'I'm American, but I'm different.'

  • January 14, 2010
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German flag
American flag

When my son was six years old, he pointed out a black, red and yellow flag on a plastic place mat that featured the flags from around the world.

“Look, Oma,” he said. “Your flag!”

“That’s not my flag,” she told him.

“But you’re German.”

“I was German. Now I’m American.”

“But you’re still German, Oma.”

She didn’t see the irony; he had called her by the German nickname for grandmother she had selected.

“Sort of,” she replied.

Like many immigrants, she has a foot in each world. For those who fled their homelands, one foot remains uncomfortably planted in the old world.

Once, when I asked her how she identifies her nationality, my mother said, “I’m American, but I’m different.” A friend’s Japanese-American father told me the same thing. “I’m an American, but I don’t talk like one and I don’t look like one. So I never fully feel American.”

But my mother doesn’t feel German either. When we return to Stockstadt am Rhein, she speaks an old dialect that no one uses anymore. Few Germans understand her. In addition, since she left when she was 12 years old, she addresses everyone with the formal construction, as if she were a child speaking to adults.

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