One’s own national identity is influenced by so many things. The country in which the were born, the town or state where they grew up, the place in which their parents or grandparents were born, the color of their skin or hair, socioeconomic status, schooling, religion, sexuality, profession, marital status, familial structure and the list goes on and on. The way people are treated and the way they learn to treat others regarding these various factors contributes to a complicated and unique national identity. Take higher education for example, in the United States it is available to anyone that wishes to attend as long as they find a way to pay for it. In Germany, it is free of cost to whoever attends provided they were tracked into the right type of secondary school. During his lecture Professor Isensee, an American Studies Instructor at Humboldt discussed how Germans consider keeping higher education cost-free a very high priority. As a result, not as many students are able to attend and students must perform well in their studies to be admitted into a university. For decades in the U.S. the priority has been getting as many students into the higher education system in any means possible, including government subsidized loans. I do not believe that either country has its priority more straight than the other. Both solutions come with serious consequences and important benefits, but they also cause a college degree to mean something different to an American student than a German. It also causes citizens of each country to see acquisition of higher education in a different light. The narratives around higher education in each country are different because the circumstances are different. What leads to those circumstances being different, a long list of social, political and economic factors.
I now realize that identity, especially when looking at a nation or the way people relate to their nation of residence, is extremely complicated. It is easy to say that the United States and Germany are different. The government and economy are structured differently and priorities fall into different places, but Americans and Germans are not inherently different. Values between the two populations may be different, but is that not just a factor of where they live?
So what does it mean to be “American” or “German” or a proper resident of any country? I really have no idea. Immigrants to a nation, especially the United States, are asked to assimilate to the culture of their new nation. I now wonder if that is even possible. I am American and if someone were to move to the U.S. and act just like I do they would be a very different “American” than if they had decided to act just like someone living in New York or Nevada or even someone else living in Seattle.
The issue of national identity in both the United States and Germany is extremely sensitive when it comes to immigrants and refugees. The U.S. has been a nation of immigrants, since the day it was formed, but just recently Germany took on that title. During class we had the privilege of hearing the stories of a few refugees living in Berlin. Their journeys to Germany were different, but their story once they got there seemed very similar. Immigrants in Germany have a very tough time getting citizenship and in the mean time are usually not allowed to work legally and end up in difficult living situations. Then there is the concept of “immigrant background” which continues to polarize the children, grandchildren and so on of immigrants. As an American I found this concept to be very strange. It is common to hear the term “first generation American” in the U.S., but in theory the immigrant status strays with the family member that first came to the country. I was quite surprised when we went into a classroom and when introducing themselves the students also included what country their immigrant parents or grandparents were from. I quickly realized that even though the concept of “immigration background” may be foreign to be as an American, the “where are you really from” complex is not. This issue very much exists in both countries; in Germany people are so used to expressing where their family is from that they offer up the information like it is second nature. In the U.S. it is often a question that people are asked directly. No matter the form this “where are you from” question takes on it contributes and diminishes the feeling of being American or German. Immigrants work to take on the identity of their new home in hopes that it will bring them acceptance, while the system is usually actively working against their assimilation. Both countries can identify as immigration, while continually and systematically asking their new members to identify as immigrants.
I understand the desire to have a national identity. But I have realized that the way the U.S. is seen will never be an accurate representation of who I am or how I feel and I will never be a good representation of all the U.S. stands for. I have also realized, it is that very fact that inspires and leads to social change and progress. People can work to create a national identity that they are proud to carry. Germans can say that they have made higher education a national priority and they are proud of that or that as a nation they recognize and accept their historical past and continually look for ways to move on from it. After five weeks in Germany (and two weeks in various parts of Europe) I believe that one national identity can never truly exist, but people can use their own identity and personal beliefs to form a nation they are proud to live in. I have learned so much through this journey about Germany and beyond and I am so excited to have been introduced to the world!