace in the center of Oslo to watch King Harald, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon, and Crown Princess Mette-Marit reviewing the parade. The king and prince tipped their top hats as the children pranced by with their teachers and schoolmates, tooting their trumpets, beating their drums, and shouting, “Hip, hip!”—and the crowd shouting back, “Hoorah!”