Do you ever get that feeling that your somewhat less travel-inspired relatives have no clue about how you identify? Instead they’ll take the country you’ve been living in when they first became aware of your presence as the country you identify with and consider you as a bona fide citizen of that place. To be fair, the people I’m talking about are the very same relatives I see about once in a quarter century. To the extent they know anything about my life at all, it’s along the lines of which country I’m in at the moment they care to ask. We don’t add each other on social media, and we don’t even share a family name. They don’t even all live in the same country. Some got out and went to America, though they don’t feel very American and want to be buried in the country they left. Their children want to be buried in the country their parents left. I’m more American than their children, and they spent all their lives in the U.S. with a few trips here and there (all of them with at least one stopover in their parents’ home country).
So it always surprises me that this new generation should be the one to put me into this tiny little box and label me German. I don’t even have a German passport, nor do I have any heartfelt affiliation with the country. I just happened to be visiting a younger cousin in Chicago from there. My aunt (said cousin’s mother) lived with us when we were in Germany, so I guess that factors in as well. But I remember my aunt and uncle putting on German folk music in the car on the way from the airport, which surprised me already then. They’re both from my mother’s passport country. It took me the full six weeks I stayed there to realize they had done it for me. Until that penny dropped I’d been convinced my aunt had some kind of desire to relive those days she’d spent with us in Germany.
Her daughter made a comment to me once, apologizing that she did not like Germany. I was wondering why she’d mention that, when everyone knew that of all the countries I’d lived in, Germany was my least favorite. I think the penny dropped with her comment.
In a way that should come as no surprise. People use cues to orientate themselves. Most people who meet me will tell you I’m their American friend, very few will remember that I’m actually French. That part of me is more subtle. I once had a tutor in college who established that I was French in the interview, then completely forgot that fact a few months later when he was looking for someone who spoke French to make a point in class. A friend of mine in the same class had actually spent five years in France and spoke it much better. But she would have gone unnoticed had someone not pointed it out to him. We always got a kick out of that.
I think we change too much when we live wherever do. We take on different ways, and these different ways then become too alien for our relatives to recognize us. We’re vaguely familiar with the ways of our relatives, but we still slip up. Maybe we’re too familiar when addressing our much older aunt or grandmother, or we use a different expression to get our point across, one that makes sense in whatever language we use. My cousin, who could practically be my twin brother, is used to it from me. And explaining my background to his girlfriend was an interesting exercise, in that I couldn’t bring myself to brush it off or lie, but it brought out an instant bond. Later, when we were alone in his car, I mentioned to my cousin that I really don’t know where I belong. Without missing a beat, he countered with, “you’re an honorary citizen of this town.”
It’s a place that was founded some time in the 1920s by a hodgepodge of people who somehow drifted there on their way to America. Most of them ended up staying for the long haul. Even my cousin’s father came from the eastern part of the country and ended up as a merchant marine. I could do worse than become an honorary citizen of such a town.