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?

Latte Macciato Mums

A couple months back, I was walking down the street with a friend of mine who’s been trying unsuccessfully for years to have a kid. It always sucks a little bit to talk to her because our conversation always has something to do with kids and seriously, what do you say to someone who’s dealing with infertility issues? “Oh hey, I see you’re not pregnant yet. Still trying? Let me just bitch a little bit about my little darling so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.”

On this occasion, it was especially awkward because my friend was taking me to a partners’ massage at the Thai Massage studio which meant that in T-5 Minutes, we were going to be seeing each other naked, which I am still a bit shy about. So anyway, just as we were about to walk into the massage parlor, I realize another Mom from the Kindergarten is standing right by the door locking her bike. What’s the proper protocol for this greeting? Acknowledge the mom with a nod and a smile? Say hello and continue walking? Attempt small talk (which I despise) despite our rush? We never saw each other outside of the kindergarten but since it’s a tiny parents’ run Kita, we see each other there every month at parents’ night.

I decided to say hello and keep walking, noting that if she seemed offended, I could explain later how uncomfortable I was and how we were running late. So I said hi. And she did nothing. Not a nod. Not a smile. Not a word. She just looked right through me. And since we were like two feet away from each other and I am totally unique, it’s not like she didn’t recognize me.

“That was weird,” my friend said. “Who was that?”

“A mom from the kindergarten.”

“Oh man,” she said. “That’s why if I do ever get knocked up, I’m not raising the kid in this neighborhood. These moms are bitches.”

For like half a second, I defended the mom. It’s a habit I’m trying to create — to not talk shit about people or get offended by what I consider impoliteness. After all, this woman was probably feeling just as awkward as I was, right? I let it drop but made a note to try to play nice with this mom at the next parents’ night. Because one of the things I’m learning beyond the it’s not just me philosophy is that these moms who are bitches are probably going to be in my life for a while. If Diva wants to play their kids, I gotta be nice to them. If Diva doesn’t want to hang with their kids but we still have to keep seeing each other at playgrounds and soccer games, I gotta be nice to them. Cologne is small like that. My neighborhood even smaller.

And I have spent most of the last year in a selfish haze of bad fucking moods that I am sure has made a few people wonder what bug crawled up my ass so I have to start trying to make good with the mummies here again. The sun is shining and I have to hit the playgrounds with Diva again. Imagine my difficulty, then, when I overheard one of the new moms at the kindergarten talking about our kindergarten at the playground and the phrase “Latte Macciato Mamas” was used. Clearly this woman did not know that I was one of the Moms in question — we hadn’t yet attended a parents’ night together because I have been avoiding those like the plague this year — and the statement made me take a step back. It’s bad enough that people who know me don’t like me but at least I get that. I’m not always fun to be around. I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. But a pauschal hatred based on the Kindergarten I chose to send my kid to? A judgment about me because of the neighborhood I live in or the clothes that I wear?

I have a sense of humor. I can make fun of myself. Self-hatred is not a uniquely German trait. But how do you address this without sounding like a complete asshole? Hu-hu, heard you call me a yummy yuppy and just wanted to let you know, I’m just as broke as you! Whatever. It’s not important what this new mom thinks. We’re out of the insanity of the kindergarten next year and into the strangeness that is the German school system, complete with its own PTA problems so I don’t really need to prove I’m too lactose intolerant to be a latte drinker or that the Armani sunglasses I hide behind were an appeasement gift given years ago by a woman who felt guilty for flirting with my husband.

But the experience does have me thinking a bit about these relationships we’re building with the people we encounter every day. What are we doing to each other by cutting each other down? What purpose does this mummy hate serve? What are we teaching our kids when we’re throwing around casual judgments and talking smack when they’re in earshot? I understand the harm this does and though I haven’t been at all perfect, I am going to try to be better. Kill ’em with kindness. Starting now.

Fuck Parents’ Night.

When I signed Diva up for a parents’ run kindergarten, every other mother I knew warned me against it.

“It’s too much work.”

“The parents are demanding.”

“No, really, those parents are insane.”

But I wanted to be a part of the day care process. I wanted to stay involved in Diva’s life so I did it. I applied for a spot at a tiny parents’ run kindergarten and I put on the old song and dance at an interview and I got one of the much-coveted spots at a nearby Eltern Verein.

At first, it was great. It still is. But now I know what all those warnings were about. I’m not one of the people involved in the day-to-day operations and I’m not elected to a post so I don’t have to handle human resources or budgetary concerns, but it is exhausting. Not because of the work. The parents. Ugh, the parents.

As part of the official bureaucracy behind the parents’ run kindergarten, we have to have meetings every month. More often if there’s an issue. The people on the board meet even more frequently, so I know I dodged a bullet by not having to run the show. But these parents nights are the absolute worst. There are all sorts of jokes about them online. The writer Juli Zeh put together a bullshit bingo card for parents’ nights at her kids’ school and though kindergarten’s a bit different, it gives you some idea of what these discussions entail.

ElternabendbullshitbingoAt our kindergarten, thankfully, there are a few things written into the founding constitution that make some of these discussions obsolete. We can only serve vegetarian food. The kids can only wear slippers inside. They go outside every day.

I’ve had friends who’ve wasted hours of their time at these meetings because someone wants to serve only organic food and another person is against paying the extra 20 bucks a month it costs for only organics. I had another friend whose kindergarten completely imploded because the manager was incompetent and the employees were bullying each other but none of the parents could agree on which employees to fire when and how to do it according to German law. And while it was imploding, one of the parents embezzled a huge chunk of money, bankrupting the kindergarten. So I am definitely thanking my lucky stars to have found such a nice place for diva to spend her days.

But as it is, even when things are going well, people can still find stuff to bitch about. And that’s why these parents’ nights suck so royally. We spend hours every month debating the stupidest shit. Can we build a new bench on the playground? What can we plant in the garden? Are the kids getting outside enough? Shouldn’t we be teaching them English — or French — or Swahili?

The longer that I’ve been there, the more difficult it’s become to bear. It could be that my rose-colored glasses have come off or it could be that the mood at the kindergarten has changed but either way, what at first felt neat and quaint and cozy has devolved into a night I dread every month. It doesn’t help that my social anxiety prevents me from behaving in large groups. I do great one-on-one. I can give speeches to rooms filled with hundreds of people no problem. Put me in a room with a dozen people I have to see again and I will stick my foot in my mouth so hard and act like such a major bitch that even my friends pretend not to know me in the moment. I literally ask when we can all head to the bar and grab some whiskey even though I don’t drink and I deplore bars. That’s how bad my anxiety gets.

And for some reason, two of the other mothers have recently taken the idea of the kindergarten being a democratically-run institution too far, insisting that every time they don’t get their way, we have to put it to a vote. “All in favor of singing Backe Backe Kuchen every morning at breakfast, say aye.” It drives me fucking insane. And of course, in full anxiety mode, I don’t even bother to hide my disdain at this bullshit. So instead of playing nice with the other mummies, I roll my eyes and say, “Das kann ja doch nicht dein ernst sein?” It’s my favorite German phrase because even if it’s not grammatically correct, it gets the point across: “You cannot be fucking serious?” I may be American and Amis may have invented democracy as we know it but sometimes, seriously, we need a dictatorship. Someone who will stand up and say, “We’re singing pattycake at breakfast from now on, Mamacitas, so deal with it.”

Last month, it got so bad that three of the dads just got up in the middle of the meeting and were like, yo this is over, let’s go watch the football game. Which, irksome though it may have been at the time, seems to have been genius. Because without a platform, some ideas just go unaired and maybe it’s better that way.