I have spent my first 49 1/2 years on this planet oblivious of my ethnicity. When I look in the mirror some things are self-evident. I am Caucasian, I have hazel-brown eyes and up until 20 years ago, I had brown hair. You might say I am an average white guy. However, unlike just about everyone else I know, I was unable to tell you where my ancestors originated. I couldn’t say, “Hey, I’m Italian,” or, “I’m Greek,” if anyone asked my heritage or ethnicity. All I could say was, “I have no idea.”
Why? I’m glad you asked. I was adopted when I was three days old. All my parents told me was that my biological mother was a single school teacher and couldn’t afford to keep me. Fair enough. I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, but grew up in western New York. I never really wanted to pursue my biological family because I thought it would be an insult to my parents. The topic particularly upset my mother, who always felt that maybe I thought she wasn’t good enough (this couldn’t be farther from the truth). Pennsylvania is one of the few states that hasn’t loosened privacy restrictions when it comes to adopted kids looking for their biological parents.
Today, Erie’s 100,000 residents are a hodgepodge of every ancestry under the sun from German to Yugoslavian. No Scotch-Romanian however.
It has been more than a decade since my folks passed away, so I don’t feel like it is disrespectful to go hunting for blood relatives at this point. Many people have encouraged me to. I have some paperwork in my possession that I could start that would get my foot in the door with Pennsylvania’s record keepers but I am not quite there.
I have always wondered about my ethnicity. What am I, really? In today’s charged political climate and the hot debate about immigration, I have thirsted for this information because I don’t believe that being “white” is a thing. There is no heritage or culture in just being white. We all came from somewhere else. We are all immigrants. The only people in America who aren’t immigrants are Native Americans. Everyone else either came from Asia, Europe, Africa, or hell, even Australia. I’m no anthropologist but I find all of this fascinating. As Americans, we have developed our own unique culture, especially when it comes to regional traditions and language, but we haven’t been a country for all that long. But just being white? That’s not a thing.
So, what I am I? Who are my people?
My wife actually had the thought that maybe, just maybe, my dad was my biological father. We can’t find my adoption records. What we have found doesn’t make any sense.
Within the last 10 years, I have become the keeper on my family tree. I stood on the shoulders of one of my cousins and filled in the blanks after she and her father did the bulk of it. My father’s ancestors, the Knaaks, are very German. My great grandparents left Germany in 1900 and came through Ellis Island. I have traced the Knaaks back to 1803 or so, I know where they lived, Mecklenberg-Schwerin, I know they were Lutheran, and I know what parish they belonged to. My mother was Korean. Her family and ancestors are nothing but Korean (as far as I know).
My wife got me a 23 and Me ancestry kit for Christmas. A few days later I cracked it open, followed the instructions, and sent my spit off into the great beyond. About a month later I received an email indicating my reports were ready. I only had a few minutes before I had to rush out the door to work but I pulled up enough info to proclaim to the house that I am … wait for it … here it comes … not German … not Korean …
British/Irish with Scottish and Irish Ancestry
When you dive into the reports, within the last 200 years, 23 and Me points to London as the strongest concentration of my ancestors; 8 million people live in London today. Mixed in with the list of points of origin for my United Kingdom ancestors – Glasgow City, Scotland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. My more recent Irish ancestors most likely hailed from County Cork in southern Ireland. Although the breakdown says French/German for No. 2 on the list, the Netherlands (north Holland) is a strong contender for likely ancestors. Apparently what was considered French is greater than I knew. Germany is barely a blip on the report.
23 and Me offers plenty of rabbit holes for you to dive into and perhaps the two that I find the most intriguing take me back a few thousand years. They can tell you about ancestors through paternal and maternal “haplogroups.” Apparently, I have a maternal ancestor scientists have dubbed “Ava,” who lived more than 4,200 years ago in Achavanich, Highland, Scotland. The paternal haplogroup points to ancestors who were part of the Uí Néill dynasty in northern Ireland, who also spread to northern Scotland.
This information certainly helps me make some sense of a few things.
I have always been fond of Scotch (Highland in particular) and Irish whisky (of course there is a Jameson distillery in County Cork), and gravitate to darker beers – porters, stouts (I love Guiness, and I named my first novel after an Imperial stout). I don’t know if it has anything to do with my taste in food.
I felt very comfortable walking the streets of London when I visited in 2014. I love books and pubs. I could live in an Irish or English pub. I’m drawn to the sea, I have a year of my life underway – Ava was discovered just west of Scotland’s northeastern shore on the North Sea. I enjoy dreary, rainy, foggy weather (I just hate being out in it).
I have always been fond of James Bond films, almost obsessively so, Bram Stoker’s Dracula had a profound affect on me. Stoker was Irish. I love the works of Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron. I adore Hammer Horror films – the aesthetic especially. I enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories and shows like Ripper Street. Boring period movies and TV series set in the Edwardian or Victorian eras don’t do much for me. Much of my favorite pop/rock music originates from England and Ireland. It’s possible I had ancestors in the last 200 years from Manchester, where my favorite band – New Order – hails from. More likely, some of my forebears came from Merseyside where Liverpool is. I enjoy quite a bit of music that originated there. Everyone knows I am a fan of The Pogues, who hail from London.
Maybe my British/Irish heritage has nothing to do with my tastes at all. Maybe it has everything to do with them.
Bringing this full circle, I am very American. I love American things. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, cheeseburgers, amusement parks, all that – I am a patriot, I served my country. But I am not a wave-my-flag-in-your-face kind of patriot. I don’t believe in forced patriotism. I don’t run around telling everyone that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. I am not naive or blind to the horrible things we’ve done as a country, as a people, in the last 245 years or so. However, I know the great things we’ve done as well. I believe in the American dream and realize that it is different for everyone. It is especially relevant for the immigrants who have helped make our country great, those who have contributed to our scientific advances and our national security interests, those who have brought their culture to our shores and shared it and enriched our neighborhoods and communities with their language and song and dance and art and literature.
In my day job, I have become a professional historian and have been one for the past year and a half. In that position, I am like a dog with a bone with my research. I have been that way with the Knaak family tree. I am nowhere near done with that. I’ve just hit a temporary roadblock. I have no doubt that I will dive into what 23 and Me has revealed about me through my DNA. I will embrace my heritage, culture, and history, celebrate it and learn it. I now have reasons to study the history of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands and even Charlemagne and the Franks.
I’m not a fan of the royals, I think the colonies were right to rebel against England in the American revolution, British colonialism hurt more than it helped – but the history is fascinating and it is history that helped forge and shape the modern world as we know it today.
I now know what I’m not. I’m not German. But I finally know what I am. I am British and Irish with northern Scottish and Irish ancestry. I am also an American. But you know what? I am still a Knaak. And I always will be and I am proud to be.
I don’t think I’ll be trying haggis any time soon, I will always prefer American football (I might be talked into picking and following a favorite soccer team), I doubt I’ll learn Gaelic, but I may be convinced to wear a kilt.
Just remember, if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.