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La Poste Américaine

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April 1, 2009

An American in Germany sifts through the cultural signposts, in pursuit of what it means to belong to a particular nation.

smith250.jpgThe day my boyfriend proposed to me, the Kafkaesque hallway of the Ausländeramt—Germany’s version of America’s mythically mint-green Immigration, meaning, literally, “foreigner’s office”—appeared unusually long due to identical gray doors—closed of course. We were walking quickly away from an office in which little had been said, and that in German, and so, unintelligible to me. Attention had been paid to my documents, and a discrepancy between the dates on a form I’d filled out and the stamps of my passport. How long had I been in Deutschland? Four months? Six months? Americans are allowed drei Monate, three months. The “error” threatened to make this visit my last. I wanted my Aufenthaltserlaubnis, the residency-work permit valid for three years. The only way the Aufenthaltserlaubnis could be secured, our counselor told us, was to hieraten, to marry. This word I knew. Halfway to the elevator bank, Thomas turned to me nervously and said, “So would you like to be my wife?” I did not say “Here?” as I thought I had wanted to. I said yes. By the time we reached the parking garage, we were engaged. No ring, but there was lunch and a champagne toast after. I felt grateful.

When I left New York in the fall of 2005 for a wealthy city on the Rhine, I was one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt: forty thousand dollars on my credit cards, the rest in loans I’d taken out to pay for my MFA. I don’t look Turkish or Vietnamese (Berlin has one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside Vietnam), but I came to Germany for at least one similar reason. I was broke.

I was also in love. The proposal might have happened anyway, but Germany’s residency laws required it. By accepting, I became one of more than seven million foreigners in Germany, almost 9 percent of a total population of eighty two million. And while, since 2000, successive Chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel have presided over a general reform of the country’s immigration laws, reversing the line that Germany is “no immigration country”—“Wir sind kein Einwanderungsland”—Germany’s idea of nationhood still bears remnants of its jus sanguinis past, the idea of citizenship based on shared characteristics: race, language, blood.

Our hands had been forced by Germany’s still-draconian immigration laws, but now I was here to stay. My fiancé was settled—and supporting us. I could get state health insurance and, if I wanted to, a job. In Belgium! (The Aufenthaltserlaubnis is good for the entire E.U.) Our future children could be raised with dual citizenship. I, if I chose, could some day apply to be a German citizen, too.

And yet: Wir sind kein Einwanderungsland. That day in the foreigner’s office, as I looked around at the uneasy faces of Turks and Kurds, Africans and Romanians sitting at a table strewn with brochures on recycling and auto insurance, I was reminded of the chill of the phrase rather than what the Bundesrepublik has done to ease it. Out of my 7.25 million Ausländern compatriots, only one hundred and thirteen thousand of us naturalized in 2007, a rate not much higher than Japan’s. Just how German did I want to become?

When I first came to Deutschland, I lived in Düsseldorf, where my husband had been for more than forty years, fourteen of them in his present apartment. He was so identified with the city that when he brought me there in the summer of 2005, we sat on the banks of the Rhine looking at the town’s small medieval towers for two hours before setting foot in his home. On the way, he told me he was tempted to have us sit in his foyer for another hour to just let my being there sink in.

At fifty-two, Thomas had moved four or five times in his life; I, at thirty-four, had moved at least two dozen. Staying in one place felt strange to me, and some of my initial mistrust was bred from familiarity. Why were there always old women pushing ahead of me at the bakery on Rethelstrasse? Did the church bells have to ring every Sunday? At the beginning, you’re just trying to work out the facts. The only grocery store open on a Sunday is at the train station. May is Spargelzeit, asparagus season, and asparagus you eat with boiled potatoes, parsley, and ham. One pays for one’s own birthday dinner, and one mustn’t “Hoover” after eight o’clock. Then you are confronted with the stereotypes. They really do stop and wait at crosswalks. (It’s for a reason: people drive fast in Germany.) They do wear electric yellow sports clothing.

Germany’s idea of nationhood still bears remnants of its jus sanguinis past, the idea of citizenship based on shared characteristics: race, language, blood.

These are generalizations of the flimsiest kind. They are what I think when I am in a foul mood, usually about something unrelated to Germany, fits of misanthropy and self-pity that could just as easily come up in Honolulu, where I was born. I have never belonged anywhere! A typically American trait, my husband tells me, due to being nurtured in a land of individualism and displacement. I tell him I don’t believe in national characteristics, hate all that “greatest nation on Earth” crap. Maybe I don’t believe in “nation” at all. So America is the only place where Barack Obama’s story is remotely possible. I’m proud of that, but queasy about America-love. Queasy about any nationalistic sentiment, actually, though I ascribe “national” traits to people all the time. People in Hawaii can walk on hot sand barefoot. The French appreciate small, quaint farms and anachronistic sports. In Japan, the girls are pigeon-toed.

Reducing nations to gestures is a cornerstone of propaganda. I am in Germany: propaganda was and is hard to forget. I found out only six months ago in casual conversation with an in-law that she was shipped to Munich at fifteen to be part of the Hitler-Jugend. (Did she really just say Hitler-Jugend? Like a fact?) This woman is a genuinely nice person. But when she goes to her Bella Figura workouts—she’s been doing them for forty years—all those calisthenics movies come to mind.

Every time I entered or exited my new Düsseldorf apartment, I walked over three small brass plaques, the size of kitchen tiles, embedded in the sidewalk. Conceived as “stumbling stones” by the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, these Stolpersteine are stamped with the names of Jews who had lived in our building before and during the war. I’ve walked over those plaques thousands of times since I moved to Germany, and though I have stopped to read the names and the dates of the inhabitants’ existences, I cannot recall them now. One stops to look, of course, but remembering and forgetting are a tricky business in Germany. It was just that I had given up so much to move. What if coming here said something horrible about me? What if nothing had changed? The Haus’s last owners—old enough to have been alive during the war, perhaps old enough to have known their Jewish neighbors and greeted them on the stairs—lived above us. Though they had passed the ownership of the building to their children, wholesome “new Germans” with happy children, they existed. I still passed them in the hall.

I have never belonged anywhere! A typically American trait, my husband tells me, due to being nurtured in a land of individualism and displacement.

“What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece?” George Orwell wrote. “Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” So I held the door open for my elderly Nachbarn, greeted them with “Guten Tag!” and read guilt into their pale blue eyes.

Americans never turn out the lights. We talk loudly, something about wildernesses and great distances. We smile at everything and, more insidiously, our business practices have infected a globe. Strip malls now line the small Dorf outside of Cologne where my husband grew up. (Not to mention an especially popular export called the subprime mortgage.) We justify doing whatever the hell we want through the absurd “doctrine” of American exceptionalism, waging preemptive war to conquer threats not “fully materialized,” as Bush put it in his speech at West Point in the summer of 2002, just before we invaded Iraq on false evidence.

Nations are imperfect, yet they also seem to be the only working model of how to govern and be governed without succumbing to chaos or absolute power, and you can’t have a democracy in a corporation, so how else are we going to organize ourselves? How else are we going to come together, be counted? Am I happy voiceless, content to simply drift on the side, in and out of countries with my yoga mat and my iPod? Isn’t such lack of attention to the responsibilities of citizenship what allowed George W. Bush to happen?

I was born in Hawaii to sixties-generation parents. Everything that was leveled at Obama—that he did not love his country, that he was unpatriotic, that somehow Hawaii wasn’t really an American state—could be leveled with some truth at me. I said my pledge of allegiance like every kid at Wilcox Elementary, I know the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well, at least the first stanza), but like many Americans, I have been guilty of taking the privileges of my citizenship for granted. I’d been half a foreigner since I came to the mainland for college, I convinced myself when I decided to move to Germany. Of course this is not true: Hawaii is just as much part of the U.S. as Iowa, but its distance, ever widening, its temporal home as the place of my childhood, the constant state of migration I felt to be in once I left, fooled me into thinking that Germany, Düsseldorf in particular, wasn’t going to be so different. I figured it would be … different but the same. In that ineffable way you feel American cities to be so. You can always get your [fill in the blank] down the block.

Was there a Germany I’d want to be a citizen of? I flirted with the question semi-seriously this fall. If I could pinpoint when, I’d say it was about the time Sarah Palin got a new wardrobe. Conversations with Germans certain there was no way McCain-Palin could get elected often ended with me shaking my head and saying, “Don’t underestimate the ability of Americans to elect an asshole.” We had done it many times already.

I decide that it’s kind of nice to be greeted at the bakery in the morning—and if I don’t get to the front of the line, those old ladies will surely cut in front of me.

Residents of Germany with a “migration background,” a Migrationshintergrund, total about fifteen million, or almost a fifth of the population. There are people in Germany with migrations backgrounds dating back to the nineteen fifties. (The federal statistical office keeps track of these things, of course, which is why you have to check in at the residents’ registration office, the Einwohnermeldeamt, to tell them where you live and what your religion is. Ick.) Perhaps the recordkeeping makes non-Germans feel a bit… unwelcome? Unlike in France and the UK, Germany’s recent immigration numbers, along with its birthrate, are falling: from 1.2 million arrivals in 1991 to six hundred and eighty thousand in 2007. Despite immigration reform, which was supposed to make citizenship easier, naturalization numbers are lower as well. Turkish residents of Germany, by far the biggest group of foreigners at 1.7 million, naturalized at only a little over 60 percent the rate of five years ago. In fact, one of the only countries to see an increase in naturalizations by the end of 2007 to Germany was Iraq.

The decline is partially the result of unification. Greeks, Italians, former Yugoslavians, and Turkish people came to Germany in great numbers after World War II to work as Gastarbeiter, guest workers. After the wall went up, unemployment approached zero as German companies and the German government needed help with the German miracle. But when the wall fell in 1989, there were, overnight, many millions of former citizens of the DDR who needed to be trained and employed, not to mention re-educated in the basics of market capitalism, and the demand for foreign labor dried up. “The wall fell on our heads,” was the saying in the West Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg where many Turkish Germans lived, not only because Kreuzberg had been surrounded by die Wand, an island in an island, but also because of the anti-Ausländer sentiment that rather ominously boiled up during the decade after 1989, often involving “Ossies,” as East Germans are sometimes called, like the 1992 neo-Nazi attack on a Rostock apartment complex housing Vietnamese asylum seekers and Roma. (Even now when you look at a color-coded map of Germany showing where the Ausländer live, everything east of Hannover is white, except for a pimple of red around Berlin.) And not to exclude former West Germany, in an infamous incident in the town of Solingen in 1993, four young German men, also neo-Nazis, set fire to a house where a Turkish family lived, killing three girls and two women. Helmut Kohl did not go to the funeral. My husband remembers this. If there was one official event that a politician should have attended, he says, it was that one.

Crime against foreigners is down, and though there was a fire in the northern city of Ludwigshafen in early 2008 in which nine Turkish residents were killed—stoking fears of another Solingen—the fire was later ruled not to be arson. The Green Party, an actual political force in Germany, just elected its first co-head of Turkish descent, the “Anatolian from Swabia,” Cem Özdemir, whose mutton chop sideburns and dapper style have made him something of a celebrity. Özdemir was the object of a flurry of attention (Economist, Financial Times, New York Times) this fall after his election followed closely on the heels of Barack Obama’s, and observers on both sides of the Atlantic wondered whether an Obama could happen in Europe.

Like slavery in America, Germany’s relationship to foreigners is troublesome in the way that only an old, foundational problem can be.

“In Europe, there is still a long way to go,” Özdemir told Der Spiegel in November. Yet for a while, his Facebook page was emblazoned with the slogan “Yes we Cem.”

The image of Germany as “kein Einwanderungsland” sticks, however, and foreigners, especially skilled workers, don’t seem to want to move here. People might come to Berlin or Munich or Hamburg for a few years, but eventually they leave. The country is emptying, little by little. There are reasons: the specter of “Nazi-time,” the imperfect immigration laws. The language is difficult and grammatically rigid, and many are paranoid about a “degraded” German being taught in schools. (There are three articles in German, die, der, and das, and four cases, as in Latin, creating a perplexing arrangement of ders, dems, dases, and dens that I, for one, simply stick in at random, hoping to get right.) “In a hundred years, everything will be die!” a friend half-jokingly mourns. To an English speaker, this might seem efficient. To a German, it is a loss of specificity, a loss of tongue, and of history—subsumed into the worldwide yammer of business English, spoken loudly.

But the issue runs deeper, I think. Like slavery in America, Germany’s relationship to foreigners is troublesome in the way that only an old, foundational problem can be. There’s a profound anxiety about what it even means to be German. Is it a nation or a blood? A language or a shifting border? I have asked the question of several Germans—why the anxiety? —and have gotten various answers. The country was not unified till the eighteen hundreds; it is sandwiched between Russia and France; the Wall, depending on your perspective, either condensed or hindered German identity, and now that it’s gone, the cake mix is all over the platter. From the remnants of die Wand—scant but magnetizing—to the Reichstag to the damn Mercedes sign I can see from my window in Charlottenburg, spinning atop the Europa Center next to a Bayer sign but at different tempos, like luminous Teutonic planets, the country’s past is omnipresent and as disturbing as a false moon. There is nothing in Germany that just feels… normal. Natural. Situated. What “belongs” to pre-war Germany—Beethoven or Prussian emperors or the cool Protestant churches of the north—one doesn’t want to romanticize because doing so was something that the Nazis did. Postwar icons, like Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie or Scharoun’s Philharmonie are beautiful in part because they came after. And the built environment, that particularly German blend of pre- and post-, is either homely and self-effacing, like the endless apartment blocks with their staring facades, or unsettling, like the Frauenkirche in Dresden, reconstructed now out of new masonry and what could be salvaged after the firebombing. The charred stones sit in the masonry like black holes. The effect is somber and awful, but the German tourists speaking in hushed tones made me feel odd. Are they sorry or are they sentimental?

Certainly they are sad. But even sadness is complicated here. Deutsche Einheit, the day of German unification, is celebrated on the same day as Kristallnacht, November 11, causing one to wonder whether Einheit might have fallen on a day not so completely identified with the Holocaust. That the day of unity and the day of cruelest separation are mashed together on 11/11—also a notorious Karneval day—is one of the realities of living in contemporary Germany. Everything, and I mean everything, is what Ruth Mandel, author of Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany, calls “overdetermined.” Never before has this word seemed so totally symbolized in a place. And this place I am meant to call home.

But it’s 2009, and it’s Berlin. Everything you’ve heard is true: it’s relaxed and bohemian, and no one kicks you out of the cafés, even if you’ve been nursing a euro-fifty cappuccino all day. And the apartments—yes, they are gigantic.

I would like to participate in the German democracy if I live here. How else will Germany evolve unless more people become its citizens? An Iranian friend, Negin, just took citizenship at twenty-eight for the same reasons. “After seventeen years of living in Germany,” she wrote to me in an email, “I felt/feel like a German. I wanted to have the full rights of a citizen, I wanted to take part in the elections, didn’t want to have problems with traveling in other countries. …When I look at my life, I must say that national citizenship for me is just a formality. I was identified with German culture anyway.” Retaining her Iranian passport was just pragmatism, she said. She wanted to be able to visit her family back in Iran.

Maybe this will be the legacy of the U.S. in the end. In a time of constant global migration, citizens of all countries might look to its experiment of nationhood-not-based-on-blood, and take that to their adopted countries and change them. But Americans? Few give up American citizenship, unless it’s for tax purposes. (America, along with Eritrea, the Philippines, and North Korea, is one of the few countries to tax on income earned worldwide.) So maybe this is what “post-American” means, too: It’s a reference not just to post-American hegemony, but to the idea that America has always been part nation, part origin myth. We are a living, voting argument for jus soli, right of soil. Since this is as much about the rights as the actual soil, it also makes us strangely vulnerable to never truly leaving our homeland behind. The nation becomes a concept, lodged in the brain, pervasive and hard to escape. The idea of that soil haunts us, making all other land somehow foreign. An American abroad is always the expat, never the citizen. But an American, this American, can love and feel grateful to her country and also perhaps want to adopt another, too. Not for reasons of national identity or sense of belonging, but because I prefer to vote in the country I spend most of my time in.

Here I’m closer to French philosopher Ernest Renan’s idea of a nation as “un plébescite quotidien,” a daily statement of allegiance rather than any “objective nationality” (post-Kantian Johann Fichte’s term) based on perceived shared characteristics. Yet both these concepts about nationhood fail to present convincingly in a time of constant and variegated migration: not just from one country to the next, but often to many countries over a lifetime, or, alternatively, several countries at once.

In 2007, 434 Americans took German citizenship. I imagine a lot of them are babies who will simply deal with the issue when they’re grown up. But perhaps part of the future will involve deciding, as an adult, like many immigrants already do, which country one might state allegiance to, a choice that would ideally be separate from supposed national character or inheritance. A choice open, even, to the quintessential immigrants: Americans.

There’s an election next year; Merkel might be on the rocks. If I do decide to try to get citizenship, I still need to learn my dems and dens. The new citizenship exam introduced in September 2008 has already been widely criticized. Among its oversights, Judaism is not offered as a multiple-choice answer to a question about the major religions of Europe and Germany, nor is the Holocaust mentioned. There is a question, however, about which office registers pets.

I don’t know if I’ll pass this testé, nevermind my incomprehensible Germané, partially because I’m just not good at observing the rules. As a foreigner, I have to register at the Berlin Einwohnermeldeamt, for instance. They give you a week from arrival. I have been in Berlin for six months. I’ll get there eventually. As much as the Bund needs to track my whereaboutsé, I, too, want to know where I am.

G

Tara Bray Smith has published a memoir, West of Then: A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise. Her essays have appeared in Granta and WSJ magazine, and in the anthology State: a Panoramic Portrait of America. She lives with her husband in Berlin and is currently working on a novel set there.

To contact Guernica or Tara Bray Smith, please write here.

Illustration by Franz Krausz via Flickr.

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