I’m a hybrid: born German, raised in the United States. Nature vs nurture – you may take sides in that debate, I know that it’s both. Depending on where I am, I’ve been told that I’m “so German” and “that’s so American of you.”
When I came to St. Paul Minnesota from Berlin as a teenager, I experienced being German as a plus, a positively received distinction. At Cleveland Junior High school, my teachers helped me with my English after class; they forgave all my mistakes and lavished praise when I succeeded on spelling tests and written reports.
The only fault-line in the school ran between white Catholics and white Protestants: non-Catholics complained about the fish served in the cafeteria on Fridays. All classmates clamored to learn how to cuss in German and came by my family’s East Side apartment asking to play with “the German girls” - my sister and I. It didn’t take long for me to make friends and figure out how to organize my school work in a three hole binder. After a few months, I was fluent in English. The laughter that occasionally erupted in the classroom when I pronounced a word incorrectly wasn’t hostile. My German stepfather explained the melting pot as holding a soup of many ingredients, all of which added up to a splendid taste.
A year after I arrived, Polish twins started attending Cleveland Junior High. Adam was tall and freckled, Eva had straight brown hair that touched the waist of her dress. Even though I had just begun to comprehend the complicated social rules of hallway and classroom, I saw right away that these newcomers were received very differently: teachers were impatient and students avoided them. In ninth grade, I gave a speech about life in Germany at the school wide assembly. Students applauded and the student council gave me a lipstick. Adam and Eva were not asked to speak. I wondered why no one cared about Poland.
In the United States, people identify me as German; in Germany, they refer to me as Amerikanerin. Perfectly at home in both cultures and fluent in both languages, I’m not quite German in Germany, not quite American in the US. In third places, I’m a little of both and it’s not always deemed a sweet cocktail. In London, I was publicly scorned by a flower vendor at Piccadilly Circus. When I asked the old woman for a twine-tied bunch, she studied me, her eyes slightly squinted in her lined face.
“Are you German then?” Right away, I knew that the question was loaded with memories of Blitzkrieg bombs.
“German-born yes, but I live in the United States.” I was trying to appease her but my words had the opposite effect.
“German and American, that’s the worst possible combination! Go on then, get away. I will not sell my flowers to you!” The woman rose from her stool, yelling and gesturing. A line of brown twine coiled in front of her boots when she dropped the spool, I didn’t dare pick it up for her. Passers-by turned their heads, some stopped.
Oh, to have an invisibility cloak! I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being hated for my born identity. Of not having the option of explaining who I am and what I believe.
This blog is that: an opportunity for me to lay out my German-American perspective on my two countries. As I continue writing, posts will reference history and illuminate cultural differences; some will describe childhood memories, others comment on current events. It will become clear that my two countries are intertwined, and not just in my heart.
I hope that American and German readers will learn about the other country and discover new ways of seeing their own.