Losing My Identity

IdentityWhen I was young my mother warned both me and my brother that if the U.S.A and Germany were ever to go to war we would all be put in Concentration Camps. “What about Daddy?” we would ask, “No, he’s American”. My mother grew up with Concentration Camps being a part of her country’s history, she lived in Europe during World War II and she lived in a small town called Pirmasens, Germany. My mother never did become American but she lived and died here. I still remember fearing the day America would go to war with Germany and my family would be split apart, I envisioned my father going one way while we were taken another. She would often tell me details of growing up during a war, but they were just stories to me, not real. I was living in America. Wars don’t happen here.

I was born in Germany (West Germany when it existed).  I have both a German and an American birth certificate.  My mother moved to this country with my father when his tour in Germany ended in the 60’s and I was born in 1963. I speak a little bit of German although my mother told me in later years I spoke the language much better when I was younger, before 5 years of age. She said one day I simply looked at her and said “I don’t want to talk like that anymore” so she stopped speaking or teaching me German. I still understand the language to a great extent but slaughter it when I try to speak it only because I don’t know the grammar and can’t structure the sentences correctly.  My mind wants to put words in the same order as my English thinking brain prefers.

When I was young and my mother was still alive German relatives would come quite frequently for visits and we would share our American heritage with them by taking them to monuments and museums… mostly in Washington DC. Taking German’s to DC was becoming more or less an annual tradition in my house. It was only a short drive to the nation’s capital so it was only natural we would go there to impress them with the Washington Monument, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, etc. My favorite parts of the DC trips were walking through the Smithsonian’s.  We could never do them all at once because of the sheer size of the place so each year or each visit we would take a different museum. These trips were special to me two fold, for one simply sharing America’s greatness with my foreign relatives and two because my mother and father never did have much money so unlike many of my peers at school we did not get to experience an annual family vacation, in fact other than one drive to the Ocean for the weekend my family never went anywhere.

I was always envious or rather jealous of my other German-American family members that were able to live a large part of their childhood in Germany. They got the chance to be what I never had the opportunity to be, a true German. To this day they speak fluent German and I envy their understanding and close relationships they have to the German side of the family. I have always felt and still do feel more American than German but I embrace that German side of me. A part of me always felt left out when my young cousins who like me had an American father or my elderly German brothers, who were born to men my mother had met prior to meeting my father but were raised by my father, spoke and interacted in German. Sure I could understand a lot of what was being said and even respond to “Gebt mir einen Loffel” (give me a spoon) and other simple statements or comments but I could never really respond back fully, not in conversation like they could.

When my mother arrived to this country she did her best to learn to read and write English to acclimate to her new nation and despite never having gotten American citizenship she always thought of herself as an American that was born in Germany.  That isn’t to say that she didn’t have fond memories (as well as horrific… growing up during the war) of Germany but she knew that America was her home and she did whatever she could to become a part of the culture, not try to change the culture to be more German. My mother was always of the mindset “When in Rome do as the Romans” but that’s not to say that when family for German friends were around she didn’t speak German to them but it was never like she would try to force Americans to try to understand German like so many foreigners do today. Its like America needs to acclimate to their cultures as they seem to care little about our nations, its common language, it traditions. My mother was proud to be an American in spirit, she was just too lazy to get a citizenship, and being married to my father and American there was really no reason for her to do so, unlike my older brothers who both had to obtain citizenships.

I remember when my oldest brother first brought his wife home to my parents house.  His wife was and is Vietnamese… or I should say now Vietnamese-American. My sister-in-law being fairly new to America would constantly compare her former home to her new home and generally with a twist that made it sound as if Vietnam were a better place to live. She constantly referred to Vietnam as “My country” and could and would refer to her country 10 to 20 times per day. Exclaiming the privileges she had there or her family’s personal wealth. We could never understand how one that admired their former nation as much as she did could possibly leave it, he wasn’t a 70’s refugee, she had married and divorced an American solider. Her entire life she spoke the worst broken and slaughtered English, unlike my mother she seemed to have no interest in learning the language and unfortunately for the rest of her life she would always be treated as an outsider because she chose to be one of those Americans that wanted to force her culture on us rather than embrace the culture she had joined.

It is irony the day that my mother and sister-in-law clashed over countries. During one of my sister-in-law’s onslaughts of praises to her former home of Vietnam regaling the advantages and better life that she had lived in “My country” my mother had heard enough and on this one day my “German” mother blew a fuse at these never-ending references and actually yelled at my sister-in-law telling her “If ‘YOUR COUNTRY’ is so wonderful why don’t you go back!” Not surprising that lack of control that lasted perhaps 2 seconds drove a wedge between my mother and sister-in-law that lasted to my mother’s death. They never liked each other. Unfortunately my brother and his wife (and children) who lived several states away never really visited again and any bond that I had with the brother soon faded, he became and still is a stranger to me.

So the other day I’m listening to NPR (National Public Radio) and there is a Hispanic Professor married to an Irishman whining about the fact that her parents tried to acclimate to the United States and like me with my German… speaks or understands very little Spanish.  She indicated that there was an unfair slant in America to not allow those of diversity to retain their culture.  She said she would teach her American-Mexican-Irish children to speak Spanish (I wondered how much of thier Irish heritage she would try to share with them).  She moaned about the fact that a piece of her had been stolen and a part of her life that was lost would never be recovered.  This is so true.  There are large populations that want to retain who they were and I love the fact that people want to show thier heritage in dress or manerisms.  Who doesn’t love saying “I’m 50% American and 50% Irish” or “I’m 95% Cherokee, 2% French and 3% English”… whatever the breakdown but I find it frustrating to hear this lady blame society because her parents wanted her to be raised in America and not have to deal with the segregation and prejudice that they obviously endured.

My mother never told me of any instances where she was attacked for her nationality or race and largely because she had what some might call an advantage when it comes to acclimating since she was Caucasian (what they call “white privilege today). I remember my mother’s warning about being put in Concentration Camps but I think that was an exaggerated assumption based on what she witnessed in the war… but it wasn’t until my teens I believe that  one day I was destined be imprisoned because of the German blood that pulsed through my body.

Unlike this lady on NPR I know that I can go quite a while without referencing my ancestry or event thinking about the fact that I am/was German. People are often surprised when they find out I was born in Germany. I love the German side of me and wish I could be more German but I think its more important to focus on my American heritage rather than forcing America to recognize by German heritage.  We need to embrace and share our diversity but not blame our parents or America or culture because we’ve lost a part of us… its our own responsibility to hang on to that part of us we are…. I haven’t been to Germany since I was a child and all my family, those that would remember me, are dying off. Soon there will come a day when there are no more Aunts and Uncles, only a few cousins who might or might not know this strange American who takes some pride in the German blood that flows through my veins. I am saddened by the part of me that could have been had I been raised or at least lived a part of my life in Germany but that part of me is forever lost and I cannot pretend that just because I was born there and have ancestry there (unlike so many Americans with their kilts, dashikis, agbadas, turbins, burkas, hijabs, ushankas, saris, or regalias who “pretend” to be something other than American) despite the fact that I was born German, my mother was from Germany, I have a German government birth certificate (as well as an American birth certificate) I don’t try to force my “German culture” down the throats of Americans. Where ever you came from be proud of it, learn about it, learn the language, and be who you are but don’t pretend that just because some hundreds of years ago some great-great-great ancestor’s location of birth gives you the right to claim that heritage. You are first and foremost American (assuming you are reading this in America, other wise just replace the words America with the country in which you reside)

Now I have to go change… my Lederhosen are chafing my thighs…

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