Berkeley Exchange Students Reflect on German Identity

MGP research assistant Judith Sijstermans discusses questions of German and European identity with Shenshen Wang, Nora Schroder, and Svenja Von Itter from the University of Konstanz

In fall 2013, Shenshen Wang, Nora Schröder and Svenja Von Itter came to Berkeley from the University of Konstanz as part of their masters programs on European Cultural Studies. But why come to the United States when the focus of your degree is European culture? Even they agreed it sounds strange, but they explained that coming to the United States had actually allowed them to view European culture in a different way.

“Everybody who goes abroad from Europe feels that there is something that we have in common. From outside, you see Europe more generally and from another perspective. Here you really feel European when you meet someone from France,” Schröder explained.

Although they felt that a common European identity did not yet exist, they described feeling an affinity with other European students while abroad at UC Berkeley. At a welcoming event, they were surprised by being called out as Europeans rather than Germans or Italians or French.

As a result of these experiences, they felt a stronger European identity in the US than while in Germany. Von Itter added, “For Americans the concept of Europe is very different. The US is huge. A country in Europe is tiny in this perception so nobody really has a clear sense of where each country is in.” Americans, they suggest, categorize a person more by their part of the world than by their nationality.

However, being in America has also allowed the students to consider German identity from a different perspective. This identity is strongly linked to German history. Schröder said, “I think because of our history there is not a huge patriotism among Germans. I don’t really feel like a German like Americans feel like they are American. However, when you go abroad suddenly your nationality becomes more important. You realize you have certain traditions and you grew up with certain ideas and values. When you’re in Germany you don’t really think about it.”

The three struggled to define what these German traditions were. Their closest approximation of a generally German trait was the need to take things seriously and “strictly.” However German identity is more local than that for these students, and their home towns are as important to identity as German nationality is.

Additionally, German identity is defined by European neighbors. “Germans feel that they are defined by their neighboring countries and by Europe. That may also be why they want to be part of the European Union so much,” Von Itter suggests. In contrast to France, she explains, Germany defines itself by memories from outside its borders as well as within. Schröder drew this back to the difficulties of post-World War II patriotism. “It still feels so strange to have a German flag and also to be proud of something…It is part of our history that we don’t want to feel that German. Maybe we want to feel more European,” she said. Comparatively, they perceived American identity to be much more clear and patriotic.

American attitudes towards migrants also differed from German attitudes towards migrants. Wang was a recent migrant to Germany and thus is able to compare her experiences as an immigrant in both countries. She suggests that German and American perceptions of immigrants differ quite substantially. In Wang’s opinion, “in Germany people recognize you as a foreigner but here they don’t. You cannot tell the difference. On the one hand you feel more welcome [in Germany] because people think you need more attention or more care because you are in a foreign country. But on the other hand maybe you can never feel that you are accepted because you are different, visibly.”

“In Germany the government wants you to assimilate a lot but, compared to the US, you can never become a German if you were not born in Germany. Even if you speak the language very well or if you have lived there for 40 years, you are not a German,” Schröder explained. “But if you’ve lived in the US for 20 years and even if you don’t speak English perfectly, you are allowed to say that you are American. It is your choice what you want to be. In Germany, it’s others who define what you are.”

The comparative perspective and lessons learned have made cultural exchange valuable for these Konstanz students of European culture. Their understandings of German identity, European identity and how these are formed have been altered by time spent in a very different country. In turn, their perspectives on American culture will allow Berkeley students to be more aware of the way that we understand identity here and abroad.

Judith Sijstermans

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