Honoring My Heritage
“Who am I?”
Philosophers have been pondering this existential question for millennia, and I have been searching for answers on a daily basis.
The genesis of this expedition of personal awareness was discussed in last week’s Social Musings post on The Story of the Denim Jacket (https://www.socialmusingsbyaustin.com/post/the-story-of-the-denim-jacket), and the catalyst was deep despair that led to a near-death experience. Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling over the ages, as Wolfram Eilenberger writes in his Rise of the Magicians, a philosophical history book I borrowed from my public library. He says:
“It is only the concrete experience of a loss of meaning and therefore, in whatever form, a disturbed relationship with the world that raises the question for...the sense of Being and the sense of its own existence: What is it all for? Why am I here?”
There are many ingredients which together create who we are - genetic, spiritual, experiential, intellectual, physical, etc. So on my journey for ethical-self actualization, I began to go deeper into my genetic background to begin to find some answers.
My heritage is predominantly Jewish, from both sides of the family (May is also Jewish Heritage Month). I am also ¼ Irish Catholic coming from my paternal side.
If you haven’t watched My Grandparent’s War on PBS yet, I highly recommend it. The show follows four British Hollywood celebrities (Helena Bonham Carter, Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Carrie Mulligan) as they explore their own wartime family histories. The show is incredibly inspirational and makes me wonder how we can emulate what made their generation so heroic. The show also made me think about my own grandparents, who were both involved in World War II.
My paternal grandfather fought as a Lieutenant with the US Navy (Marines) in World War II in the Battle of Okinawa. He was awarded a medal for leading a group of men who bravely put out a supply depot fire caused by enemy ammunition. Grandpa Bob passed away many years ago, and he would be 108 years old today if he were still living. He was a hero to me, and I imagine he was a hero to his platoon as well. Our family was honored when The New York Times published his obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/01/business/robert-rosenthal-87-ran-apparel-stores.html.
Today, however, I wish to explore my maternal grandfather, who was part of the US Army in World War II. A sniper himself, he was stationed at the Camp Wolters Army base in Mineral Wells, Texas and was in charge of training Army snipers bound for the European front.
Very recently, my mom told me that my grandfather was ¼ Asian by blood. In the light of the current situation of increased racial tension, which I discussed in my post "Making Sense of Senseless Violence" (https://www.socialmusingsbyaustin.com/post/making-sense-of-senseless-violence), I felt it was important to tell some of his story.
Here is a picture of my late Grandpa Erwin from 1991, along with my mother (BTW, that is not me in the chicken suit).
Either his grandfather or grandmother (these would be my great-great grandparents, my mom does not know exactly which one) was from China and had moved to London. While there, they met their spouse, who was from Poland, and they eventually emigrated to the United States. When I think of these actions, I am astounded at the courage required for anyone to move to a foreign country, without speaking the local language and likely without any familial support or career waiting upon arrival. I am speechless and near tears when I contemplate the discrimination my ancestor faced in that day and age.
This inter-racial marriage in my family tree makes me 1/16 Asian American. In honor of this portion of my heritage and of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, I have attempted to immerse myself in Asian American culture (I have long loved Asian food, literature and art) to see if this side of my ancestral history contains answers as I progress on my lifelong spiritual exploration.
Regarding philosophy and religion, some of the earliest known philosophers were Chinese (Laozi and Confucius), and their enlightened thoughts around dao, ren and living a virtuous life went on to influence billions of people. The region spawned Hinduism and Buddhism, which have given the modern age the concepts of mindfulness and meditation along with so much more.
I believe another one of the ways for a culture to express itself is through the cultural arts, and I have taken advantage of both in-person and virtual opportunities to learn about the AAPI community.
First, I visited the Dallas Museum of Art and the Crow Museum of Asian Art at the University of Texas at Dallas.
I learned about a ferociously warlike and revolutionary yet deeply spiritual people who captured the essence of life in their art in a passionately poignant way. The allegorical artworks heavy with imagery of mountains, legendary figures such as Confucius and of warfare help me to paint my own internal picture of APPI culture. Hindu gods were also featured, including Vishnu, who preserves the universe, and his partner, Lakshmi.
Picture taken at the Dallas Museum of Art
Pictures taken at the Crow Museum of Asian Art (#immortallandscapes)
I also attended a two-part virtual lecture from The Whitney Museum of American Art on Asian-American Artists in the Whitney’s Collection, taught by Xin Wang, Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow.
In this lecture series, I learned that my ancestors have a long history of political activism and concern for social justice.
Source: The Whitney Museum of Art online lectures
I am at the very beginning of my spiritual exploration, yet I feel better embracing my ethnic background rather than being ashamed of it, as I discussed in an earlier Social Musings blog post titled "Religion in Modern Day America" (https://www.socialmusingsbyaustin.com/post/religion-in-modern-day-america).
Helena Bonham Carter mentions one of her favorite quotes in the show My Grandparent's War, which really resonated with me.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
― Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
When we may be feeling isolated or blue, we can find spirituality and comfort in simply knowing that we are NOT alone. We can better understand ourselves by connecting with our history to gain a better appreciation and knowledge of our origins.
So what should our collective answer to the question, “Who am I” be?
I am exactly who I’m meant to be.
Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. Thank you to all those who serve, have served and the military families who remained strong, supportive and hopeful throughout the tragic conflicts in our history. Your bravery has helped protect and sustain our democracy.
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Note to readers:
Special thanks to Mary Jo Finch, Library Director at the Westbank Library (my local library) for running such a wonderful public institution as well as the excellent staff at the Whitney Museum for curating such quality programming.