Who am I, really? Talking Identity with German Freshmen

IMG_0317I’ve been living in Germany for 4 years now, three of which I’m spent teaching first year students at a private university in Cologne. More than anything else, this experience has taught me humility; I realize now just how thankful I should be that I’m not 19 anymore. Teaching at the university has given me the opportunity to speak to thousands of kids, most of whom exhibit a curiosity bordering on incredulity when I tell them I’m from Chicago, a reaction that I still can’t really understand. More often than not, their general interest in my background sparks a conversation about our two countries, the most interesting parts of which relate to how my students see themselves and their country.

For most of national history, German identity has been defined by ethnicity. To truly be a part of the German nation, you had to be a part of the Volk. With the increase in immigration starting post war and accelerating through reunification, this has started to change, and many Germans today have begun to see their national identity in the more inclusive, political sense, more like that of the United States or France.

This definitely holds true for many of my students. Currently, I have around 180 students across all of my classes, and although most would be considered ethnically German, a surprising large percentage claim immigrant heritages. Turkey, Greece, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Russia, Thailand, Norway, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Serbia and Portugal are all represented in my classes, all of which are made up of students who graduated from German high schools with an Abitur.

Many of these students, when it’s come up in class, have talked about their identity as being more European than German. This is fairly common today; with the lowering of borders and increasing interconnectedness of the continent, it’s easier than ever to see yourself as part of a single community, rather than a separate group within a larger whole. I’ve had some friends who have told me that they still feel queasy displaying their German identity, as they still feel uncomfortable expressing anything that can be interpreted as nationalistic.

The subject of national identity happened to come up in my last class today, and afterwards I stayed a bit late and talked with three of my students: Samuel, Lukas and Maria. Samuel and Lukas are first generation immigrants; both were born in Greece but grew up in Germany. Maria is a native German from outside Cologne. I asked the two Greek-born students if they considered themselves to be German. Samuel said no, definitely not. His parents are Greek, he travels there regularly, he speaks the language. He is still Greek. But Lukas was a bit more hesitant. He also speaks Greek, his parents are from Athens and he’s spent most of his summers there, but he said that he considers himself to be more Greek-German, a hyphenate just like many of us in the States. Interestingly, though, he said his younger brother, who was born in Germany and doesn’t speak Greek, considered himself to be fully German.

When I asked Maria what she considered herself to be, German, European, or something else, she thought about it for a minute, and said yes, of course she’s German. She was born in a German village, her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all German, so what else would she be? But after sitting pensively for a moment, she spoke up again and said that she thought Lukas and Samuel were, too. Samuel turned to her and gave her a funny look, but she doubled down. Yes, she said, if anyone grows up here and plans to live here, then they are German.

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