Curtain Call

When I started this blog a few years back, I did it with the old-fashioned notion of using this as something of a web log, a diary of sorts. That was the purpose of the blogs that I made my university creative writing students open ten years ago and that is still how I like to think of — and use — blogs. I wrote my feelings and experiences out for others to read online, as a way of building community (you are not alone!) while also keeping my writing skills fresh and reading about other people going through similar stuff in their lives. Blogging and reading other expat blogs from immigrants to Germany helped me get a better understanding of what I was going through when I first arrived.

You can see some of this on my previous blog, Futile Diatribes, links from which I frequently sent to friends and family; after a couple of major life upheavals — a landlord threatening to kill me, leaving my husband — I killed my Facebook account and moved over here to write pseudonymously for several reasons, most namely privacy. I wanted to a) keep this separate from my professional writing life and b) keep my kid’s life private. Things have changed a lot in the online world over the last decade, most notably Google and the ability for the whole world to easily discover details about you online that you didn’t want the whole world to know about. I’m aging myself here, but I do remember a time when the only way to find a piece of writing I had done was by already having the link handy. Now, when people type in my name, they can see a poem I wrote when I was 17 and never wanted to see the light of day.

Even though nearly everyone I know knows of this blog, they have discovered this by my choice, not by their stalking; Google still has not yet put 2+2 together. My kid still does not appear on any search results, thankfully. Because I want to keep it that way, if you don’t already know my name, I won’t tell you here.

But I digress.

One of the other shifts that’s taken place in the last few years thanks to Google is that many of us have become much less personal online; we aren’t ourselves, people with hopes and dreams and flaws and who make mistakes. Rare are the blogs today that are used as diaries; unfortunately, these have been replaced by marketing nonsense. We have all become a personal brand, some better curated than others.

Don’t get me wrong — some bloggers do maintain a relatable, interesting voice. And some can even do this while shilling a product I might actually be interested in buying. But there’s been a shift. Anyone who can put a sentence together is a #blogger … people who sometimes visit other cities are now #travelblogger … people who put clothes on in the morning and take pictures of themselves laughing as they take exaggerated steps in high heels only meant for sitting down in are #fashionblogger … people who get gadgets shipped to them to play with are now paid as #techblogger . Call me old-fashioned but this plethora of blogs has me less interested in the blog. Although I do earn some of my living as a #blogger for corporate clients, there is zero fun left in that. I know I can earn $30,000 to sit front row at a fashion show if I just build up my follower base but who fucking wants to be a walking advertisement?

Still, I went to a personal branding seminar a few weeks back. As a journalist, I am expected to have a blog. Blogs are all the rage in Germany (ten years later, when they seem to be nearly buried in the States). I should have a razzle-dazzle website with clips and links and a portfolio and information about how to easily find me. That guy who threatened to kill me — a convicted sociopath — can find me just as easily as any potential client if I do everything I am supposed to do online. I am supposed to register my name and all of these details on literally 11 different “social” websites but never reveal too much about myself on any of them. Only paint a positive picture of my life. Only post well-curated images on Instagram. Only tweet about my career successes. This is different in Germany, where people reveal far less online than in the US but it still applies: we aren’t supposed to be ourselves virtually anymore and I wonder what is this doing to our personalities when we hide so much. Do we become more isolated? Are we denying that bad things exist in our lives? Where is the social in this one-sided filled only with praise media?

I wanted to reject that notion. However.

Being pseudonymous both here and on Twitter became a strange sort of experiment. The filter came off. I’ve openly spoken about having burnout and an unrequited crush, about the mysoginistic German legal system that doesn’t protect abused women and being asked to leave a job when I got pregnant. And all of these things are topics I’d openly talk about with people I meet in person; I’m not ashamed. But in Germany, they are verboten topics. On pseudonymous Twitter, I have bitched about clients who are totally clueless. About colleagues who talk to my tits instead of my face and mentioned that I increase my client fees when I feel like I’m being sexually harassed. But would I do that if it were done in my own name? Death knell. My agent has warned me several times about being too political on my real name Twitter feed.

Under a pseudonym, however, the besserwisser in me comes out tenfold. I start fights telling people that they were wrong when they were just sending off silly tweets. I’ve also revealed too much about my current situation, which is stressful to put it mildly. I’ve watched other people have complete meltdowns on Twitter (currently witnessing a famous writer go through one and it is not pretty to see) and decided that while this nonsense is going on, I have to kill the pseudonymous Twitter. I don’t want to take my bad moods out on others and I don’t want to use Twitter as therapy. And so the Twitter account is dying as soon as Twitter puts my deactivation request through. As is this blog. I’ll keep it up for a few more weeks but as of 2016, it’ll be coming down. It — as with most blogging nowadays — has run its course.

It’s been nice. It’s been real. Thanks for listening.




The Metamorphosis Restyled: A Newly Single Man

So your wife left you, huh? You poor thing! Here, let’s dry those tears and get you started on the path to feeling better… and you know what that means: it’s makeover time.

Don’t worry, this won’t hurt. In fact, if you’re like most men, you’ll come out of this break-up relatively unscathed. And if you follow these steps, you’ll find an ersatz wifey to clean up after your messes in no time.*

  1. The makeover can’t begin until you finally reach the realization that she’s gone. To get to that point, you have to spend a weekend getting smashing drunk and telling everyone you encounter what a terrible, horrible, awful bitch you were married to. It’s not attractive, but: Camaraderie. It’ll come in handy.
  2. Use this camaraderie to ask all your friends if they know any nice girls. Realize everyone you know is still married. Download Tinder “just to see what’s out there.” Take a lot of selfies in poorly lit places and swipe right on every picture. Just in case.
  3. While you’re still not really “feeling it” — still sleeping on your friend’s couch because you trust that at any moment, she’ll let you back in — stop taking care of yourself. Spend all your free time either at work or browsing Tumblr to get ideas on what men should look like nowadays.
  4. Stop cutting your hair.
  5. Grow out your facial hair. Beards and man buns are in, you know, and all that money you’ll save on hair cuts you can invest elsewhere.
  6. Like in sneakers. Nike Frees. The brighter and more colorful, the better.
  7. And jeans. Dark wash. Just a smidgen too big.
  8. And white Hanes T-shirts and a couple of button-downs. If you’re the Oxford type at work, make these “casual” shirts the flannel variety.
  9. Join a rock climbing gym, where you will go and hang out on the weekends once you discover that alcohol isn’t all it’s cracked up to be now that you’re middle-aged.
  10. Realize that shit, you’re middle-aged. Dial down the age limit on Tinder. Swipe right but never ever contact anyone.
  11. Get a tattoo. A sleeve.
  12. Start rolling up the sleeves on your flannel to show off your tattoos.
  13. Let your beard grow as long as you can. Learn how to use hair gel and beard oil.
  14. Find ways to show off the abs and biceps you’ve got now that you’re climbing. Lift up the hem of your Hanes to wipe the sweat off your brow. Switch out your gym Tees for tank tops. Be confident in your belief that someone somewhere has got to be paying attention to you.
  15. Start drinking green juice and eating chia seeds and ordering the vegan option extra loudly in every restaurant you go to.
  16. Learn guitar. Or Tango. Or basket weaving. Whatever it is that attracts the ladies nowadays.
  17. Hit on all your female co-workers. And babysitters. Basically any woman who crosses your path. One of them will say yes.
  18. After she says yes, take her to her place. If you can, take pictures. On your phone. Make sure your ex can discover them, sit back and wait for the lawyer’s papers.
  19. Pack up all your flannels, say goodbye to your friend and his uber-annoyed wife, and move directly from their couch to your new girlfriend’s bed.
  20. Complain to everyone about how your ex keeps asking for alimony. Tell your new girl how terrible your ex was and how you had never ever done anything to deserve her insane bitchiness. Beg for sympathy without ever taking any responsibility. Bathe in it. Sympathetic righteousness gives a glow unlike any other.
  21. With all that money you’re saving by living off your new girlfriend, buy a bike. Not just any bike. A lightweight fixxie. White. With thin tires and no gears that costs about the same as a car.
  22. Delete Tinder. Neglect Tumblr.
  23. Shave.
  24. Get a hair cut.
  25. Throw away the flannels.
  26. Get a new pair of Nike Frees, this time black.
  27. Cancel the rock climbing gym. You never have time for that anymore anyway.
  28. Order a big, fat juicy steak. And a liter of beer. Now that you’re partnered up, realize your vanity really was taking up a lot of time and energy that you’d rather expend doing other things. Like planning exotic vacations with your new girl.
  29. Slip back into the old routine of being taken care of. Leave your laundry everywhere. Show up late for dinner. Remind your new girl how much you hated it when your ex nagged.

Congratulations, you’ve come full circle. You’re the same old asshole your ex left. This time, though, don’t fuck it up.

*Though not based on my own personal experience, 6 of 6 new divorcees I have met in the last year have gone through exactly this process. I can tell you: it works. Unfortunately.

On Broken German Schools and Hellish PTA Meetings

As all of my Twitter followers know, Diva started school here last month and so that means I have had near-weekly parents’ nights since mid-August. I’m already a pro at these from being a part of a parents’-run kindergarten and for some reason I thought I’d get through elementary school without another wasted Wednesday night bickering about whose talented kid isn’t being given enough support. I was wrong. Because in Germany, middle-class parents seem to have nothing else better to do with their time and schools here don’t just run themselves. And based on my recent experiences at these meetings, those two sentiments are severe understatements.

Die Zeit took a frightening, in-depth look at the poor state of German schools and I gotta say, wow. Just wow. I chose to educate Diva in a public school because I believe in public school education. I chose to educate her here in Germany because although they are absolutely opposed to gifted & talented programs (a topic for another day), the students who go through university preparation in Germany are much better educated than most Americans in urban areas. I had never considered the state of the schools.

We pay a lot of taxes here in Germany, with billions of our Euros going to unfinished construction projects — like BER or the Cologne Opera House or the goddamned U-Bahn that was supposed to be open in time for the World Cup held in Germany in 2006 and which is maybe finally going to open in December(!). From the looks of these schools, though, not a penny of those taxes is going to school buildings. Diva’s school, though nice, hasn’t been painted since the 1970s and to get to the bathrooms, the kids have to run outside even in winter to an unheated addition. Talk about freezing your bottom. But she is lucky. At least her gym wasn’t condemned, as two in Cologne were this summer. And her school is too small to be housing refugees, as other gyms in Cologne are doing at the moment.

Because of the sorry state of the school system in Germany, Diva’s school now has a very very active PTA, committed to ensuring that the little school children have everything their little hearts desire. I scoffed at this at first, until I learned that without the PTA, there would be no toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor would a cleaning lady be there all day every day to make sure the kids feel safe enough to freeze their little bottoms off in the unheated outdoor toilets. I mean, it could be worse; she could be in one of the state-of-the-art schools that my former employers, an architecture company, built in Wisconsin with bulletproof doors and an alarm system that allowed teachers to lockdown their kids in the classroom in case a gunman walked in. Pick and choose, I guess.

Thing is, though, that for this cleaning lady to come every day, our PTA feels the need to send home a note every month reminding us that we are not good parents unless we contribute to the fund to pay her; we just got another passive-aggressive note reminding us that because some of us aren’t paying, all the kids may soon suffer the consequences of having no toilet paper in the bathrooms. Really people? Really? Where is the principal or the custodian? Why are we as parents having to handle this?

Well, funny I should ask: on Friday we got a note from the principal saying he’s leaving the school and due to a shortage of headmasters in the area, it’s unlikely he’ll be replaced and so we, as parents, have to step up. We have already had four parents’ nights meetings since mid-August and now we’ll be having more, to see who can pick up what slack while the city thinks about whether or not it can hire a new headmaster. Anybody who has been following the Cologne election fiasco knows just how laughable this idea is. Cologne’s bureaucrats can’t even print a stupid election ballot correctly and have to keep pushing the election date for our mayor back; why would this headmaster of a teeny-tiny school be of any importance to these incompetent beamter?

I could very easily slide into the role of PTA coordinator/headmaster if I wanted to and I could get shit done. Organization and leadership skills are not my competencies. People skills are not my competency. And yet, I could do this.

Except as I am learning from these PTA meetings, my way of doing things is not the preferred way of doing things. Instead of asking a translator to come to speak with the parents of the refugee boy in class who’s having difficulties, the preferred method of the PTA is to shout at the refugee parents in a mix of German and English and hope they get they hint that their kid needs to stop borrowing the other kids’ school supplies without asking (they don’t understand a word).  Instead of asking for the toilet paper fund to be paid in advance for the entire school year, we’d rather have the teachers collect 1.50 Euro from each student once a month and waste everybody’s time by sending obnoxious letters home.

Ok, fine.  I didn’t want to run for PTA President anyway. But when these meetings are not optional, do we really need to waste a half hour of my life getting lectured on how bloody important the Carneval culture is to our school and how we have to positively absolutely immediately get started on our kids’ Carneval costume planning right now?

Man, it’s going to be a long four years. Please tell me the private schools aren’t any better or I might just ship Diva off to one…. at least so I can enjoy my one kid-free evening a week by not thinking about kid things.

On Feeling Helpless vs. Feeling Hopeless

I don’t talk about my work much here for a couple of reasons. Even most of my close friends are clueless about what I do and I like it that way most of the time. People who talk about their work are boring. And my work, although exciting sometimes, can also sometimes put me to sleep while I’m doing it. But to understand this post, you need to understand two things: I write for a living but I’m not a journalist, though the Kunstler Sozial Kasse has pigeonholed me as one. After having a loss of faith in my abilities as a writer a few years ago, I also started studying international human rights law. I thought that by becoming an expert on a topic that really affects me emotionally, I could maybe regain my faith in myself as a writer. Because I wanted to write stories that rose people’s awareness, changed people’s minds, and I felt like I needed to have the basic background information to do that.

I’m not so naive anymore.

For years I tried to make a living as a person writing on human rights issues. I’ve offered to write and edit reports, to write magazine features, to cover important conventions on transitional justice. And though some organizations and magazines have taken me up on these offers, for the most part, no one is willing to pay for my words or for the therapy I need regularly to deal with nightmares from some of the stories that I’ve heard. So I’ve had to turn to corporate communications to pay the bills, writing about fashion designers and computer programs and a million other things that I could give two fucks about. A waste of my time and expertise and talent, I’m told, but talent doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a messed up world when I can get paid more to write about clothing than about an Afghan woman struggling to get an education. And I don’t know if that’s the editor’s or the reader’s or the advertiser’s decision, I just know that it’s a position that’s conflicting to be in. Do what I love and feel is good or pay my rent and provide my daughter with a better life than the one I had as a kid?

These internal struggles that I’ve had for years become more and less acute depending on what I know and hear about happening in the world and most of the time, when it’s acute, it feels so bad because I feel helpless. Like I can’t do anything and whatever I do do, it won’t ever be enough.

When we flew into Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war, I was warned strictly against going outside the areas we were approved to be in. That meant no Bakaa Valley, no refugee camps, no Tripoli. I was not there for work but I listed online as a journalist, which could have meant trouble (as most English language journos in Germany know about from the Michael Scott Moore kidnapping case), and I had my daughter with me, and so, for the most part, I obeyed. We were there for a wedding and although I didn’t know this at the time, the bride came from one of the wealthiest families in the area. It wasn’t until I arrived and we were whisked away by their chauffeur that I realized how conspicuous our presence would be; we were told thereafter to be extremely careful so as not to be kidnapped. I got chauffeured around in a Mercedes, taken to luxurious Mediterranean beach resorts that were carved into the middle of banana plantations, places that required driving through Army checkpoints that left our driver a crying mess and through some of the poorest ghettos I have ever witnessed, to reach. We drove by the Holiday Inn on the Green Line that still bears the marks of decades-ago shelling and got rerouted because a crater from a car bomb just a few weeks earlier had made the road impassable. Never have I been so aware of the privilege I experienced through accident of birth and acquaintance. I may have grown up poor but I have never experienced poverty like this. I wasn’t naive enough to think that getting out of the car and handing out dollar bills or sweets and treats would do anything but ease my own mind about the poverty I was witnessing but what could I do? I felt totally helpless, a feeling that has ebbed and wained my entire life but which has, since then, not receded.

When I got back to Germany, I set out to write about these experiences. If editors didn’t want to buy the story about the reconstruction after the ethnic cleansing of my driver’s village (they didn’t), then maybe they would buy a story about six talented fashion designers from Beirut (they didn’t). They’ll publish 500 trend pieces on Paris Fashion Week but nope, sorry, not enough room for Lebanon. It’s okay. I already knew that. Words aren’t powerful in the face of disinterest. They aren’t the vehicles for positive change or awareness bringing that my grad school professors had tried convincing me they were.

Which is why what happened across Europe this week was so startling to me. I’ve been following the Syrian Civil War for five years now, been an expert on Afghanistan for seven. No one has given a shit for all these years. We have seen pictures of dead people in the Mediterranean for at least two years now and no one flinched. I was at a conference this summer which specifically addressed these wars and their consequences and watched Middle East experts begging for press and the world’s attention. Little came. I sat through panels addressing how the xenophobia and racism in the Balkans is once again reaching a boiling point, with one panelist saying the unsteady peace won’t last much longer, while for months at least, Balkans minorities keep turning up in Germany begging for asylum only to be deported quickly. I still haven’t read or heard about that in the media. I had a conversation with an expert on the to-remain-nameless-because-of-Google group currently rampaging across the former Mesopotamia that made me literally vomit and when I left this conference, for the first time in a while, I realized that the feeling of helplessness that I had when deciding to study human rights law has now shifted towards complete and utter hopelessness. I don’t want to be as disenchanted as this last expert, a former war reporter, is; his take on the world is that human beings are awful creatures undeserving of redemption. I don’t know how you can live with that kind of world view and yet I can absolutely understand based on his stories why he would say that.

For a second this week, my faith in humanity returned. Seeing some of those pictures brought tears to my eyes. I felt less hopeless and back to feeling merely helpless. Maybe that’s a start, I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot more weeks and months and years to reverse that last feeling and I’m hoping to continue to see this rising tide of immigration turn into a sea of positive change.  I’m trying not to be cynical about it. I’m trying hard not to make this about me. But I’m still a very long way from saying, as Liv Hambrett quite eloquently put it, that I am proud. Don’t get me wrong. What’s happening on the civilian level on the ground in Germany is wonderful and admirable. But as the saying in the development world goes, good intentions are not enough. I can’t wait to see the permanent change brought on by these actions. That’s the notion giving me hope at the moment.

On Raising a Third Culture Kid in a Xenophobic World

A few weeks back, while waiting in line with Diva for a boat ride on a sweltering hot day, a man cut in front of me and when I complained he told me to go back to where I came from.

“Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he said, even though I had vocalized my complaint in German. I continued to argue with him, telling him how appalling I found his behavior, arguing loudly enough that two gentlemen nearby understood what was going on and stepped in to tell him he was out of line. But he didn’t relent. “Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he spit at me again before bullying his way through to the front.

And I had to wonder: was it my accent? Or was he saying that I clearly didn’t understand what it means to be Deutsch? That even if I could understand the words I would never truly versteh Deutsch because if I did, I would understand that people here can act like entitled pricks and I should just bite my tongue and look away.

I tried not to take it personally. After all, everyone was cranky and so I thought maybe I was overreacting, thinking that he was singling me out for my accent when really he was just a jackass. It wasn’t about Germans and foreigners but about two jerks arguing over proper behavior in public. He clearly thinks he was right because he was old and white and middle-class and should be allowed to do whatever the fuck he wants and me, a jerk for thinking there is a modicum of politeness that people should show each other in public by queuing properly.

Instead, I caught myself really questioning his comments. Do I look that foreign? Will I ever fit in here? And how can I teach Diva to do right in the world when she is surrounded by shit like this? Because the thing is, I do take comments about my accent personally and after six weeks of nearly nonstop travel, I was very sensitive to my otherness. In every town I visited, I was introduced as “the American” and although people often fawned over me and my daughter, I was also told numerous times that the person I was talking to in German could “versteh kein Wort” before they’d ask if I spoke German.

If I wasn’t introduced but instead introduced myself, the literal second question out of the other person’s mouth was “Where you from?” Buying petrol in a gas station, the clerk told me I must’ve been on vacation because I didn’t look like I was from around there. A tour guide said she knew who I was immediately upon hearing my accent because she’d heard there was a New Yorker in town. When I picked up concert tickets, a guy offered to meet up with me because he loves Finland and could show me around (Finland? that’s a new one).

You may think it’s cute but imagine that every day both strangers and friends alike remind you that you’re a foreigner. They do it with laughs and joking or they do it with repeated requests for you to say that one word that you pronounce funny or they do it by cursing you out or talking more slowly. Worse: they switch straight to English after you’ve you just opened your mouth to speak and then ask where you’re from. I’ve written about my disdain for this small talk before. No, I don’t want to be chatted up with the line “Where you from?” when I only just met you. I don’t want to be singled out as an outsider every goddamned time I open my mouth. I have been in Germany for ten years and it doesn’t look like I’m leaving any time soon and these daily — sometimes multiple times a day — reminders that I’m different are not harmless. Why should I have to explain myself to you? After ten years here, can I say I’m from Cologne? Why do you assume I can’t speak or understand German because I have a slight accent?

Imagine if I weren’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Or an English speaker. Imagine how much more frequently people would ask me where I’m from if I had a Muslim name, as my daughter does (and literally anyone who has ever known her name is Muslim has asked me if I am — none of your business people, none).

A friend of mine who shares my daughter’s surname told me I should consider myself lucky that people are nice and friendly when they ask me where I’m from. “Imagine being the daughter of a Palestinian refugee,” she said, and then she said, “At least when my dad arrived in the 70s, Palestinians were still acceptable. At least he wasn’t Turkish.”

I’m really curious about this sorting out that is done in Germany, this trying to put each person into a particular drawer. The Bavarians in one drawer, the Amis in another, and all of those stereotypes that come along with those labels are applied in advance. Diva, she’s been introduced by some well-meaning people lately as being American as if that says something about her; though she doesn’t correct them, she has learned on her own that this means they think she can’t speak German and so she tells them she speaks German just fine. She’s six and people are already trying to sort her into one or the other category and she understands this. Although she’s proud to be a dual national, she has very little idea of what it means to be American except that it’s a word and people use it when talking about her. But she doesn’t want to be different than the other kids and so I wonder about what this does and will do to her. Kids don’t make these distinctive identifications on their own. They learn these identities as they are given them. Does this happen in the US? Are immigrant children singled out upon introduction as “My Afghani friend Amir”? At what point can we safely assume Germans will stop introducing Diva and I as the Americans?

Of course it’s not as if I want her to choose one identity over the other. But as she grows up in a world filled with xenophobes and xenophobia, I don’t want her to feel the repercussions of this othering. She didn’t choose to be born in a country different from my country of birth. And since you really can’t call her an immigrant anymore, I’m very curious at what point she’ll be accepted as German. Would it be different if she didn’t have a Muslim name? Will it be different for her in the world if she isn’t with me and doesn’t tell people of her American heritage?

My acquaintance with the Palestinian father tells me I shouldn’t deny her the chance to learn about “my” culture. She tells me that I should not try to fully conform her to the German ways and I agree. But as the debate rages on in Germany about refugees and migrants, where xenophobia is not only omnipresent, it’s deeply ingrained, I wonder if I’m not doing her a disservice by raising her with both nationalities and expecting tolerance.

I’m told I’m not. I’m told that I have nothing to worry about — that because I am American, this tolerance is there. I’m told that I’m a “good” immigrant because I pay taxes, because I learned the language, because I’m well educated. And though those last three things are true, I know many other immigrants who do those things as well  but who would still not be classified as “good,” for whatever inane reason the classifier can conjure. But I’ve also experienced that tolerance differently. I came to Germany right after George W Bush had invaded Iraq and people wanted to argue with me about “my” politics. They tried to shame me in classrooms and in bars and in university staff meetings for having elected such a president (I didn’t vote for Bush but that didn’t matter, only my passport did). Right now America is “good.” Right now I am working and therefore “good.” It’s a distinction I’d prefer not to have made, to be honest, although I’m not sure the alternative, brutal intolerance, is any better.

The day after the boat ride, Diva and I stood in line once again, queuing for another nearby attraction that would cool us off on a hot day when suddenly we realized that the woman ahead of us in line was on a diatribe. The people she was talking to were slowly backing away, giving her space, lowering their heads and so she used the opportunity to speak loudly, more clearly, address the others in the line more directly and so Diva and I caught wind of her speech.

“They had it right. Deport them. Deport them all. We don’t need any foreigners here. Foreigners should go back to where they came from.”

I put my hands over Diva’s ears but it was too late. She looked up at me and asked what the lady was so mad about. And then the lady turned to me and, in German, said “Isn’t that right?”

And though normally I would’ve snapped up the chance to tell her off — and honestly, I was waiting for the dozen other people in line who’d heard to do just such — I found myself wondering instead just how to stop this conversation from happening in front of Diva because she’s too young to have to understand or know hate and I want to protect her from that harsh reality as long as I can. And so I just said, in my perfect English. “I don’t understand. I’m a foreigner. Maybe you should deport me?”

These conversations are, unfortunately, going to be more frequent in the next few months and I know it’s not long before Diva starts asking about these things. We’ve already had talks about not labeling people as stupid or dumb and so I’m sure the slurs will come into play soon, too, unfortunately. And so I’m curious and I’m turning this over to you: how do you, as foreigners or as parents or as foreign parents work with your kids on topics of xenophobia? How are you addressing the current atmosphere of hate with them?

On Being Altruistic vs. Being “American”

A couple weeks ago, I met a friend for lunch who was debating what her next life steps would be. She’s American, having a rough time of it in her life, wondering if she should stay in Germany or move on. And no, there’s no “home” to “go back to.”

I’m not usually one to bash zee Germans … although things are done differently here on this side of the pond than what I am accustomed to from my childhood, I don’t like to think of something as being normal or abnormal. I’m fond of saying Typisch Deutsch and Typisch Ami as a way of getting around the problems of pigeonholing an entire culture based on the actions of some of the people who represent those cultures. Most of the time, I try to keep a sense of humor about it. After all, Germany is my Wahlheimat and it would do no one any good — especially not my daughter who had no choice about having Germany as her home — to hate the place in which I live and bash it because things don’t work as I’d like them to.

That disclaimer in mind, this conversation was not one of bashing but more one that bordered on nostalgia. Friend said, “I just feel like there’s part of me that’s missing when I’m in Germany,” and “There are some parts of my personality that I like that are dying while I’m here.” Lest this sound too melodramatic, she gave me an example that I could fully relate to: the problem of niceties.

For example: a frequent complaint I hear among Americans is that Germans, especially Germen, don’t hold doors open for other people (except train doors, when they see people running to catch the Bahn). I didn’t think much of this until I struggled to get a door open while carrying groceries and pushing a stroller and spilled the food all over the front stairs. Sometimes it’s the little gestures that help make a person’s life easier. And it’s gestures like these that my friend said were failing her, making her day-to-day life less rich. So while life in Germany is okay, it’s not as good as it could be. Not as good as it might be in other places.

I feel this. I really really feel this.

I read an article a few months ago in Brigitte where the author was raving about how wonderful and friendly Americans are and she cited the example of the pay-it-forward coffee movement in Berkeley. Someone at Starbucks paid for her coffee before she’d even bought it. What a lovely gesture, she thought. It made her day so she did the same and before you know it, the entire line had bought each other’s coffees. “Why can’t we be more like this in Germany?” she asked and I nearly lost my shit. Not only because this movement originated in India or Sri Lanka and was adopted by Calis as a form of “karma yoga” but also because have you ever been to Berkeley? Have you seen the way the homeless are treated there? Sure, they’ll buy you a $4 cup of joe but that change the dude out on the streets is begging for is not going to come into his possession anytime soon.

As the bumper stickers say, people in California are fond of these “random acts of kindness.” The problem, however, is one of altruism. What are the intentions behind these gestures? Is it to make someone’s day better? To clear their own conscience? Or to make them look good in front of their peers? Is it the pressure they were feeling because everyone else was doing it? Or was it just meaningless goodwill because really, only one person donated that cup of coffee and everyone else was already planning to be for his or her own and no one wants to be the asshole who says, “Yo, free joe here. Sweeeeeeet.”

I’ll be honest here: I do nice things for people. Sometimes. When I can. And partially this is because I’m altruistic and have good intentions. Partially because I think the kind of place I want to live in is one in which other people help each other. Partially this is because I know how hard it is to be in a place where no one cares about the problems you’re having. And partially because this is how I was raised. If it’s because I’m American, I don’t know. If it’s because of my age or my midwestern upbringing, I’m not sure.

I also do shitty things to people. I can be a real dick. Sometimes. When I want to, and sometimes when I don’t even realize it. Partially this is because my everyday life is tough. Partially this is because I live in a place where no one cares about the problems I’m having. And partially because this is how I was raised.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is intention is everything and although these niceties commonly accepted in the US are missing from our lives in Germany, it’s not necessarily because Germans are “bad” or whatever. That doesn’t make their absence any less difficult for expats to bear but remembering that there are assholes and nice people in every culture is really important to me at the moment for getting through life. And concentrating on the nice ones is the key to well-being. Not paying for somebody’s overpriced coffee. I just wish we could all be a little more altruistic. Doing nice things for the sake of the community and not because it makes us feel good.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m nostalgic for Zizek’s communism — the one in which the Starbucks system, where you can pat yourself on the back for donating 1 cent for every $4 cup of coffee to some poor starving kid in Africa — is replaced by people motivated by a greater love for others than for themselves. Whether that be in Germany or America.

On How Expatriation Resets You (From “Make Me German”)

Make Me German

Now, some seven years later, I realize what moving abroad actually does — it resets you. If you live in one place for a long time, as I had in England, you are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, so it’s easy to forget how special it is. You see only its flaws and minor inconveniences. Or perhaps even worse, you think that the way you do things there is the right way. That there are normal people, and strange people, and fortunately enough, as chance would have it, you were born into the normal tribe, and all those other people over there, from other places, foreign places, with their strange cultures and languages and customs — those people are the strange ones.

Then, suddenly, you’re somewhere else with a completely different idea of normal.

Currently reading Adam Fletcher’s “Make Me German,” which has a lot of smart things to say about the transition from one country to the other, and feeling pretty understood.