Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lost in Translation

We identify ourselves by where we come from, but when hardly anyone knows where that is, it can be difficult to establish your own identity. In the US, kids are always asked “what are you?” For whites, the expected response is some well-known European country. It is expected that their ancestors, countless generations ago, came from their home country to America to make a better life for their family. It is expected that everyone knows and accepts this response even if they don’t truly appreciate what it means:   the hardship the people experienced, the actual culture, the real lives behind the story.
            The children depicted in the photograph are first generation American-born citizens. They are white. They are from a European country. Yet, it is the late 1960s. This is not an expected response. The family is of Frisian decent. Frisian means from the country of Föhr. The country of Föhr (pronounced “fur”) is a very, very, very small island north of Germany. The children’s parents left Föhr just before World War II to escape the Nazi regime, which was taking root in Germany. They took up residence in New York – swept into the cultural melting pot of America. When you come from a country only 83 km2 in size (to give some perspective:  Rhode Island is over 4,000 km2), you begin to feel like a grain of salt in the vast pot. The parents of the children made a life for themselves along with other families who also came from Föhr and formed their own little community in the Brooklyn area. They knew little to no English but they made a life for themselves.
            After some time all four children were born. Barbara, the only girl was the princess. She was able to get away with a lot and knew it. Norman, the third oldest, was a bit of a troublemaker and liked to have fun. Mark was the baby, what more is there to say? And Eric was the big brother. He took care of everything and everyone. Since his parents were not always familiar with American customs and protocol he was in charge of ensuring that nothing went horribly wrong because of this lack of understanding.
            Eric forged a path for himself to create the life he wanted. He found a way to go to Florida State University to study geochemistry, a strong interest of his, and later went to Yale to complete his Ph.D. in the subject. Many years later he began a family of his own with two daughters. I am lucky enough to be one of those daughters.
            Although I am white (and even have red hair) and my parents have served as a model for my success, I do not come from what is expected. I have grown up not with a grandfather and grandmother but an Opa and Oma (which for a while was Elmo). I eat special gingerbread cookies at Christmas time. I was told to “essen!” at the dinner table. I ate sauerkraut as a child on my own accord. In elementary school I was asked, “where are you from?” I said, “Föhr.”  I got weird looks. I was asked to describe my heritage and other people would determine for me that I was German. It has taken me a great deal of time to realize that it’s not about forcing the entire world to realize that there is a country out there called Föhr but about me realizing that I share a common background with my family, and we have a strong connection that can never be broken. Only my family understands about crazy old Tante Bertha. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Identity does not come from looking out but from looking within.

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