When I was a teenager, I confronted my parents about German. I demanded to know why I hadn't been taught the language when I was a child, when your brain is a sponge and learning languages is the easiest it will ever be. My father is a German native, born and raised outside Stuttgart. And my mother, though American by birth, grew up in Europe, studied in Germany, and speaks the language fluently. In fact, my parents spoke German together almost exclusively for the first few years of their relationship — it wasn't until they moved to the USA that they made the switch to English.
So why wasn't I taught German? I couldn't understand how they had made what seemed like such a foolish mistake.
German matters to me. Half of my family is German, and as a kid whenever we went to visit relatives, my father would inevitably be chided, "Ugh, we have to speak English with your children? Why don't they speak German?" But it wasn't just the awkward half-conversations with my cousins and uncles and grandparents. I was jealous of bilingual kids I knew back home. They had something I didn't: a secret code, a kind of global key that connected them to the larger world and its many exciting cultures in a way I could only dream. I may be half German, but no one would ever know it. In reality, I was just another English-only American dope.
My mother's reply to my question was that, as a young boy, I didn't want to speak German. She would try, and I would reply in a frustrated tone, "speak English!" This answer didn't particularly satisfy me at the time. But what my father said stuck with me even to today.
He said he didn't want me growing up feeling like a foreigner in my own country. He didn't want me going to school and wishing I belonged. He wanted me to feel American.
These days, however, I'm a little older and wiser and gentler on my folks. And I've been thinking a lot about belonging. Chasing my childhood dream to speak German, I now live in Berlin and speak the language fluently (if far from perfectly). I also married an Italian. In December, we welcomed our first child into the world, and suddenly my father's decision doesn't seem so unusual.
After all, what could be more important than belonging?
My wife and I are both wanderlust-infected travel addicts. In our seven years as a couple we've visited 23 countries together, and have a standing goal of visiting five new ones each year. We're both foreigners in Berlin, our current home. We feel comfortable here, but we're certainly not locals. That doesn't bother either of us. But then, both of us have a place where we are considered "locals."
My wife is from a small countryside village near Venice. The floating city is close enough that her father works there and she went to school there. She identifies as Venetian, and feels comfortable roaming those winding canals. Once, early on in our relationship, I needed to get a replacement screw for my camera, a small thing that could only be found at a specialty shop. For me, an obvious tourist, the price would've been outrageous. But she took the camera, made me wait outside the shop, and went inside. Within minutes, she re-emerged with the camera all fixed up and ready to shoot. She just needed to flaunt the local dialect and the city was hers.
She knows the lingo, she lusts after the local dishes, and she understands the locals, because she's one of them. She belongs there.
I was born in Switzerland, but my family moved to New Mexico soon thereafter. I grew up in Albuquerque on the banks of the Rio Grande, exploring the world from the cottonwood trees to the expansive deserts and plains beyond the city limits. I've always felt at home among New Mexico's unique melange of Spanish, Western, and Native American cultures. I identify less as an American than as a New Mexican. Whenever I return to the States, it's only in the Southwest that I feel like I'm back home. I belong there.
But it's entirely possible that our son won't "belong" anywhere.
My wife and I like Berlin quite a bit, but we're feeling a change on the wind. We've lived in lots of places together, so we'd have no problem picking up and settling somewhere with new challenges, new adventures — and better food! These kinds of daydreams excite us.
But we're acutely aware that we're no longer just two adults deciding for ourselves. We've now got a third, smaller, more dependent person to consider, and recently my father's words have been haunting me. What if we spend the next decade like the last, moving around from place to place, never giving our son a chance to settle into a culture? What if he grows up a global vagabond, his heart untied to any particular place or people?
I want my son to have a home. I don't want to deprive him of the luxury that both his mother and I enjoy, the comfort of knowing that no matter how lost and foreign we might feel now, there's always that place out there in the world where we can go to blend in. Hearing my father's voice echoing in my head, I don't want my son to feel like a foreigner for the rest of his life. I want him to feel like a local, wherever that might be.
But then I remember my own mother. She was born in Chicago, but lived her childhood on St. Thomas, an island in the Caribbean. Later her family moved again to Ireland, where she spent her teen years, and as a young adult she lived, worked, and studied in Germany. She moved with my father to New Mexico where she lived until last year — she's recently sold her house in the States and taken up residence in a houseboat in the south of France. She always seemed like someone who enjoyed having multiple "homes," multiple cultures she felt she understood. She never seemed too interested in fitting in.
Given my mother's perspective, aren't there plenty of people who grow up in a given culture speaking the language, eating the food, and still feel completely and hopelessly foreign? For every 10 people who feel they belong somewhere, there's at least one who wishes they had been born somewhere, or someone, else. They spend their lives trying to find "home" among other people in some other place, irrespective of their place of birth. Maybe your actual place of birth isn't relevant to your feelings toward "home" at all.
Perhaps I'm overthinking this. Sure, it's possible my son will grow up with some kind of "third culture" syndrome that dogs him his whole life. It's important to belong, but maybe "belonging" means far more than I think it does — maybe it's a feeling that a person can define for himself as he moves through the world. And maybe my son will teach me how to do it.
Malachi is a filmmaker, author, illustrator, and newly minted family man living in Berlin. Check out his weekly travel and language web comic at www.itchyfeetcomic.com.