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Libby, a Second Generation German American

Libby, a Second Generation German American

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Last night I got an email from Heidi, who passed along this wonderful essay by her daughter Libby, on what it means to grow up a second generation German-American. I loved it so much, I had to share (thanks for the permission Libby!!).  I know that my kids have had so many of the same experiences.

It’s my understanding that Libby will be working in publishing. After reading this essay, I’m sure she will go far.

Growing up German-American (Libby Edition)

by Libby

So there’s this massively popular blog post from the “German Girl in America” website that has circled around my immediate family on Facebook about six times over the past year. The Mum and my aunt related to pretty much every single bullet on the list, I had a slightly different perspective, having grown up with a mother whose identity is solidly cemented as German-American, rather than as German (like her mother) or as American (like my dad).

The experience of growing up German-American is different from growing up German. You don’t have to explain cultural things to your German-American parent — they get it, even if they don’t always match it in attitude. Your childhood is made up of your parent’s favorite aspects of the culture they were raised in, mishmashed with their favorite aspects of American culture — but with that extra element that reminds you it hasn’t been that way in your family forever. And you are aware from the earliest age that the quickest way to your grandparents’ hearts is a whispered German phrase in their ear.

Above all, it is a combination of a kind of inborn nostalgia (or Sehnsucht) and a lifelong awareness of Konsequent (consistency! Everything must be consistent! OR ELSE THE EVIL CONSISTENCY GREMLIN WILL ARRIVE AT YOUR DOOR AND CUT OFF YOUR THUMBS.)

So here is my bulleted list of what it’s like to grow up German-American.

  • Learning to talk was a little bit complicated. While you aren’t (and worry you will never be) fully bilingual, there were a few German words you learned before you understood their English equivalents. It was a sad day, for example, when you learned that dogs didn’t go wau-wau, or that leckerleckerleckerlecker didn’t always mean “yummy”.
  • You never understood the pervading view that the German language sounds harsh and angry. To you it’s always been beautiful, because the first German word you ever learned was Schatz, which is what your grandmother would call you when you were being especially cuddly.
  • Every so often, lavish packages would arrive from relatives in Germany. When you were little, they were usually German magazines for your mother, who would sometimes call you over to look at the children’s pages and learn a few deutsche Wörter. Later, they always included German chocolates and Haribo for you. (Your favorite part was the egg cartons full of Kinder eggs until those stupid TSA people banned them in the US.)
  • You had every imaginable children’s book in German, and even though you couldn’t understand them, you dutifully sat in your grandparents’ laps while you pretended you could. Maybe you also had computer games — Toff-Toff, Fritzi Fisch, anything by Tivola. You managed to work around the language barrier by clicking on random objects and seeing what happened.
  • Visiting relatives in German was exciting but confusing. The best part was how excited everyone was to see you and how often they fed you pastries. The worst part was the fact that everyone’s names seemed to be either Fritz or some variation of Georg. It was impossible to keep them all straight.
  • German names in general are confusing. Your full name, for example, is German, but can also be pronounced (differently) in English. You weren’t sure whether to call your cousin Annalise by her German pronunciation or her American one, and moved back and forth for years. Your mother has three middle names that are all impossible for Americans to say. One of them is Hedwig. Nobody believed you when you told them this.
  • You were forced to go to German school from an early age. You had varying experiences there, including a mean teacher who yelled at you when you couldn’t say the glottal CH (but you have her to thank for your perfect accent now), and another teacher who mysteriously seemed to speak no English at all. Or maybe you had private lessons, with a tutor who seemed even more focused on Konsequent than your family. You’re still slightly frightened of abandoned preschools.
  • Namedays were a Thing. When yours arrived, you came downstairs to an extravagantly decorated breakfast plate and your favorite foods. Then, you and any friends who happened to have a similar name got to go out for ice cream as a special treat. You were enormously confused when you discovered this was not something that everybody did.
  • Car rides frequently featured Neue Deutsche Welle, and as a result, you keep having random attacks of needing to listen to Falco or Hubert Kah, even as an adult (and even though you thought they were super dorky as a kid.) You still sort of wish you were a polar bear and have been readily warned about the dangers of hickeys, but if anybody ever tries to make you listen to Zauberstab again, you’re ready for a fight.
  • Home rules were noticeably more rigid than many of your friends’. After all, if you’re allowed to do something once, you’ll think you’re always allowed to, right? And everything you did resulted in a clearly stated opinion from your German-American parent, who frequently pressed you for details you probably didn’t even know. Why did you pick that color of eyeshadow? Do you really think that’s a good idea? (Hint: it isn’t.)
  • Your father banned your grandparents from reading you Der Struwwelpeter, hiding it on a far-up shelf. The instant he left the house, your grandmother brought it down for you, reading it aloud with a wicked glimmer in her eye. It didn’t scare you too much. Mostly you felt superior to all the bad children.
  • “Coffee” hardly ever just meant coffee, especially if it was with your grandparents. It was usually at least an hour long affair, complete with fancy homemade German pastries and an elaborate tablecloth. It was also always about two hours before dinner, meaning you were so stuffed with cookies that you didn’t have much interest in whatever you were supposed to be eating.
  • When you were older and able to take German classes at school, you never asked your parent for help with your homework. Who were they to tell you that you couldn’t use “der” for everything?! If you slur it, nobody will even notice!
  • Anyone who spoke German was invited to the house for dinner. A teacher of yours? A parent of one of your classmates? That chatty woman you met at the grocery store? All instant dinner guests. And then you got to watch them bond with your German-American parent as they discussed the idiosyncrasies of their childhoods.
  • In seventh grade, when you were studying World War Two, you went through a massive identity crisis in which you felt incredibly guilty, then incredibly defiant (because it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t your relatives’ either), and then back to guilty again (because maybe they could have stopped Hitler somehow?) Eventually you just had to make yourself stop thinking about it, but not before asking your social studies teacher to stop referring to the Nazis as “the Germans”, and giving a loud speech in the middle of class about how your great-uncle was forced to fight in the war against his will before being killed at nineteen.
  • You spent several weeks at German camp every summer singing songs about sunburned cows, learning how to use Euros, stuffing your face with Nutella and Spezi, and being one of the cool kids in the Cult of Helvetia. Your grandparents, on the other hand, took a very long time to understand that camp in Minnesota didn’t much resemble the summer camps they’d been subjected to in Nazi Germany. “We had to sleep six boys to a bed,” your grandfather wrote gloomily in one letter. “They shouted at us and made us run even when we were tired. I hope you are having a better time.”
  • You have probably seen every German film ever made at least three times over. Das Leben der Anderen, Das Wunder von Bern, Goodbye Lenin, Nirgendwo in Afrika, and Lola Rennt in particular were shown in your German classes at least once a year.
  • You will never, never, never, ever get over Sophie Scholl — Die Letzten Tage. Consequently, Sophie Scholl immediately became one of your heroines, and will remain as such forever.
  • You got to see Angela Merkel and Obama speak on the White House lawn (we lived near DC). You were more excited about the Angela Merkel part.
  • You never understood the pervading view that the German language sounds harsh and angry. To you it’s always been beautiful, because the first German word you ever learned was Schatz, which is what your grandmother would call you when you were being especially cuddly.

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Thank you, vielen, vielen Dank Libby, for letting me share your essay on what it’s like to grow up German American.

This post was originally published in Libby’s blog 

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Comment(2)

  1. I am a German American woman and could relate to so much of this! German never sounded harsh to me. My mother called me Schätzchen. I love Nutella. My grandparents generation still talks about WWII. My grandma read strumpelpeter to me. I love Germany, my family, the alps, the potatoes and the Brötchen. Umpa music still makes me so very happy!

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