The land of the free was always exceptionally appealing to my parents, children of Jewish holocaust survivors. Growing up in post-war Germany among the same people who had rooted for the eradication of the Jewish people only a decade earlier, didn't necessarily motivate them to develop a sense of patriotism. Neither my mother nor my father was born in Germany, yet still circumstances had brought their families to the origin of hatred.
Even though my parents eventually decided to stay in Germany and build a future there, they never left out an opportunity to make clear to me we didn't belong there.
By the time I was a teen, ready to figure out my identity, confusion was at its peak; My father was born in Poland – yet I had never set foot onto Polish soil. My mother was born in Argentina – but I didn't speak more than a few incoherent words in Spanish. I was born and raised in Germany, many of my friends, neighbors and classmates were German. The language of communication for me at home and everywhere else was German and yet nobody around me seemed to miss a chance to remind me that I somehow wasn't. My looks and my name seemed to be giving it away before I even started talking; In school –as the only Jew in my class – I was involuntarily made the unofficial ambassador of “my people”. For many, I was the only Jewish person they new, and so apart from having to be a flawless representative, it was my responsibility to clear up misperceptions and reduce ignorance. Whenever we talked about the second world war, the holocaust or even the conflict of the Middle East, I could feel 25 pairs of eyes carefully lingering on me, as if they were fearing an uncontrollable outburst of emotion from my side. Many were tiptoeing around me when it came to certain topics so as not to hurt my feelings. And all I had ever wanted was to be treated like anybody else.
So there I was, thirteen years old, asking myself who was? A German Jew? A Jewish German? Or was I just a Jew living in Germany? Everybody made it seem like there was only one right answer to this question but nobody cared to tell me which one it was. Back then, I didn't understand why my parents made it seem so inappropriate for me to feel German, but with time and experience my cultural understanding grew. In many situations I found myself acting differently from my all-German friends and instead I found similarities to people with multicultural backgrounds, like me.
Scientists believe that learning a new language is easier for people who had been raised bilingually, because they can access the same neurological net they had used before. Other have to rebuild a completely new net for each language. I wonder if the same theory can be applied to culture. Growing up with a multicultural background requires an awareness for and flexibility in adapting to varying cultural circumstances.
A German proverb says: Manchmal sieht man den Wald for lauter Bäumen nicht! It can be translated to: Sometimes you can’t see the forest because all the trees are in the way. The same goes for culture: It is so comprehensive, you can’t see it until you step away and look at it from a distance.
With my parents encouraging me to move away from Munich and leaving Germany behind, I found a new home in Los Angeles, California. In general, I found it easy to adapt to the LA lifestyle and as I was used to it, I attempted to fit in. Only when I got to the other side of the world did I realize how German –and münchnerisch (typical for Munich) in particular– I am after all.
Living in LA now, I can feel the freedom my parents always desired when they visited the States. I am free to decide who I want to be without the circumstances of a city pushing me towards one identity or culture. The variety of this city lets me reinvent myself every day – that is if I chose to do so. Not being attached to one single culture has given me the opportunity to look at cultures critically and live my own more freely. Both Munich and Los Angeles have a very distinct character of their own.
Looking at each city from a more distant standpoint than their livelong inhabitants, these characteristics sometimes suddenly arise amidst the sea of people and the jungle of glass and concrete. With the large cultural diversity in Los Angeles, it is quite unlikely that you have the same perspective on situations than the person sitting in the car next to you. So I encourage you to look out, reach out to others and find the funny habits we develop living in LA.
- Sharon Kellermann -