In 2008, at age twenty-eight, I quit a reliable desk job, sold my car and most of my possessions, and set out to backpack across Europe alone. Having read so many stories about life-changing walkabouts (Eat, Pray, Love and On the Road, to name a few), I know this is hardly rare, so at the risk of seeming trite, I must say: the journey literally changed my life. In the silence of traveling alone, I finally cultivated a self-acceptance that had always eluded me. I began trusting myself and listening to my once drowned-out inner voice. I enjoyed nearly every moment of the journey, even though it was not always easy. Strangely, I seldom felt lonely. I found traveling alone very freeing. I didn’t have to convince anyone to do anything, I could spend (or waste) the day as I wanted, I could put myself first without any guilt.
One late night in Barcelona, near the end of my trip, I was happily dancing alone (okay, a bit drunkenly) when a man joined me. This man, I would soon realize, was my soulmate. We initially became good friends and soon fell in love. We continued our relationship long-distance with the help of Skype and email after I returned to the US.
This brings me to the reason why I became an immigrant for the second time. My husband is of German nationality and during the early years of our relationship, he was still working on his doctorate in Germany. I had far less attachments, having recently returned from my backpacking trip and moved to New York City, so it was only natural for me to join him where he lived. Although he was willing to move to my place, I insisted on moving to his. I had not just fallen in love with him, but with Europe. I was intrigued by the history, the cultures, the lifestyles and many languages—all situated so densely and intricately like brightly colored tiles in a magnificent living mosaic. I wanted to immerse myself in a new culture and learn at least one new language. At any case, I figured, what harm could it do? It would only enrich me and I could always go back if I changed my mind. Better to live without regrets.
While I was in New York planning my big move, I was having breakfast in a diner one morning and made a chance acquaintance, a woman who had just come from Germany. She was about my age, was originally from Hong Kong and had lived in southern Germany, near Munich for several years. I didn’t tell her about my plans, assuming she might edit her answer if she knew. I wanted to know the truth. I asked her directly what she really thought of Germany. The answer was blunt. She shook her head slightly and simply said, “It’s not for me.” She was reluctant to openly complain but the expression on her face was clear to read. She had hit a wall. Hard. And was still reeling from the pain. She blinked as if her eyes were teary. “I would rather live in New York,” she said, “the people here are much more open. That’s what I’m trying to do now if I can get a visa.” I wished her good luck and thought about what she said for a long time.
Oddly, her answer didn’t surprise me, although her insinuation that Germans were not accepting of foreigners or open-minded, didn’t fit any of the Germans I had befriended up to that point. In fact, the more I traveled, the more I found the differences in people to be less pronounced. An arrogant buffoon was pretty much the same in any country, no matter how special he or she claimed to be, and well-distributed throughout the world, I sadly observed.
I thought about two other German immigrants whom I was fortunate to befriend, they had recently moved to the US as well. The first one was a former colleague of mine and the other immigrant was an IT specialist at my job in Manhattan. Although they were both nice, friendly and spoke English well, they also had difficulties integrating. My coworker had been shamed for breastfeeding her baby in public during her lunch breaks at work. Apparently, she did not know that seeing a mother breastfeeding was offensive to some Americans. She was actually ordered to refrain from breastfeeding where anyone could see—not even in her car in the parking lot. I had also witnessed my American coworkers openly ridiculing the IT specialist for his “funny accent”, explaining that they “couldn’t understand anything (he said)”. His face red with humiliation, he continued working as if he didn’t hear them.
As an immigrant in the US myself, I had my own harsh experiences with “otherness”, how quick some people were to label me as a foreigner and use my insecurities against me. I could write on and on about it, but I don’t want to digress. I was no stranger to hostility, I had lived with it. But I went ahead and made the decision to move to Germany anyway. My eyes were open, I expected that it would be hard sometimes and that I would become deeply homesick at a certain point. The idea that I would become homesick for America struck me as incredibly ironic, because I had been told to “go back home” several painful times in my life there. What I didn’t expect is how much the experience of living somewhere else would define that home for me.
The first few years I lived in Germany, I attended language schools. The first and biggest obstacle I found in living there was the language (and it still is). The spelling and pronunciation are generally more straightforward than English, but the complex grammar and genders are a challenge. Further complicating things, most Germans will automatically switch to English if they notice you are a foreigner, so you don’t get a chance to practice speaking unless you are persistent or meet a (rare) person who can’t speak English and is willing to talk to you. It feels quite demoralizing to know that your best efforts at speaking German will always be perceived as odd, no matter how nice the intentions are of the person switching to English. But I try to see it compassionately, I often recall the times when I had to listen to someone with a thick foreign accent, it can feel uncomfortable at best and stupefying at worst. If someone was especially harsh with me, complaining about me—even mimicking me, I often thought about the two German immigrants I had befriended in the US. I wondered if the person mocking me would ever have the courage to do what we had done.
It was near the middle of my second year at language school that our teacher asked us what we thought of Germany. There were the usual complaints about how hard the language was. Then one of my classmates, a bright young woman from Cameroon, who had picked up the language faster than most of us, said that she didn’t feel comfortable living in Germany at all. She brought up an incident of racism that a friend had experienced and a general feeling of not fitting-in. She went further, saying that she dreamed of moving to America, especially to New York City where she believed the people were more warm-hearted and kind. She often felt so lonely and hopeless that she would take the train to Frankfurt where there were skyscrapers, there she would go for a walk and look up at the tall buildings, pretending she was in New York City.
She stared at me as she spoke, expecting me to confirm her hopes. But I froze. I felt her pain and I didn’t doubt her, but I also knew from chatting with her earlier that this was her very first time in a foreign country—her very first time away from home. She was experiencing the first waves of culture shock and homesickness. In this state, it is natural to feel unease with the new surroundings, and even, to demonize the natives for making one feel so out-of-place. The America she dreamt of was the rich, freedom-loving, modern land she had seen on popular television shows like Friends. Several other students in the class nodded in agreement, saying that they too would rather move to the USA.
The teacher, thankfully, did not ask me, the only American in the room, what I thought. Perhaps she didn’t want to get a long-winded explanation like this one :-). But I wanted to stay silent anyway, I suspected that whatever I had to say would not make anyone happy. But I thought about it often, what my answer would have been. Did it truly exist? The America that my classmates longed for and compared Germany to?
For a moment, I saw it as clear as day, that “shining city on a hill” cited so often by the politicians of my youth, especially by Ronald Reagan on his farewell address:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still. (source)
Did this shining city truly exist? Well, yes. And no. It flickered and wavered. It existed in moments as brief as its famous images, advertising their promises on TV. I saw it in moments during my childhood in Chicago, in some multicultural neighborhoods where people of diverse nationalities and religions lived, played and worked together in peace. And as children, we didn’t keep to ourselves in the isolation of our homes, we roamed the neighborhood, playing in other people’s yards, eating in other people’s homes, being looked after by other kid’s parents. I had the privilege of having friends of different cultures, religions and races before I even conceived of the notion that anyone had to be different. I saw that ideal of America at nineteen while working at a fast-food joint, when my boss confronted a bigoted coworker who had been harassing me. He told him to show me some respect or get out, adding, “we’re all immigrants here”. I saw it in college in the kind and accepting circle of my diverse friends. And I did see it in the boroughs of New York City, where the multitude of cultures create the very richness and beauty that is the “world at your doorstep”.
I consider myself privileged to grow up where there was so much opportunity, where I had a strong sense of my rights, not just as a human being, but as a woman. Rights that my mother could not even fathom in the country she left behind. But there was and still is a huge amount of uncertainty, inequality and bigotry that make that shining city no more than a glimmer for many.
Yet in all my experience, I can’t think of a single country on earth where outsiders would not encounter any difficulty. Some places might be better or worse perhaps, but to have any ideal of a certain land, be it back home or a place you have never been to before, seems extremely detrimental to me—especially to the integration process. It is a waste of energy. Instead of focusing on learning or trying to better themselves in their present situation, my classmates were dreaming of being somewhere else where it was all supposedly better. And they yearned for a land where I had experienced the same kind of rejection they were experiencing at that moment.
However, I later learned that I wasn’t so different from them after all. Although I did my best to integrate, it became apparent that I had, dormant in the back of my mind, a home to go back to if something didn’t work out. But the recent surge in populism has made me realize, painfully, that a hidden part of me was still holding on to the hope of that “shining city” as a physical location I could call home.
Why did we fail and continue to fail to make that image into a reality? I don’t have all the answers. But I wonder if the shining city wavers because it was both too ambitious and not ambitious enough? Perhaps we have been dreaming of the wrong city? Not “a shining city on a hill”, when it should have been a brilliant city in the clouds. Floating in the air, available to everyone—at any place, any time, to all the people of the world if they are willing to work for it and uphold it. A land where all humans have the right to live with dignity and respect, “with liberty and justice for all”*. If no one is first, then no one has to be last. This city would have to set ground in a far stronger place than the rocks beneath our feet. It would have to begin in the place where tyrants can only dream to claim.
Text and Images © M.P. Baecker and http://www.alightcircle.com 2017.
*from the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America.