German identity: with wings, roots and sweaty hands
“Punctual. Exact. Productive. Closed off. Careful. Inflexible. Humorless.” And some “Goethe” and “Einstein” thrown in for good measure. Was this really all a group of seemingly well-educated professionals had to say about German identity? No wonder the facilitator had started to draw sad faces on the list.
“My hands get sweaty when I hear this sort of talk,” a woman piped up from the front row, a shred of anger in her voice. “Is this really all we identify with, as Germans?”
We were over three hours into the “German Identity and Identities in Germany” workshop, having already watched a documentary clip and listened to a panel discussion on the nuances of (im)migration, national identity, and belonging. Yet when asked by our facilitator “What is German?”, all we could come up with were stereotypes or nothing at all. I was in the latter camp, sitting quietly in the corner, scribbling down notes, the occasional eyebrow raise or eye roll gracing my face. An older man on the other side of the room began criticizing globalization and everything “becoming the same”, proclaiming that when it comes down to it, identity is tied to region. “I have fire in my belly,” my friend whispered to me, leaning over. “So do I,” I thought, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. On some level our hybrid-identities felt under attack, as if our sense of home tied to people, language, and experience was not as legitimate as one tied to geography. As if we weren’t quite part of the discussion in the same way as the others.
I was surprised at myself. For years I’d been navigating a slew of cultures, confidently code-switching, getting by and blending in pretty much anywhere with relative ease and advantage. Dual citizen, trilingual, well-traveled, ethnically ambiguous, international education professional, American-German-Jewish-Algerian mutt. I’d always felt just different enough, rather than too different. I’m a pretty ruthless cherry-picker, highlighting a particular part of my background when it suits the moment. “My dad’s Jewish and I went on Birthright,” I declare to Israeli airport security. “My mom’s German and I’m a dual citizen,” I respond when asked why I live in Berlin. “I’m part Algerian,” I say proudly to a cute Arab-German on a date. “I also grew up with two languages and have trouble with German,” I share with the Vietnamese refugee girls I tutor. I’d positioned my international identity as the centerpiece of my life a long time ago, letting it guide me both personally and professionally. Perhaps it’s self-serving or even greedy, but it’s always felt like my choice. We are all multifaceted beings, after all.
Others have their choice ripped from them with one ostensibly innocent question: “But where are you from from?” Wo kommst du wirklich her? Translation: “You must come from somewhere other than here, because you look/sound/pray/move/eat/celebrate differently than we do.” The plight of the “perpetual foreigner“.
During my past two years in Berlin I had started to get a little taste of what that felt like, an after-taste really. “No, I’m not Spanish,” I find myself saying at least once a week to those who wonder out-loud or even just start speaking to me in Spanish. I get it, there are an increasing number of Spaniards in Berlin (and Germany) and I have darker features. But whereas I would normally enjoy talking about my background, I now find myself getting irritated and defensive having to recurrenctly dissect my identity in public to combat a habitual assumption.
“People always ask how my German is so good. I tell them I’ll try to speak worse German from now on,” a Vietnamese immigrant says ironically in his studio.
“I know people expect me to be a certain way, or have ideas about what type of person I am, of what I’m capable of, based on how I look,” a young Eritrean girl ponders at the window.
“I’m not really Turkish, and I’m not really German. I identify as a Turkish-German, which is something else,” reflects a woman from her apartment.
[paraphrased quotes from the “with WINGS and ROOTS” documentary]
While the woman with the sweaty hands was perhaps frustrated by the selection of adjectives on the list, I realized I was worked up about why there had to be a list at all. For the first time since I moved to Berlin, I not only wondered, but cared, whether the others in the room considered me German. Or even German enough.
“I grew up with German culture, speak the language, have the passport, and now live here,” I finally summoned up the courage and coherence to say, “But I’m only one fourth German ‘ethnically’. I know people back in the US who have more German blood than I but have no connection to the country, language, people, history. I don’t fit everything on that list, but neither do any of you.”
Identity is a social construction, I wanted to go on. A fluid and on-going process on both the individual and national level. Increased levels of migration and diversity often spark an instinct to distinguish, retreat, and protect- on both the “native” and “(im)migrant” sides. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect, learn, and reinvent. By the end of the workshop, we were getting there.
“What is your vision for a modern perception of ‘Germanness’?” the facilitator prompted us.
“Being open. Intercultural understanding from authorities. Focusing on plurality. Promoting language proficiency. Fostering awareness. Accepting (not only tolerating) others. Self-reflection.”
A list of adjectives can only put us into a box. A list of actions lets us move forward.
The documentary clip we watched is from “with WINGS and ROOTS” that juxtaposes the realities of (im)migrant life, national identity, and belonging in Berlin and New York City. You can watch the trailer here and support the project here.
Sophia Burton is a founder of Collidoscope Berlin, where this article was first published. For more on the Collidoscope philosophy regarding borders and belonging, read the Collidoscope Manifesto on cities, difference, and building community.