Thursday, January 12, 2012

On marked foreignness and the inability to go home again

I experienced more than a bit of self-recognition in this passage from a Prospect article ('Outsiders Everywhere' by E. J. Graff) quoting a German historian who has relocated to the US (quoted in a post by our friend Andrew).

My own Atlantic crossing, of course, went in the opposite direction, but I can nonetheless identify with one of her responses to the article's author about why she has decided to stay in her adopted home:

The first [answer] was that, having been an expat for more than a decade, she would never again be fully at home in Germany; she was Americanized now, to some degree, and would be out of place there. I've heard that before from Americans who've lived abroad for some extended period. ... So I wasn't surprised by the historian's answer. But why would that keep her here? Because, she explained, here her accent marks her as foreign; it reveals her reason for being a little different, a little unfamiliar with ordinary cultural habits. But in Germany, where she is unmarked as a foreigner, her different-ness irritates people.

I am still often frustrated about my all-too-visible marks of foreignness here in Germany (my accent, my use of expressions that are not quite right, my ability to form an orderly queue, my unwillingness to publicly scold complete strangers, etc.).

I think I feel encouraged now to be a bit more relaxed about my status as a marked man.

(The article also contains an interesting discussion of social mobility -- and its limits -- in the US and elsewhere.)


The Honourable Husband said...

A deceptively complex issue, JCW. In both of our cases, I suspect.

My foreignness irritated the hell out of Americans when I had a brief sojourn living there again.

Maybe it was just the circle I hung around in. But I never was able to relax with a new acquaintance. "Tell me what you want to sell me, and if I don't want it, get the hell out of my face", seemed to be the attitude.

Everything has to serve a purpose, to propel you forward. There never seems to be a moment to rest, and just be.

In this, the meticulously managed work-life balance of Germany fits me rather better than the culture(s) I grew up with. I can accept the minor irritations—like the public scolding—with a smile.

(The smile ususally earns another scolding, by the way!)

John Carter Wood said...

As we Germans say, HH, you speak out of my soul...

What stands out for me on return trips is not so much the propulsive utilitarianism but the excessive enthusiasm (the socially compulsory optimistic effervescence) that hinders the relaxation of which you speak.

I'm happy to have found a culture where moody reticence is accepted as a norm.

But I recognise the other thing too.

There's part of me that wishes I could get into the public scolding thing. It seems to provide so much satisfaction to those who engage in it.

But in this case, I'm afraid, I'll always remain an Ausländer.

Ario said...

It's a difficult one, I agree. My own experience is that most people from the two countries I have passports for reflexively dispute my nationality. I either don't speak the language (Farsi) or I speak it badly nowadays (Dutch). Which brings us to the question to what extend language determines culture and nationhood, which you hint at, and I don't really have an answer for.

All I know is that I, despite my upbringing and acquired sense of English decorum, have managed to get the German public scolding down to a T. I cannot describe the sense of euphoria that filled me the first time. It was better than drinking my first beer or, ahem, you know... and just as scary. But once you have done it, you feel fuller, more complete, three-dimensional, like you have found that missing piece.

It's worth the wait. You will know it when the time is right. Don't anticipate. Don't rush it. Relax into it. Enjoy it. But don't overdo it. Apologise, if necessary, after the deed. Bow. Best of luck.