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Posted on Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 6:12 a.m.

Kiss me, I'm Irish. Kiss me, I'm Italian! Kiss me, I'm Chinese? Wearing our cultural pride on St. Patrick's Day

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

I used to think that St. Patrick’s Day was a national holiday.

I attended Catholic schools in Los Angeles, and all the Bishops at the time, the ones who set the calendars for all the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese, were Irish. Thus St. Patrick’s Day was always a school holiday. Always. Along with Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday and All Saint’s Day.

Then our school got a young new principal, Sister Nathaniel. She was Italian American, with dark brown bangs peeking out of her white habit, a matter-of-fact way of speaking and a brisk, efficient stride. She declared that since St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) was about the same time as St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), we would celebrate both saints’ days together.

I have often thought of this story as one which shows the difference one person can make. Because she was Italian American, she understood the importance of St. Joseph’s Day to our many Italian-American families; no one else even knew.

That year our St. Patrick’s - St. Joseph’s Day celebration included Irish jigs with bright plaid scarves pinned over the shoulder, a spaghetti dinner fundraiser and a Mexican hat dance, too (we also had a large hispanic American population). Not bad for the 1970s.

When my family later moved to northern California where the Bishops were not all Irish, I was surprised to discover that St. Patrick’s Day was not always a school holiday, that St. Patrick was not the most important saint. (When I graduated from Catholic high school and entered the secular world, I was really surprised to discover that St. Patrick’s Day had become a drinking day rather than a holy day.)

Still, on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone wore green and all the Irish-American students wore their bright and cheery “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirts.

At other times, the Italian-American students wore their red white and green “Kiss Me I’m Italian” T-shirts.

However, no one ever wore a “Kiss Me I’m Mexican” or “Kiss Me I’m Polish” or “Kiss Me I’m Chinese” T-shirt. Those did not even exist. We were not necessarily ashamed of our ethnicities; it just did not occur to us to be proud of them, and there were no ready-made gifts and knickknacks to buy in the mainstream Miles Kimball and Lillian Vernon and Harriet Carter mail-order catalogs to prove it. (Thank goodness, actually.) If there was no stuff to buy, obviously no one else thought it was important, either.

Instead, everyone else had ethnic jokes. “Did you hear the one about the …”

When I was a kid, I used to love collecting stickers, and I once found a sticker of the Taiwan flag somewhere. I was excited to stick it on the back bumper of my father’s old Dodge Dart. He stopped me. He said it could be dangerous because it would identify us, and people who did not like Taiwan or China might damage the car or harm us.

I still wrestle with the fear of being too public. Essayist Richard Rodriguez writes eloquently about our private and public selves, our private and public languages. When my oldest daughter was in preschool, she wanted to wear a Chinese qi pao for school pictures one year. My automatic instinctual reaction was to say no. Chinese clothes (and language and food) were private, for home, not for parading out in public where other ("normal") people might see and take offense.

Then I realized what the message of that would be. I took a deep breath, and I let her wear her pride to school.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang will be speaking at a panel discussion of Hapa (multiracial Asian American) Issues at Eastern Michigan University Monday, March 15, 11 a.m., 310A Student Center.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blog at or reach her at



Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 7:56 p.m.

The story is a wonderfully written article about a person growing up believing that some holidays held influence over others because of the pride and influence of those who believed in the importance of the holiday/holy day. I was reminded immediately of attending a Catholic school in San Franciso many years ago. The Catholic school was taught by nuns from Ireland. Their brogue still echoes in my ear. Their crisp linens and blue habits shimmer vividly in my memory. It was not the big parochial school on Geary, but the small "mission" school with mostly Japanese and Chinese American pupils. Every St. Patrick's Day, the nuns taught the girls an Irish wheel. Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, white--the girls didn't matter nor did they mind dancing to the record player. And we in the audience never questioned it. It was a celebration of an important saint's feast. And we heard every year the story of Saint Patrick as told by the nuns from Ireland. Even though we came from a history of struggle and survival of Japanese and Chinese in California, we did not study it. Not until years later, in high school, was I to learn the things that happened to the Japanese American Californians and others on the West Coast. Since you asked, "et-tu", The story is about a young girl who learned the importance of a special day of celebration made more important by those who valued it. And discovering later on that her culture has just as much to celebrate, once she realized there was much to be proud of. It was a moment of discovery AND of pride. Her telling us of this discovery is a wonderful way to share it with us. And it was a way of helping me recall a similar time of my life in a Catholic school in San Francisco a long time ago. I knew well what the story was "supposed to be about." And I would bet good GREEN money that many readers got it as well. On the other hand, I have no idea what your comment is about. I used to tell my son, who sruggled to craft a well-written essay: "Good writing is good thinking." I'm afraid I have no idea what you are thinking. And where do the Woodrow Wilson T-shirts come in? How many do you have/wear? Very out of time.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 2:42 p.m.

I really enjoyed this article. It reminds us that living in the United States allows us the unique opportunity to celebrates and to learn about different cultures and traditions of many ethnic groups which does not necessarily occur in all parts of the world.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 1:11 p.m.

You misunderstand the viewpoint. This article talks about how I was raised with St. Patricks Day as a Holy Day of Obligation, a day to go to mass and honor St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. And the shock of leaving the homogenous safety of Catholic Schools and going out into the secular world and discovering that not everyone takes St. Patricks Day as a holy day (not to mention Easter, Christmas, etc.). Have you really never noticed the sometimes crass commercialization of this holiday? I am not agreeing with it, simply registering the shock of discovering it. This article is primarily about how lucky Irish Americans are to have a day when everybody wants to be Irish for a day. And how they could safely and proudly proclaim their ethnicity with Kiss me Im Irish T-shirts and buttons and pins and hats in a way that other ethnic groups could not. Today, there do exist Kiss me Im type T-shirts for every ethnicity. However, even now, would everyone really want to be "Chinese for a day" or Mexican for a day or African American for a day the same way everyone wants to be Irish for a day? Why not? The answer is telling. In no way would I disparage the accomplishments of any ethnic group. A hundred fifty years ago when the Irish and the Chinese were building the transcontinental railroad, both were considered to be another race, hopelessly unassimilable and held in much disdain. We have come a long way. Again, it is not about T-shirts so much as it is about feeling safe enough to publicly declare your pride in whatever you are rather than hoping nobody notices and holds it against you. And the challenge of teaching our children to be publicly proud of whoever they are while also knowing/assuring they will be safe if they do so.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 12:51 p.m.

No shame needed. This is simply a delightful story of a woman recalling events from her childhood. Not really sure what piece you read, actually. She is not diluting cultures, stereotyping anyone or asking anyone to do anything that might be even remotely considered anti-Irish. My great-grandparents too were victims of anti-Irish sentiment as well. My grandmother even talked about an 'Irish need not apply sign' that she saw in Detroit as a girl. Luckily her parents were employed were not adversely effected by that particular opportunity lost to them. The most dramatic thing the Irish side of my family did was change the family name to remove the "Irishness" of it. (took out the O' - fooled no one I am sure) More likely my grandmother was probably more effected by the anti-Catholic rhetoric although she did not talk about it, both dovetailing for her in the early 1960's perhaps explaining why she hung photos of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy in the living room, same exact size and in a straight line with my father and uncle's high school graduation photos. Imagine my surprise to find out they were NOT two lost uncles. (my parents also invited Jack and Jackie to their wedding and received an engraved "no" that they framed and hung in their bedroom. Anyone else's parents do that?) However, within one generation, with white native English speakers as children, no brogue or accent noticable, all semblance of otherness went missing from our family. We blended. Our nationality, patriotism, national pride never questioned or challenged. Not even when we disagreed with our government loudly! We were never told to 'go back to our own country if we didn't like it here". For a couple of generations now we have not had to think about race or ethnicity at all (points that this author did not even bring up in this lovely piece, although I have read others skillfully written by her) - have not had to teach our children about "their" culture so they can protect themselves against the numerous questions they might get about where they are from constant chipping away at their self esteem as if they can never claim American culture as theirs. So honestly comment #1 person, I have absolutely NO idea what you are talking about here. Irish Pride, let's wear it together :) Erin Go Bragh!


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 11:52 a.m.

What is this story supposed to be about? Is the writer trying to tell people to dilute one of my last cultural celebrations that I am proud of? This is a mockery of a story. It is ST. Patrick's Day. It celebrates the plight of Irish Heritage and I celebrate it personally for the hard times that my Grand father had as an Irish American immigrant. By this "story" saying that this Irish Holiday is a drinking feast is a cultural / racial stereo-type that I take extreme offence to and shame on for printing this. Would you allow some racial stereo-type to be published about African Americans during Dr. Martin Luther King JR. Day or allow a writer to say that Martin Luther King Day is not really a holiday and to be sure to wear your Woodrow Wilson Tee-Shirts?!? Shame on this writer and shame on!