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.

On Tap This Year

In case you missed it, I updated the list of things to do this year. I gave myself a bit of leeway last year and held out on being disappointed that I didn’t accomplish all 35 things before my birthday in December but then January rolled around and I realized, hey, this life is getting stale. I need some new motivation. So there it is, in black and white for all to see.

The problem is, it’s January. January sucks for motivation. I hurt myself running so I feel a bit like, eh, what’s the point of having a half-marathon as a goal for this year? And I’m nevah evah going to speak German like a Deutscher, so why bother, right? (As a side note: the diva’s teachers at Kita say she’s been correcting their pronunciation of German words so that they speak them with a more American accent. My God, what have I done? It’s English only from here on out with that babe.)

And then I started changing my mind. I think I want to add “watch a Barca game in Barcelona” to the list.  Can I do that? Just change my goals like that? I’ve never been much of a goal setter but I feel like these things are important for my sanity right now. I’m learning how to be alone and how to be a grown-up and goals, I think, are key to that. Otherwise, you just sit around in your sweatpants eating potato chips and lamenting the things you could’ve done with your life and then you realize, shit, I’m 50, where did my life go. Right?

So my goals for this year are to not just sit around. To travel a lot, both alone and with the kid. I even added another tab here, with my goal destinations this year. If I have my way, I’ll be in France, Greece, Denmark, and Switzerland before summer’s even here.

But that means I have to get over my fear of flying. I have a dream of a doctor who prescribed me something the Germans like to call Holy Shit pills to take the edge off. I no longer feel like I’m going to vomit at the thought of getting on a plane. I don’t need to knock myself out with Benadryl and stumble down the aisles of an Airbus 320 every five minutes to look in the bathroom mirror to convince myself that yes, I am 32,000 feet above the earth but everything is a-ok. Now I can actually sleep through a flight. As the Diva explained to everybody who’d listen, Mama can snore through seven different videos being played on the little video screen on the back of the seat (raised mostly tv-less, she is not excited about being an airplane but about Mama not giving a shit when she watches Minnie Mouse Clubhouse).

But I’m no Liza Minnelli; I don’t need pills to get through life. So I’m going to first work on getting over my fear of flying, which is, bizarrely enough, not an actual fear of flight but of loss. Because as anyone who’s an expat knows, getting on that airplane means leaving things behind, even things you hate. And even if for just a short amount of time. So yeah, working on that. But first, I gotta get motivated, which, in the shite white wonderland, is going to take a little while. For now it’s back to potato chips and yoga pants on the couch.

AOK Health Insurance Sucks

I’m a huge fan of the German health insurance system. Income-dependent premiums? No co-pay? Kids free until they’re 18!?!? It’s one of the reasons I live here. I may have to pay more taxes but the amount I — a perpetually broke single mom — pay for health insurance here is so minimal, I don’t mind paying the extra little bit to the government for peace of mind that if I ever get hit by a car, I won’t go bankrupt from hospital bills. Say what you will about the “state of the art” health care in the US; I’d rather share a hospital room here than be denied an overpriced doctor’s visit because I lacked insurance (which, in the US, I would do, as a freelancer and all).

That love song aside, I have experienced the worst, most ridiculous bureaucratic bullshit from the public health insurance company AOK. Buyer beware: these guys and gals are insane. For a second, I was sympathetic to their plight, seeing as they’re required to insure people that other companies do not have to insure. But their operations are absurd.

Let me backtrack just a bit, to the year after my daughter was born. Until my maternity leave ended, I was a happy, happy, happy TK customer. I paid my premiums and beside that minimal amount — no joke — my entire pregnancy (ultrasounds included) and delivery and subsequent midwife check-ups and well-baby check-ups and vaccinations were covered so thoroughly that I paid an additional grand total of 40 Euros. Yep. 40. Sure beats the tens of thousands my “well-insured” friend in the US had to fork over after her child was born six months after mine. Anyway….

The ex was on AOK and when my maternity leave ran out and I didn’t have income, the kid and I went on his family plan. AOK wasn’t thrilled but in the end they had to accept me. We didn’t realize that we could’ve all switched to TK at that time because it was a big life change, but whatevs. I went to AOK. Then we went to the US for six months and I came back to Germany without the man. Jobless, homeless, penniless back in Germany was still better than the shit I was dealing with in the US. Right quick, I got myself a sublet and a job, which would have equaled money, except that to start working to get the money, I had to get my visa renewed, which required that I have proof of health insurance. No problem-o, right?


I called TK and they said that because of some arcane law, I could only go back to my previous provider. So I went to AOK. Several times. And each time, they denied my request. Why’s that? Because I didn’t have income. Of course I didn’t have income. I was jobless for over a year because I stayed home to take care of my kid. They didn’t believe me that I had separated from my husband, despite my legal documents attesting to the separation. They insisted that he was giving me money and I had to prove to them that I wasn’t getting any. How do you prove that you don’t have something that you don’t have? I was there three times in one week, all to no avail.

One gent was even so nice as to sit back in his chair and say to me, “Tell me, Ms. Lederhosen, how do you live without any money? Because I’d love to have a life like yours. No work and yet you still eat? Have a roof over your head? I’d quit my job right now if I could have a life like that.” Diva, smart cookie she is, threw a Matchbox car at the asshole before we called his supervisor who was a bit more helpful. She signed a “tentative” agreement to insure (pending paperwork) so that I could get my visa. Nice of her, right?

Except that agreement included only me. And although it’s against the law in Germany for a kid to be uninsured, for six months while we went back and forth with this nonsense, the Diva was uninsured. I took her to all her appointments, the doctors kept billing AOK knowing that they’d denied me, so certain were they that AOK was being ridiculous. Then, finally, I got a letter that made it official: my daughter would not be covered by them. They insisted her father, who was at that time in the US, should insure her even though his insurance didn’t cover shit that wasn’t in their HMO. I canceled my policy with AOK right then so that I could go to a reasonable (read: TK) health insurance company. Except that I had to wait another year for it to be effective, because German law also has it that you have to wait 18 months after a policy begins to switch companies.

Long story short: I found another solution for Diva elsewhere and stayed unhappily insured by AOK until just last month, when finally the transfer came through. I was soooo excited when this happened; I even booked all my dr. appointments for the month before I transferred just so AOK would have to suck up the costs.

AOK isn’t letting go without a fight, however. First they called me to win me back and when I told the salesdude about the situation with Diva, he said it was impossible — illegal even — for them to have denied her. No shit, Sherlock. Talk to your beamter buddies.

Now, they sent me a bill charging me 3,937 Euros PER MONTH for my health insurance coverage, dating back to 18 months ago. Why’s that, you ask? Well, because I have NO PROOF that I wasn’t earning income so how do they know I’m not some wealthy ass freeloader? Fucking awesome, AOK. Really rich. You just try and get 70,000 Euros out of my broke ass.That’s WAY more than my annual income, you ninnies, which you’ll find out soon enough.

Thank fuck I have a good accountant and lawyer. These insurance bureaucrats are just as insane here in Germany as they are in the US. At least at AOK. So expats, a word to the wise: TK is your friend. AOK is not.

Running the Expat Life

When I started running years ago, I could barely make a loop around the perimeter of the football field without getting short of breath. This didn’t really surprise me — I’d always been at the top of my age’s physical ability when it came to flexibility (touching my toes, etc…) but at the bottom when it came to endurance.

I think this says a lot about my personality: highly adaptable but super flighty and unable to hold out. Adaptability sure comes in handy as an expat. I’d say it’s the most important personality characteristic a person has to have in order to live in a foreign culture. And just after that, I’d say expats need endurance training; the only way to get through the daily struggles you initially experience is to have the patience required to see something through to its natural end.

That could be why I had such an awful time of it my first year here. I’m impatient, I rush things, I do not set goals for myself (so there’s never an end in sight), I walk away from anything that gets too difficult or just don’t even bother starting if I think I can’t finish. I cannot tell you how many times I was ready to get back on a plane back “home” after I first arrived in Germany and only stopped when I realized I had no home to go back to. Or how many times I cried when I realized I had no future plans and couldn’t actually figure out where my natural end with Germany lay. Since I could neither run away nor move forward, staying in Germany became a forced endurance trial, a long, stagnating march toward an ever-foggy finish line.

When I split from my husband and decided to spend the next year (at least) alone so I could understand myself and what I wanted out of life better, I realized I actually do have endurance. Everyone does. I just have to put it to use.

At the same time, faced with the decision of whether to stay or to go, I also realized that my time in Germany hadn’t yet come to its natural end. Making that decision was hard but the things that followed were even harder. Life is funny in the way it tests your limits sometimes in ways you could never imagine, demanding that you persevere.

This happened to me after the split and yet I just kept on trucking, even if some days it felt like living was the most difficult thing in the world to do. That’s endurance, the persevering even when you don’t see your end goal and despite the voice in your head telling you you can’t go on.

Living these experiences, both the initial expatry and the divorce and its subsequent disasters taught me a lot about my running game as well. While being flexible will always be a plus, helping you over the hurdles, the only thing keeping you from crossing that finish line, from enduring to the end, is you.