Beyond expat

Father dreams of buying a plot of land with a barn to build a boat in. Someday he and my mother would sail around the Mediterranean. A few years ago we bobbed around the local lake in our houseboat until we realized that the back end was rotted through. That boat has been sitting on our driveway since, waiting to be made seaworthy again. He would rather have been born generations back, sailing the seven seas as a simple cabin boy. A regular English scalawag, so much for the neurologist.

Mother doesn’t have those sorts of dreams. Instead she clings to the few words of her ancestors’ native tongue that she still remembers and collects scraps of genealogy that the women of her family have tried to keep intact for decades. But she learned German in school, not from her father’s knee, and she doesn’t understand a word that her mother’s Minnesota Norwegian relatives say in their half-remembered language. The only relic of her past is an original Gutenberg bible that was passed down to the first born son and not to her, the first born.

My eldest brother clings to his imaginations of our culture’s glorious past. He sees family crests in simple clipart images. Beowulf is his bible and wolves are his kin. Although he has never left the USA, he thinks he breathes Germany.

The middle brother doesn’t care. If he identified with a religion, he’d be Buddhist.

The youngest would rather watch anime.

A country of immigrants and their descendants, the US is a nation of people clinging to other nationalities. When the IRA was still going strong, they fund-raised by going pubs and talking to Irish-Americans who haven’t been back since the potato famine. Italian descendants still talk animatedly with their hands and enjoy their gnocchi, but they are more likely to learn español than italiano. Latin Americans mostly keep their traditions and know Castilian Spanish even as they are lumped together as Mexicans. Little China towns, Japans, and Koreas thrive in big cities, but it’s hard to escape the blanket of Asian. African Americans are defined by their skin even as they try to reconnect with their cultural roots and a continent their ancestors were stolen from. We identify with where our ancestors were from as if that makes us different, special, found.

I used to say I was German American. Then I said I was of German and Norwegian descent. My maternal grandfather’s family fled the fatherland when the German mark was used as kindling, before the whole country started goose-stepping. My last name is Danish. There’s a piece of land between Denmark and Germany that was fought over for generations that my ancestors lived in. My paternal grandmother is English. I am part Welsh. Eventually I simplified to Northern European mutt.

My first time leaving the country was coming to New Zealand. Since living in a country divided by Pākehā and Māori, recently Asians, and now waves of immigrants, I have to admit: I’m just American. In an elevator surrounded by German exchange students speaking deutsch, I understood a word here and there, but I felt no connection to the fatherland. As I stood with a crowd full of people waiting to cross an intersection, Prince Harry drove by with a police escort, and all I thought of was getting to Countdown to buy eggs.

Sometimes I wish for a link to a heritage I know longer feel a part of. I learned German to keep the language alive in my family, but I never had a reason to use it. I speak English with a slight Southern accent and I know a smattering of Spanish and German. If I traveled to Europe, I would not be able to find any of my relatives. I’m not even religious.

However, when someone mentions the USA, I have to smile. I miss a good ice coffee or sweet tea. I love apple pie and I swear by ketchup and french fries. There aren’t any squirrels here. Where’s the authentic Mexican food? As I walk by cars driving up the left side of the row, I long to cruise down a long straight highway in the Midwest. I never saw the point of pledging allegiance to the American flag, but I do miss the stars and stripes. I believe in the unity of our multicultural society.

Maybe if I knew what I was missing, I would more strongly desire the culture of my ancestors. Maybe if there were people waiting to welcome back into the fold with open arms, I’d try harder to regain my heritage. But there’s just me. And I’m as American as the hamburger (which comes from Germany).


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