“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”
Fast times with my sister-in-law’s sister and long-time family friend, Darcie. What a gem. Good thing we are related forever now.
For the last five and a half years I have been sitting in German classes with this exact expression on my face. Grammar and syntax and vocab– oh my! Although I keep progressing up the official ‘levels’ of German class, I have yet to wipe this wide-eyed terror off my face. I sit in the back, certain I will soon be found out as the imposter I am, and stare at the blank sheet before me in hopes that the answers will appear before me in magic ink.
Then I walk out of German class and go to the local bakery to buy a pastry. The interaction starts off well. I am puffed up with confidence from the last few hours surrounded by other on-native speakers, and I ask for my croissant. The lady stares at me as if I have just proposed marriage and frowns. WAS?
I repeat my question, confidence faltering like a middle schooler at a dance. CAN I HAVE A CROISSANT? Things are rapidly deteriorating. I finally point– THAT ONE! The lady begrudgingly gets it for me and I rush out, swearing to myself I will give up bread from this moment forward, amen.
Later that night at a party, someone in the group makes a joke. Everyone is laughing hysterically, and I follow suit out of self preservation instincts. I don’t want to look like the dud who doesn’t think their home-run joke is funny. But then they turn to me and ask a follow up question. Busted. My only options now are to admit I was faking it or run to the bathroom.
In an attempt to broker peace after the joke catastrophe, I begin speaking in German to someone. But a few sentences in, she can no longer bear the pain of my murderous grammar in her ears, so she switches to English. I am both relieved and insulted.
By the end of the night, I am as dead inside as Michael Scott. I crawl home and Skype someone in sweet, sweet English.
But hey, at least there’s always copious amounts of coffee to cheer me up and energize me for another day of adventures in German.
Ps. Some people have accused me of being dramatic. No idea why.
Pps. German, don’t be upset. You know I secretly love you very, very deep down.
My hands turned red approximately one second after this photo was taken and never really recovered.Love this row of colorful houses. Can I have the middle one, please?Glove hand problems. I need to get some of those digital gloves that you can touch your phone screen with!Home again, warming up.
I am an American. Nothing has made me more aware of this fact than living and studying abroad in Germany for an extended period of time. I am growing increasingly aware of how much my nationality matters and, conversely, how little it matters in the big picture.
In my studies, we are currently focusing on the concept of nationalism– a buzz word if ever there was one in our current media. I get asked about Trump on a daily basis (in the grocery store, in line for the bathroom, in my own home), and the topic of nationalism is never far behind. Germans are hyper aware of the dangerous sides of nationalism because of, well, history. You’d be hard pressed to find a German flag waving from a front porch, or to hear the national anthem sung in a public place. So naturally, I have begun to ask myself the questions: is nationalism always bad? Can it be good? And how does this newly emerging term localism factor into the discussion?
I read a New York Times article from columnist David Brooks that shed some light on the subject. He says:
Though we’ve moved around a lot, my family has a clear home base. If you start at East 15th Street in Lower Manhattan and walk two miles south, you will have walked by where my great-grandfather had his butcher shop, where my maternal grandfather practiced law, where my father lived during high school, where I went to elementary school and where my youngest son now attends college. That’s five generations within two miles. I feel a magical attachment to that neighborhood. The blocks and street names enchant in my mind. And yet I have to say my strongest attachment is to the nation, to the United States. You could take New York out of my identity and I’d be sort of the same. If you took America out of my identity I’d be unrecognizable to myself. What does this national attachment feel like? It feels a bit like any other kind of love — a romantic love, or a love between friends. It is not one thing that you love but the confluence of a hundred things. Yes, it is the beauty of the Rockies, but it is not just the land. It is the Declaration of Independence, but not just the creed. It’s winning World War II and Silicon Valley, but it is not just the accomplishments. It is the craziness, the diversity, our particular brand of madness.
Like Brookes, I feel a fierce attachment to and pride in my American identity. And yet, I also notice how I often distance myself from America in conversations about certain topics while abroad– “No, I don’t agree with America, I’m not like that!”
Writer Taiye Selasi proposes another approach. She speaks to “multi-local” people, who feel at home in many places. “How can I come from a country?” she asks. “How can a human being come from a concept?…my experience is where I am from. Instead of where are you from, what if we asked, where are you a local?”
This concept makes sense to me on some levels as well. I feel a deep attachment to certain places in America: the California coast with her rugged cliffs and Red Wood trees, the corn fields of Iowa where we spent holidays driving tractor and combine, the hot planes of Texas where I ate BBQ and attempted to understand the rules of football. I have no deep attachment to all fifty of the United States. I’ve haven’t spent much time on the East Coast or in the North West or the South West. I have, however, had experiences all over Germany– in Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Hildesheim, Weinheim, Münster. And yet, to say I am a local of Germany above an American still feels odd and lacking in a major way. I can study here in Germany, but my American passport and the fact that German is not my mother tongue prevent me from gaining meaningful employment after graduation. Can I really be a local of a place that prevents me from participating in that crucial part of life we call career? Sure, I have dear friends here, but the fact that I did not grow up in the German school system excludes me from understanding so much of their common experience on an intrinsic level.
I’m not sure I could ever do away with the concept of nationality completely and replace it with localism or vice versa.
Perhaps the trick to strike a meaningful balance between the two. To validate overlapping experiences that create a richer identity than any single one could on its own. To rob someone of their American identity is to rob them of shared history, culture, and collective community. But to confine someone to the label of their country– to ignore their localized experiences completely– is equally dangerous. Nationalism has been one of the great sources of joy and stability in my life, and is what allows me to move comfortably though this wide world in many ways. But too much, or a tainted strain, can prove dangerous.
I am an American. I am a local of Germany. I am many, many things. We all are.
So I ask you: Where are you a national, and where are you a local? And what do your answers to those questions reveal about you?
Many waffles were consumed.
Thanks to Melinda for the pretty photos 🙂