What I found when I found my people
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!”
The city was overrun with blond women and girls who looked just like my sister, Mary, and nieces Ingrid and Emily, every second or third one wearing a beautiful bunad, the traditional Norwegian regional peasant dress. I was reminded of the Twin Cities’ Tibetan community, and the Tibetan women in their traditional peasant costumes.
But these were my people.
For the first time in my life I found myself filled with ethnic pride. This was exhilarating, but also nervous-making, given the host of horrors—tribal conflict, racism, and xenophobia included—often attributed to ethnic pride run amok. Still, this was my first experience of being with an indigenous people among whom I felt I truly belonged—and it was both a powerful and a pleasurable sensation.
A few days after Syttende Mai I visited Steinar and Vesna Bryn. Steinar runs the Dialog Project of the Nansen Academy, which promotes reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. On the way to their home in Lillehamer, he and Vesna took me to Eidsvoll, the site of the drafting of the first Norwegian constitution, in 1814. Steinar told me it was modeled after the United States’ founding document. Norwegians are very proud that Norway is the second-oldest democracy in the world. The site includes a statue of the poet Henrik Wergeland, who instigated the May 17 celebration’s focus on freedom, equality, brotherhood, children, and the future.
That did it. I’d come full circle. I’m now proud to be Norwegian, proud to be an American, and proud to be a member of humanity.