Everybody Was Irish on Monday. Now What?

When I was young I had a gym teacher. Remember those? And the Presidential Fitness Test? I never passed it.

Anyway, back in second grade my gym teacher, Ms. Burke, said something that stuck in my craw even more memorably and painfully than the time she wrote an “L” in magic marker on my left hand because me and Curtis, my very round square dancing partner, could not square dance. Of course I did not change his name.

Ms. Burke said: “Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Maybe I was feeling indignant on Curtis’ behalf, or perhaps I was still smarting myself from our square-dance shakedown. This notion that everybody could just automatically be for the day something that I was born to be everyday — Irish! — really insulted my grade-two Gaelic pride.

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Dramatic reenactment of the 1987 Square dance Shakedown.

I was so sure that Ms. Burke was so wrong that I did not even ask my mom or my dad for clarification. I was Irish. Not everybody was. In my suburban midwestern gym class I looked like pretty much everyone else. Being Irish by virtue of my crazy consonant-ridden surname was all I had to hang any sort of ethnic identity on, and I wouldn’t give it up without a fight.

In the years that have passed, my Irishness has become something I don’t need to assert. There are several reasons that I’ve eased up on my Gaelic pride. For one, I figured out that a lot of people in my midsize midwestern town are, indeed, somewhat or very much Irish. Turns out Irish people came to America in droves, and then they had droves of children. I could stop being so damned snooty about being marginally Irish. So I did. For another, I went to England in the late ’90s and every time I flashed my passport folks would ask me if I knew the famous footballer with red hair whose surname I happened to share. It felt grand to be someplace where people already knew my name and how to pronounce it. In my mid-twenties which happened just a couple years ago, the freckles kind of took me over and announced to the world: “Kiss me, I’m Irish every day.” Or so I’d like to think. I’d rather they say that than “Look at me. I am seriously sun damaged!”

Eventually, I had four children who are half Indian, and the first one was born with orange hair! Take that, St. Patrick!

This year’s build up to St. Patrick’s Day, I saw Facebook friends’ photos and weekend bar stumbles down my city’s streets (we have a lot of bars, okay!) awash in green gear. People were quoting proverbs, writing limericks, having parties, watching parades and I was doing nothing but having my last name and my freckles and giving my eldest child some sunscreen before he went skiiing.

After he left with my latest anti-UV ray lecture still ringing in his ears and a tiny tube of SPF 125 I looked at my remaining three kids. We would honor our heritage on this day, I decided, by going to our favorite Indian restaurant. It wasn’t Irish, but it was something. It was a heritage and it’s their heritage and every day I know I’m not doing quite enough to honor it, or to raise them in the understanding that their grandparents were part of this incredible immigrant experience that has shaped my children’s lives in ways they can’t yet understand. They really can live between two worlds, someday, if they want. They’ve been abroad twice, eat cilantro on a near daily basis and can count to ten in Gujarati. I couldn’t boast any of those things until my early 20s, and I’m still struggling to remember the Gujarati word for “five.”

So Sunday afternoon it was off to the buffet. On the “party table” — that’s what I call the buffet table with the desserts and chai on it — was one of my ultimate favorite Indian party foods: pani poori. Unless you’ve had it before, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of the whole experience: puffed white shells, spiced garbanzo beans, diced and spiced potatoes, red onion and brown broth.

My kids have had it before, but this St. Pat’s Day eve they were immune to the charm and complexity of it all. “Oh! I love pani poori!” my nine-year-old exclaimed. But in the end, his plate was a disappointing, mostly monochromatic display of dietary boredom. Turns out that he just likes the poori.

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My son’s plate ® and my idli sambar (l).

My daughter’s plate was even worse.

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I raised her better

Indian, Irish, in-between, none of the above. Sometimes we like what we like. I’m Irish and so are my kids. I can make my own pani poori, but they won’t eat it. You can be Irish today, anyway, no day. It’s not my business. But if you do tell me you’re Irish, be ready for my sun safety lecture. Really it’s something we all should hear.

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