Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Peculiarities of Being a First-Generation American

Although I've visited Germany quite a few times, I have never actually lived there. And although my heritage is 100% German, with parents who immigrated to America after they married and after my oldest brother was born, I am pretty much an American girl through-and-through.

Except.

Except that I never had a taco (or any Mexican food) until I was in college. My parents didn't hold to the immerse-yourself-in-your-new-culture-and-try-new-things philosophy. Instead they were somewhat skeptical of all things American and didn't expose us to traditions and experiences that felt particularly foreign to them.

Except that we never celebrated Christmas on Christmas Day. By the time all my friends were opening presents, I already had all mine. Although I loved this because I got presents early, I also hated it because I was different. We never listened to or learned American Christmas carols at home, but rather we listened only to German Christmas carols and Bavarian Christmas music. Although this was embarrassing to me as a child, I fully appreciate it now, as German Christmas music is much more beautiful! (I have a very scratchy cassette tape of Bavarian canons and church choirs recorded live near Ruhpolding that Mom made me years ago, and it -- like quite a few other pieces, as you've surely come to realize by now -- always brings me to tears.)

Except that I never learned some words in English because my parents only used the German words for them. I never learned "trivet"; it was always an "untersetzer." I never learned "backpack"; it was always a "rucksack." I never even learned "dammit" (or worse), since my mother's preferred word of exasperation and anger was "scheibenkleister." I could only imagine what it meant -- considering the way it was uttered, it must be something horrible! Only as a teenager did I learn that it meant "window putty." Oh, window putty! (And when my mother didn't know the English word for something, she'd just make up a word: the sleeve-like potholder that slips over the long handle of a pot was, according to Mom, a "penis warmer"!)

Except that there was no context, understanding, memory, or appreciation of American pop culture or American traditional events. The only music in our household was classical music, primarily by German composers (which, actually, I loved). My parents would have never taken us to a country fair or a football game (which were deemed "too military). And, hardest on me as I approached adolescence, my parents had no clue what it was like to be an American high schooler. Football, cheerleading, homecoming, and prom? They held absolutely no meaning for my parents, and because of that they were ignored (at best), trivialized, or even ridiculed. Is it any wonder that, as an act of teen rebellion, I became a varsity cheerleader and went out with the captain of the football team? (And still today I react to this by being very involved in my kids' high school experiences, often talking about and comparing them to my own.)

Except that some American holidays -- the most American of the holidays -- held little importance in our household. Independence Day, for example, was simply the holiday in July, and Thanksgiving was celebrated with family as a day to have a great meal (but no football... heaven forbid!), but with no historical or personal significance.

Except that I couldn't boast my father's heroic military dedication as my friends could boast theirs'. Their fathers flew the planes that bombed Germany, while my parents lost parents to those bombs. In their ignorance, my friends called my parents Nazis; if only they understood that my parents came to America precisely because of my father's experience as a half-Jew in Germany.

Except that organizations which my friends' parents respected and aspired to for their children were virtually shunned by my parents. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and even the school crossing guards were regarded by my parents as too much like the Hitler Youth, too militaristic, and too assimilating. Although they didn't forbid us to join these organizations, they were decidedly unenthusiastic about them, certainly never offering to be any part of them themselves. (Again, my response in adulthood was to volunteer to be my daughters' Brownie leader and my sons' Tiger Cubs leader.)

Except that American network TV held no importance to my parents. Where other families watched Gunsmoke or Bonanza or Bewitched together, my parents had no clue what these shows were. When we did have a TV it wasn't placed in the living room or family room, but was instead in some out-of-the-way corner of the house (like next to the laundry chute). Oddly enough, there was one show that my parents did like and watched religiously: Laugh-In! To this day, I can't figure that one out, as that show was intentionally inane, very American, and downright silly, without any of the "redeeming value" that my parents insisted on!

Except that while my friends spoke of their trips to Maine or Nebraska or Florida to visit aunts and uncles and cousins, I could only speak of extended family (most of whom I'd never met) who lived far away across the ocean in a different country. And once I was old enough to travel, my parents sent me to Germany to meet those relatives and explore the land of my heritage. Thus, even to this day, I haven't really explored America. My next trip really should be to Washington DC, to New England , or to the southwest. I'm 50 and an American; I really should know more about my own country's history and geography.

I'm an all-American girl, never having lived in any other country. But another country lives in me, still influencing me in so many ways. And now, as a first-generation American with kids who know nothing but being American, I'm finding that I'm attempting to instill in them exactly what I rejected in my own youth -- an appreciation for and familiarity with their heritage. By the time my kids have their own children, the German influence will probably be only in stories passed on through the generations instead of in personal experiences and memories.

And actually, there's something kind of sad about that.

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8 comments:

Martina said...

Great post! Being the daughter of a G.I. and a German mom, I experienced a similar youth, though to a lesser extent. I'll have to sit down and write about my experiences one of these days.

ChristinaG said...

Wonderful post! My mom moved to the US after marrying my dad, so I can relate to a lot of what you wrote. She never understood any of the important high school events. In Thailand, she wore a uniform to school and had no idea the ridicule she was subjecting me to by dressing me in red Kmart corduroy pants as a child! She does love American holidays though and celebrates them thoroughly.

vailian said...

You must have spent a lot of time on that post, Carol; very nice!
Made me think a lot about how I have probably ruined my own kids.. expat American father and expat English mother, their holidays totally confused, their vocabulary permanently perverted by the personal linguistic whims of their parents.
They don't know ANY American TV, and we discouraged them watching German TV (I had a padlock on the set for a while... although John admitted years later that he had cracked the lock), we never knew whether to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
They speak idiomatic English and German (as you can attest, I think) but cannot spell to save their lives in either language.
They were both born in Cologne but have no real sense of this being their "home town" (Heimat-- how to translate that??).
Your mentioning Football and Cheerleading made me realize that by actively ridiculing Kölner Karnival at home, we ruined their chances of really integrating into Cologne society, for without being an active participant in Karnival, you cannot be a real Kölner!
(On the other hand, they have it good compared to my poor daughter, when I think about it...)

Maria said...

As a teenager studying German, I was rather flippant about the culture, but as an adult, I love diving in. My ancestors are German, and while not first generation, I see a lot of the traditions and such alive and well in my family. I never really thought twice about it until we lived in Frankfurt last year!

Goofball said...

well there is something to think about. After having experienced the Hitler Jugend, I think it's normal they were suspicious of all 'inspiring youth organisations or activities'.

Yes it is kind of sad that your children will loose some of the heritage, but you just brought Elisabeth over. Germany still will be part of their background. it'll be different, but it'll remain a part of them.

Guilty Secret said...

Hi, I came via Susan's place (A Slice Of Life) and I have to say I have found what I have read so far of your blog really interesting. You are a great writer and a very interesting lady. I look forward to reading more.

This was a really great post. I can imagine you have thought about all of these things for a long time and I bet it felt great to get it all together like this. This is something you can pass on to your children to remind them.

Caffienated Cowgirl said...

Tremendous post. Very thought provoking. Americans tend to think all Americans are the same...oh how wrong we can be.

Arashi-KIshu said...

Hopped in from ChristinaG...Thank you for providing the English word for Untersetzer! We never used them in the Philippines because we served everything in pretty bowls...so no need for them.

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