This program was entitled “Reenacting German and American Identities.” Over the last four weeks, I was encouraged to consider what defines a nation’s identity, who plays a role in shaping that identity, and how a nation’s identity is reflective, or not, of its people and history. Over time, I discovered that it is impossible to summarize or categorize a nation’s identity. Every individual interprets a country’s identity, and their identity as part of or separate from that country’s identity, in a different way. While studying in Berlin I was confronted with several, sometimes contradictory, interpretations of German and American identities.
In Jena I had the opportunity to sit in on a presentation by the U.S. Consul General from Leipzig. I had a very difficult time listening to this government official make broad generalizations about the people and culture of my country. In his introduction and subsequent responses to the audience’s questions, this gentleman portrayed the U.S. as a land of immigration. A country where “immigrants are celebrated.” While I agree that immigrants built and continue to build the United States, I have seen too many migrant workers living in desperate conditions and know too many undocumented students worried about the costs of college, to believe in this American identity.
One German student asked about Snowden’s release of classified information. I thought it was interesting that the Consul General remarked that it was not the right of one individual, Snowden, to make the decision whether the documents should be released or not. Commonly the U.S. is viewed as an individualistic rather than collectivist society yet the Consul General’s remarks portray a different identity. Furthermore, one key element of U.S. identity to many is the free flow of information which this again counteracts.
The Consul General highlighted the strengths of U.S. democracy and painted the U.S. as the greatest power in the world. He continued to remind the German students in the room that Germany depends on the U.S. and its intelligence agencies. He also made a reference to the U.S. “saving” Germany after World War II through its financial support thereby casting the U.S. as some sort of international peace-keeper.
Throughout the talk, the Consul General would look over to me and the few other U.S. students in attendance as if asking us to validate all he was saying. However as previously mentioned, each individual interprets a country’s identity differently. While I agreed with some elements of this official’s portrayal of US identity, I disagreed with others, and therefore did not feel comfortable confirming his very narrow view of the U.S. identity to my foreign peers. However when the Consul General said it was his personal view that gun rights should be reduced and better controlled, I found myself nodding my head vigorously so that the German students in the room knew that gun culture is not a component of every American’s identity.
A second time I was confronted with portrayals of U.S. identity was when Karinne and I had the opportunity to sit in on a secondary school English class in Berlin. Rather than carry on that day’s lesson plan, the teacher instead allowed the students the opportunity to ask us questions about what life was “really like” in the U.S. What followed was an onslaught of questions about what people in the U.S. eat, how they view police, how U.S. universities are addressing rape, and what Americans really think of guns. It was clear that the students had ideas of U.S. identity from what they had seen in German media, heard from class discussions, and sometimes experienced through their interactions with Americans either in Germany or in the U.S. I felt so uncomfortable answering these huge questions as I felt I was being thrust into a position where I was meant to represent all of America. I tried to tell the students again and again that America is just so diverse that it is impossible to answer those questions but at the same time I found myself inserting my views, the views that I believed would make America look “better” to these students who were clearly skeptical of Americans and the American government.
This discomfort or even embarrassment with my “American” identity appeared many times in Germany. I noticed that anytime I was asked where I was from, I answered “Seattle.” I often would follow up by describing Seattle as one of the most progressive cities in the U.S. I was consciously and unconsciously distancing myself from my “American” identity and defining myself by my “Seattleite” identity.
I arrived in Germany thinking that I understood German identity because I had travelled to Germany on several occasions and had studied the country’s ecological context for a Comparative Education class I took last Spring. However just as I was confronted on this program with different American identities, I found just as many versions of German identity.
While traveling to the Karl May Museum, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the German master’s students. I was telling him that my mother was originally from Germany and I asked if he could tell I was German. He answered that I looked “American” but followed up this comment with “But you could pass as German. Any of you (Americans) that are white, could.” This was an especially interesting observation given that the speaker was German but half-black. Clearly he associated being “German” with being “white.” This was in sharp contrast to what I was told by two secondary school students in Berlin who both had “migration backgrounds.” They described Berlin as very diverse and viewed themselves as Germans despite their “migration background” categorization.
The Germans I met also had different ideas regarding patriotism and national pride. Some Germans I spoke with, of all ages and backgrounds, found it inappropriate to fly the German flag or celebrate being “German.” This discomfort with national pride was explained to me as a consequence of the Nazi regime and Germany’s tragic history. These same individuals were often disapproving of U.S. patriotism, including the saying of the “Pledge of Allegiance”. Other Germans felt that Germans should be allowed to celebrate their country and national identity and were upset that they would be criticized for doing so.
As an education student, I find one of the most interesting factors of identity to be how a nation educates its people. Germany is well-known for its strict tracking system that sorts children as young as ten into three school tracks. The goal of this system is to create a highly skilled workforce, capable of filling every job German society requires including bakers, contractors, teachers, and doctors. From my observations of various secondary schools in Berlin, it seems that German classrooms are quite informal spaces. The teacher engages in conversation with students and invites self-guided learning. There is great independence for students in schools. At the university level, I witnessed students entering and exiting classes irrespective of the designated class time. Like in the secondary schools, the university I observed strived to engage students in dialogue rather than assign students the role of passive listener.
This model of education stands in contrast to the U.S. education system. In the U.S. we certainly have various educational tracks but they are informal. There is the belief in the U.S. that if you work hard in school you can begin as the worst math student, for example, and end the year as a top achiever. It is important to note that the goal of the U.S. education system is markedly different. Rather than thinking of what is best for society, the system tries to help each individual attain their best. Furthermore there is a movement to educate the whole person and create “well-rounded” individuals with some knowledge of drama, art, music, sports, as well as math, science, literature, and composition. Finally the U.S. idea of a “student” is quite different from that in Germany. Little independence is awarded U.S. secondary students. Many Germans would be quite surprised to learn that U.S. secondary students require a bathroom pass to use the restroom. Also students are very rarely allowed to fail at anything in the U.S. This is in contrast to Germany where repeating a grade of school is fairly common.
Education both shapes a nation’s identity and is shaped by a nation’s identity. I think it is critical to have some knowledge of a country’s education system to begin to understand its economy, culture, and values. I will continue to explore this topic in my research paper.To summarize my findings over the course of this program, national identity cannot be described through a short list of characteristics by any one person. Each individual determines how they define themselves and how they identify themselves within larger groups. A nation is simply one body that houses individual identities. Furthermore identity, both individual and group, is not static and can change over time and space. Unfortunately I have found that many Germans and Americans, and I would hypothesize many people across the globe, do not recognize that their nation holds not one but countless identities and that this is in fact a virtue.