Book Excerpt from 'We New Germans': My Home, No Home

As children of immigrants, many second-generation Germans have trouble feeling at home in the country. When they travel to the countries of their parents' origin, they may have an understanding of the culture, but they still feel alien. In a modern, globalized world, is the idea of calling a place "home" even fitting? It's time for a new approach.

Two generations of Turkish immigrants at the Ford plant in Cologne, Germany: Alien in Germany and foreign in Turkey. Zoom
DPA

Two generations of Turkish immigrants at the Ford plant in Cologne, Germany: Alien in Germany and foreign in Turkey.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the new book "Wir Neuen Deutschen: Wer wir sind, was wir wollen" ("We New Germans: Who We Are and What We Want"), which was published earlier this month in German by the publishing house Rowohlt. You can also read an accompanying interview with authors Alice Bota, Khuê Pham and Özlem Topçu here.

Can there be anything wrong with the question of where someone comes from? Those who ask the question can usually answer it. They are people whose parents and grandparents have grown up in this country, whose names sound familiar and sometimes appear dozens of times in the phone book. People who ask this question usually aren't satisfied with a simple answer. Instead, they keep asking more questions:

"Do you prefer to be in Turkey or here?"

"Are you more Vietnamese or more German?"

"Is there anything Polish about you anymore?"

Those who ask these questions want to gain a better understanding of us because our names and life stories sound odd and foreign to them. We choose our answers carefully, not wanting to offend anyone. We don't want to sound as if we prefer one country over another. We don't want to seem ungrateful or disloyal. And we don't even know the answers that well ourselves, which is why we sometimes say: "I'm both" or "I'm neither." It's essentially the same thing.

When we say these things, there's something else we're not saying. The real question hangs in the air unanswered: the question of home. That's because the question of home is such a difficult and painful thing, something so filled with longing that it's hard for us to talk about, much less answer.

For us, home is the emptiness that was created when our parents left Poland, Vietnam and Turkey and went to Germany. Their decision to do so created a gap in our family history. We grew up in a different country from our parents, speaking a different language and with different songs, images and stories, ones they didn't know. We couldn't learn German traditions from them, and even less so the sense of belonging to this country. We just know it secondhand: the sense of having a homeland that our German friends feel because they inherited their place in this country -- and their certainty.

In German, There Is No 'Homes'

There are many ways to interpret the German concept of Heimat, or home. In Polish, it's mala ojczyzna or "little fatherland"; in Turkish, it's anavatan, or "motherland"; and, in Vietnamese, it is que huong, or "village." Despite the differences among these concepts, they all refer to the link between biography and geography: Home is the origin of the body and soul, the center of one's own world. A country's culture shapes the character of the people who grow up there. It raises them the way fathers and mothers raise their children. It makes the Germans disciplined, the French charming and the Japanese polite -- at least that's the general perception. But what does this mean for those who grew up in two countries? Do they even have a home? Or do they have two? Why is it that, in German, the word 'home' cannot be plural?

Imagine a girl who learned how to read and write in Poland and came to Germany when she was eight. It was only here that she learned the language that she turned into her profession. Is she really Polish? Or a child that lived in Turkey for three years, and then grew up in Flensburg, in northern Germany, in a world that was half Turkish and half German. What's her home? And a German who looks Vietnamese, who lives Germany and has only visited Vietnam during summer holidays? Does she even have a native country?

The fractured histories of our families make it difficult to clearly say where we come from. We look like our parents, but we're different. We're also different from the people we work or went to school with. In our case, the link between biography and geography is broken. We aren't what we look like. We don't know what percentage of us is Polish and what percentage is German because we don't think in those terms. We have often asked ourselves whether our sense of humor, our sense of family, our pride and our emotionality comes from one country or the other. Did we learn these things from our parents? Or in our German schools? Or by watching our friends?

We wrote about the dichotomy in our diaries, asking ourselves: Who am I, if I don't know where I come from?

Coming from Nowhere and Belonging Nowhere

We lack something that our German friends, acquaintances and coworkers have: a place that they don't just come from, but where they belong, where they can find answers to their own questions and encounter others who are like them -- or at least that's what we imagine. We, on the other hand, come from nowhere and belong nowhere. There is no place where we can overcome our dichotomy because it lies in the no-man's-land between German and foreign culture. When we're together with our German acquaintances and colleagues, we often ask ourselves: Do I really belong? And yet, when we're sitting with our Polish, Turkish and Vietnamese acquaintances and relatives, we ask ourselves the same thing.

We yearn for a place where we can simply be, without having to simulate it. But we also know that this isn't a place, but rather a state of mind.

Our attitude toward life is characterized by alienation, accompanied by the fear of disturbing others in the harmony of their sameness. We are afraid that others will perceive us as foreign objects. It isn't a feeling we talk about very much. After all, who would understand us? We want to be normal. And, if that's not possible, at least we want to pretend as if we were.

German Angst

We are tense people in a tense country. Germans are also familiar with this feeling of alienation. We sense their shame about the past -- and sometimes even their fear of themselves. It's an old fear, and it's changing. The more the country changes, the weaker this fear becomes. But being German still means having to endure jokes about Nazis in other countries, holding one's head low and only pulling out the flag for the World Cup. This, too, is a feeling we only know secondhand. We don't hear Nazi jokes when we're abroad, and no matter how often we say that we're from Germany, others don't believe that Germany's history is also our history.

Until 2000, being German meant having German parents. Citizenship precisely and genetically shaped the community, which was defined by the principle of ius sanguinis, or the right of blood, instead of citizenship determined by ius soli, one's place of birth. Although that has since changed, many still cannot believe that there is such a thing as a German with non-German parents. They don't believe that a woman with black hair and a foreign-sounding name could be one of them. They would never use the word "race." But, still, their underlying thought is: "You're not really German. So where are your roots?"

The constant questions about where we come from, being complimented on how well we speak German, the clichés in the media about Turkish gangsters and the everyday stereotypes about Polish cleaning ladies -- all of these things reflect the awkwardness Germans still feel with people who are not like them. They also reflect the taboos in the German language of words like "national origin," "identity" and "patriotism." Who would admit that most Germans imagine their compatriots as being light-skinned? And who would use words like "race," "genetics" and "fatherland"?

In German, these words are loaded because of the country's difficult history. Nevertheless, they are necessary to gain a better understanding of the German fear of self and the German unease with all things foreign. There is a connection between the rejection of the German and the rejection of the foreigner. How can a country that hasn't loved itself for so long learn to love its immigrants?

Neither Multicultural nor Xenophobic

It seems to us that the German identity is traumatized, tortured with self-doubt and searching for itself. We find it difficult to pin down what constitutes German identity. It's actually easier to say what it isn't. It is no longer fascist, as it was during the Nazi era, nor is it socialist the way it was in East Germany. And, today, it is supposedly neither multicultural nor xenophobic. So what is it?

Those of us who are new Germans want to shape this country's self-awareness, but we feel as though we were all at odds over the role we can play, and over how we can help this country find a new approach to looking at itself, a warmer and more open one. We want to be part of a joint effort to find -- or invent -- a new concept of home.

In fact, we really just want to belong in Germany. We live here, work here, have our friends here and pay our taxes here. Nevertheless, we will never shed our doubts. It's difficult for us to say: "Germany is our home." Perhaps it's because we don't believe it ourselves. Or perhaps we're being defiant because we feel that Germans don't want to accept us in their country. Their rejection leads to our rejection. It also leads to another form of rejection, reflected in the words: "If you don't like it here, then go back to where you're from!" How should we respond to that? This is where we're from.

We are constantly searching for our place in the world. If we settle somewhere we remain restless, fearing that someone could, after all, take our place away from us. We leave Flensburg and adopt London as our new home, we're constantly traveling, and we don't stay in one place for long. Our life stories follow a zig-zag pattern, with various stations lined up along the way. We work here, go to school there and have a boyfriend in yet a third place. We're astonished to hear about people who have stayed in the city where their parents live and are building a house next to their parents' home. Is it actually possible to structure our lives in this way?

We are not alone with this feeling. Our generation grew up with globalization. We are accustomed to attending universities and working throughout Europe, and we think it's perfectly natural to travel the world to visit friends and relatives. The Germans and the new Germans are part of the same generation, but family history makes some more globalized and others more settled. What we do share is a broad horizon, one that stretches beyond the borders of this country.

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Book Bag
  • "Wir neuen Deutschen, Wer wir sind, was wir wollen,"("We New Germans: Who We Are and What We Want") was published earlier this month in German by the Rowohlt publishing house. The German version can be ordered online through the SPIEGEL Shop. (Please note that all ordering prompts are in German.)
  • Order your copy at Amazon
About the Authors
  • Jens Boldt
    Alice Bota was born in Krapkowice, Poland, in 1979 and moved with her parents to Germany at the age of eight. Bota earned degrees in contemporary German literature and political science. After university, she also completed studies at the prestigious German Journalism School in Munich. She then joined the German weekly Die Zeit as a political editor and reporter. In 2009, she won the Axel Springer Prize for young journalists.

  • Jens Boldt
    Khuê Pham was born in Berlin in 1982. She completed a degree at the London School of Economics and later worked for the Guardian. After completing a journalism degree at the Henri Nannen School in Hamburg, she joined Die Zeit in Hamburg in 2010. She also previously worked as an intern at SPIEGEL ONLINE International and as a research assistance for NPR, an American public radio broadcaster, in Berlin.

  • Jens Boldt
    Özlem Topçu was born in 1977 in Flensburg, Germany. At university, she completed a degree in Islamic Studies, political science and media studies. She also received training as a journalist at the Axel Springer Journalism School. She has worked as a political editor and reporter at Die Zeit since 2009 and was the recipient of the Theodor Wolff Prize for reporting.


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