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?

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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.

The Sexism of German Bureaucracy

On my first trip to the foreigner’s office nearly ten years ago, I had two visa options:

1. Take a 1-year residency permit limiting my working ability to whatever I had to do to fulfill my Fulbright obligations (teach); or

2. Request a spousal visa that would give me the ability to both work and live in Germany for however long the person filling my application decided it should be good for.

So although I had my application form there in front of me, I didn’t fill it out. I didn’t know which would be the better deal. Before I even had a chance to discuss the differences, the beamter assisting us decided for me: I would be on a spousal visa, full stop. In the long run, this was the better deal but this woman, when she decided for us, didn’t know anything about us or our plans. She didn’t know, for example, that although my ex-husband had a German passport in his possession, he hadn’t lived in Germany since he was 11 months old. Or that he didn’t speak the language. Or that he dreaded being in Germany with every ounce of dread possible and was only supposed to stay for a few months because he couldn’t imagine ever living here. That he only had the passport because three months earlier I had read that German citizenship laws had changed again and he could get one while still maintaining his US citizenship.

For me to get the Fulbright, I had to speak B1-level German and attend culture lessons. I had to read Faust in the original Goethe German, for fuck’s sake, and write a four-page statement of motivation in German. I would have been better off, at least in this meeting with her, standing on my own merits. But since I walked in with a man, she refused to talk to me. Instead, she turned to him and said, “Does your wife need integration classes?”

I said no. She said, “I’m not asking you.” And so I translated for the ex, who looked at me and said, “I don’t know. Do YOU want to take integration classes?”

I said no again, and tried to explain that I was answering because his German wasn’t good enough, and she just stared at me. It wasn’t the first time. In the airport, when a security officer had asked him to boot up his laptop before we got on our connecting flight, they laughed and called him a dumb Turk who couldn’t speak the language (he isn’t Turkish and he didn’t understand the racist bastards, luckily).

“Can he take the integration class?”

“No. He’s already German.”

Somehow, don’t ask me how, the integration classes for me were waived and I got a two-year work and residency permit. When I went back to get it renewed, this time in a different office with a different caseworker, she said, “Your husband has to be here,” and so we had to go back again another day where again, they didn’t speak to me but to him.

I get it, I guess. A spousal visa requires the spouse. You have to give proof that you live together, that you both earn money and pay taxes and love each other and whatnot. That’s not the sexist part. The sexist part comes when you try to get a permanent visa.

Because to get a permanent visa after three years of being here (this varies, btw), I needed to have my husband’s support and he absolutely, vehemently refused to give me it. He said if he signed the paperwork allowing me to stay in Germany without him (as a permanent visa would do), that I would leave him. He might’ve been right, but I’m not the kind of girl to marry for a Green Card. We were clearly having issues, but because he wouldn’t sign the visa paperwork, I had to stay on another two-year visa tied to his passport. I could have left him but it would have been harder to get my visa renewed. They assumed — wrongfully in my case, but not without reason — that the male was the breadwinner and so without his income, I would become a charity case and charity cases do not get permanent visas.

By the time we got to five years, to renew the visa, I again needed his signature but he left the country before I could get that. I went to the foreigner’s office to see what I could do and it was a no-go. Spousal visas can’t be converted to work visas, especially for freelancers. So even though I originally arrived on a visa tied to a grant I’d received and I had worked and paid taxes the entire time since (more than my ex could say), I had to leave the country. And so I did. And then I came back.

My second attempt at the permanent visa was different because this time, I didn’t want my visa tied to my ex. He was still out of the country when I came back and so they tied it, this time, to my daughter. Germans love it when little Germans are raised in the Fatherland and so they made it easier for me to get my visa to stay here and work. Also, I had paid taxes and social services for five years prior, so that was a plus. And then three years later, I could finally apply for my permanent visa.

Here’s the sexist bit: because my divorce had not yet officially been documented (the court had not yet sent the paperwork to the city hall), I had to get written permission from my ex-husband that he was okay with me being in Germany. Wie, bitte?

A woman who works and pays taxes and raises a kid on her own is obligated to get permission from a deadbeat, not-quite-ex-husband about where she lives? Eventually, I got the letter written, though not without a power struggle, but the whole process really had me thinking about all those holiday wives that wash up here… you know, the women from exotic southern locales who show up on a German’s arm after he’s taken a long holiday. Or women who are abused by their spouses. While I get that you don’t want people marrying just for Green Cards, if I’d already proven that I paid taxes and worked and had already filed for divorce and yadda yadda, what in the devil did I need my ex’s permission for?

Turns out, the reforms that were made in custody laws several years ago were the culprit in my case but I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around how this whole thing works. See, when two people are married and they have a kid, that kid is automatically 50/50 mom/dad custody (Sorgerecht). When they get divorced, it’s understood that unless officially decided otherwise, the kid will live with mom and the dad gets visitation (umgangsrecht). To get it officially stated otherwise, the dad has to sue the mom for something called the Aufenthaltsbestimmungsrecht — the right to decide where a kid lives. If the dad doesn’t sue — as my ex didn’t — then there is never any official documentation as to where the kid should live and so I have to, it turns out, with every move I make, have my ex put it in writing that he is understanding of the move. And so it was with the visa. My ex had to agree in writing that he was okay with me living in Germany with our daughter. I got off lucky. I’ve been doing research into The Hague Convention and those custody battles sound terrible. But seriously, Germany, there has got to be a better way to figure this shit out than to have a woman get a man’s permission to do the most normal thing: live somewhere. Seriously, women are their own people.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch, du Arsch?

Another day, another expat writing about her inability to fit in in Europe. If she were a Mexican writing in Spanish but living in the U.S., there would be an uproar. If she were Tunisian writing in Arabic but living in Germany, there would be people calling for her to go “home.”

Because this immigrant on a spousal visa in The Netherlands speaks English as her first language, however, she regards herself as “cute” and her readers — worldwide but for a website based in New York — see her life as exotic, unique. It’s not.

It’s not cute to not be able to speak the language of the people around you. These people whose lifestyle you’re proud to be adapting to are not exotic. You are not unique. Your life is not enviable.

I know because I’ve been there, been through all the stages of being a foreigner in a country I’d always fantasized about living in. I thought I was cute. I thought Germany was exotic, my life unique. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Unlike many “expat” women, I did not come here for love and have the great German-language-speaking husband waiting for me here to handle the bureaucracy. I am not a traveling spouse. I did not get a shit ton of money and offers of language courses because my (ex-)husband had made some brilliant career back home and a three-year stint abroad was the most logical next step in a globalized world.

Although we arrived in Germany right after the integration courses became mandatory for immigrants, I somehow managed to talk my way out of them (likely because I spoke mediocre German, studying for a year before I arrived). By nature of his German citizenship, my ex wasn’t allowed to attend them, although he knew less about the country than I did and could barely order in a restaurant when we arrived.

I’m saying this because the opportunities for language learning were not handed to us in the way that they are to many English-speaking immigrants and yet both of us managed to become fluent in German. We managed to learn not only how to speak but also how the culture and society works and though some things — like the necessity of wearing slippers indoors and keeping your kidneys covered at all times — still baffle, it broke down a lot of barriers here. Barriers in our own minds.

I’m saying this because the level of willfulness that many English speaking immigrants who come here willingly show in their refusal to integrate has reached its peak and its getting frustrating to read.

Despite having a load of German journalists on hand in the country, the Wall Street Journal has its English-language correspondent tweeting about an inability to understand the concept of airing out your apartment. EVERYBODY IN GERMANY UNDERSTANDS LUFTING, JUST ASK A GERMAN. Their expat blog published a bit on the Sunday quiet rules. THIS SHIT HAS BEEN COVERED ALREADY, THANKS.

Get out of your expat bubble. Take a German course. Talk to a German. Stop bragging about your inability to speak the language and therefore fit in.

I’m not saying don’t keep up with your English. I’m not saying don’t hang out with the other ladies from the American Women’s Club nor am I telling you to stop watching your movies in English. Some things need to stay as they are, and we all know the dubbing in those movies is terrible. But at least fucking try. Enroll yourself in one of those ueber-cheap, over-filled classes at the VHS. Get yourself a tandem partner. If you have kids, have them teach you the language they can more easily pick up. Stop telling yourself that you are “genetically unable to learn a second language.” There is no such thing.

And for heaven’s sake, stop assuming that just because everybody speaks English to you that they don’t think you’re an asshole. It’s cute when you’re a tourist but not a permanent fixture.

America, a 4-year-old’s Perspective

The diva’s been to the States many, many times, but our most recent visit back to my hometown is the first in which she actually started to make observations about the place. Someone asked me once what it’s like to fly back and forth so often and after this trip, I was like, “You know, it’d be nice to land somewhere new and interesting after all the hassle that comes with a transatlantic flight. But it’s just the same as always.”

For her, though, being in the midwest was like being in a whole new world. It didn’t help that she got to meet nearly a hundred members of my extended family so there were all these new, strange people around. She also got to see and do a bunch of new stuff. Like kayaking. And hiking through a real forest. And sit in the car for hours. She talked her way through a lot of this strangeness, and it was fun to listen to a four-year-old’s thoughts on this place that’s so familiar to me, yet so alien and new to her. So without further ado, a few random observations on America, courtesy of DiT:

1. Toilets there flush too loudly and are super scary. Sometimes they even flush while you’re sitting on them. More scary.

2. It’s weird that people can a) look through a crack in the toilet stall and see you pee, and b) that when you’re done using the toilet, you can just crawl out beneath the door without unlocking it.

3. There are too many cows to count.

4. Tractors are huge. HUGE. Much bigger than this one.

tractor5. Random strangers talk to you and it is not okay.

6. Choices. So.many.choices. (Discovered in the Barbie aisle at Target. Fuck that store.)

7. You can buy noodles at just about any restaurant, but they call it macaroni and that name makes it taste bad.

8. Adults go swimming in their clothes, not in bathing suits, which is strange.

Along with these hawk-eyed observations also came a bit of new vocabulary auf Englisch that was kind of fun to hear. All those sayings I’d tried my darnedest to eliminate so that people would never know where I was from are now popping out of Diva’s mouth. Sometimes when she speaks now, I think, oh wow, that’s my mother coming out right there. Like when she said, “Oh my garsh.” Or even better (and not from my mom), “Oh, what the hell?!?”

It’s kind of cute and sweet, but as I’m all Americaed-out, I’m really looking forward to the days when I can send her on over to visit the grandparents all by herself — then we’ll see what new vocabulary comes back with her.

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.