- The sun is shining. People, that is a big deal here.
- Rumor has it that Wednesday will be the first snow of the season
- The Christmas Markets start on the 26th!
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season 4 is on Netflix. Gold.
- This article.
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?
So you want to be a writer, you say? Well, my first piece of advice is to try your best to be anything else. Race car driver, president, astronaut, a race-car driving astronaut, really anything else will do. Try your best at all the other subjects, even though you soon learn you can’t tell the difference between an isosceles triangle and a right triangle to save your life.
Find you neglect your other subjects in favor of spending all your time on your English essays. Your favorite theme is man’s inhumanity to man, so try to work it into every prompt. When your teacher returns your work, covered in so much red ink it probably required the sacrifice of a small animal, the words “off topic” are scrawled across the top. Sink into a dramatic depression for days, until you decide she has no idea what she’s talking about. Continue to write off topic.
In college, try to be an art major. But your favorite part is writing the descriptions beneath the paintings, so you finally change to Creative Writing despite your parents gentle pushes towards business.
In these classes no one is right and no one is wrong. Mostly you just sit in a circle asking “Does this work? Is the metaphor wind of change over done or genius?” No one ever knows. But you are growing prouder of your work. Show it to your roommate occasionally and sometimes even to her boyfriend, an athlete who asks you what the word myriad means.
Try to diversify, but somehow all your characters end up sounding like variations of you: a college girl who has no idea what to do after school. Study abroad your sophomore year and consequently write about it unceasingly until you’re classmates beg you to stop. Still, your final thesis senior years is about an american girl who goes abroad. Decide you need more life experiences.
Date a pakistani guy upon graduation to gain said experiences, and furtively write down everything he says for material. He will make a great character one day. See the breakup as only more material. Unfortunately you will continue to view people this way for approximately the rest of your life.
So write because you have to. Because when you don’t you are a worse person than when you do. And if all else fails, I hear the job of race-car-driving astronaut offers surprisingly good benefits.
1. The slant of the roof in my attic apartment
2. The punctuality of the buses
3. The little cloth shopping carts the grannies pull to the supermarket every day
4. My way-too-small child’s bike that gives me a back ache but has carried me all over the place through crazy weather
5. The German way of saying good morning
6. Good espresso served at every food establishment
7. My little neighbor girls downstairs popping their heads out of the window to say hi as I walk by
8. The ultra fancy, posh McDonalds where people literally go on first dates
P.s. Photo of Weinheim in spring 🙂
I just want to say a little something. Before this year, I had never really struggled with depression or loneliness or hopelessness. I was always the motivated, ambitious girl with a smile on her face and a certainty that her future was bright. I hate to admit it, but when I used to encounter other people with problems like depression or anxiety, I would secretly think to myself, “Can’t they just shake it off?”
Well, never again.
This year has taught me so much about empathy. Over the last few months I have often felt like I just can’t connect deeply with people. They are all around me– on the train, in the coffee shop, at work– but I felt unable to reach out in any meaningful sense. This made me lonely in a new, profound way. And this loneliness led to depression. There were many other factors (ahem, bad winter weather, I’m looking at you!), but it was heavy. Really heavy.
I lost motivation for a long time. I struggled to do even little things like cook a healthy meal or send an important email. And if I could barely do those things, how could I possibly have a bright future?! I deleted my Instagram because I didn’t know how to respond to people’s comments on my photos like “You’re living the dream! I’m so jealous!” when in reality I felt so bad. Then I would feel bad about feeling bad! It was a negative cycle.
Now that’s I’m feeling so so much better for a myriad of reasons, I just wanted to share this little piece of my story in the hopes that maybe it might help someone out there reading. I now have so much more empathy and compassion for
People who just moved to a new place
Those who are going through a breakup of any kind
People who just started a new job
Recent graduates who are disoriented
Singles who just want someone to do fun things with
People struggling with depression, anxiety, chronic stress, etc.
The list goes on! It is so cliche to say that you can’t truly understand something until you’ve gone through it yourself. But in my case, I think the cliche holds true. I am sending love, encouragement and hope to anyone out there going through something heavy today. Thank you all for reading along this year. It means a lot to me.
P.s. Photos from London, where I visited a friend 🙂
When I was younger, I thought being a ‘migrant’, or a ‘foreigner’ or an ‘expat’ were things that made a person different– an outsider. I thought it was easy to separate people into two categories: native and other. My world was small and my thinking black and white. But on this ever globalizing planet, where the pace of change keeps accelerating exponentially, it is becoming harder and harder to maintain such clear categories. Everyone is beginning to feel a bit foreign, because all of us, whether we’ve never left our hometowns or traversed the globe, are migrants through time. Parents feel foreign to their children and vice versa, as the lives they lead look more and more dissimilar. The borders and languages of today are a far cry from those of even just 20 years ago. Minds are educated differently in the classroom with new techniques and types of information. A child of the seventies becomes a mother of the two thousands, and then a grandmother of what is sure to be a new reality all together.
And so this year spent living abroad in a little apartment in a little corner of a ‘foreign country’ has forced me to accept my differentness and to explore the empathy that arises from the shared experience of being different. I’ve learned more about the interconnectedness of our diverse world this year than ever before, and much of that learning has occurred without having to leave my building.
On the bottom floor of my building lives a Syrian family with three children. They came to this country as refugees two years ago and have since taken up the noble and heavy task of remaking their lives. The first night I moved in they were there to greet me and carry my belongings up the stairs. They brought me toilet paper and dinner and a warm cup of tea. We laughed immediately over our shared struggle with the German language and how much paperwork is required just to survive here. Over the months, they have fixed my bike, changed my light bulbs, reset my heater, driven me to the airport, invited me over for cake and so much more. Their daughters come upstairs for a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of an older girl, and I go downstairs for a taste of the stable life of a family. In our differentness, we are one.
The second floor is inhabited by a German couple in their seventies who have lived there for thirty years. Their names are old school German and their English is broken- the tail end of a generation that did not learn it in school and did not need it in their daily lives. They are grandparents and retired insurance brokers. My first interaction with them was one of remorse- I had broken one of their hallway plants moving in a sofa and knocked on their door to apologize in murderous german. They smiled and waved it off, “es macht nichts.” Through the next few months they brought me pots and pans when I mentioned my need, left their door open when I locked my keys inside my apartment, brought my chocolate for Christmas and giving me missing ingredients to finish my half-completed muffins.
Though sometimes awkward, sometimes challenging, my interactions with my neighbors have been a highlight of my year. They teach me about kindness, generosity and community. We are a group that has almost nothing in common, and yet we decided to look out for each other simply because we are neighbors. That’s all.
I wish this for anyone, anywhere, foreign or national, young or old, rich or poor. I have felt alone much of this year, but when I see my neighbors I immediately feel less so. They brighten my day and I know I could go to them if anything were to happen. With all the xenophobia and fear mongering in culture today, it’s easy to forget how simple it is. We all need a helping hand. We all need a smile in the hallway. We all need to realize that foreignness is a shared human experience, and it is beautiful.
When my parents came for a visit, I joked that our building is the United Nations, except with less arguing. They agreed and felt reassured that their daughter was going to be alright at the end of the day. And I am. And when I move out at the end of June, I will be happy to move on to the next phase, but sad to leave the UN.
Who knows where I’ll live next– LA? New York? Frankfurt? But I do know that wherever that may be, I will try to be the first person to greet my neighbors with a smile and say “I’m here if you need anything.” Always.
P.s. Photo from here