Monday, September 15, 2014

What Being German-American Means to Me

German-American Day isn't until October 6th, but today marks the beginning of German-American Heritage Month. It stretches from mid-September to mid-October to encompass the most German-y festivals and traditions (according to several sources--the documentation isn't great on this). In any case, I wanted to take some time to share about my experience as a German-American, and how it's shaped who I am. (Today also marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, so I'll be bringing in a very special guest tomorrow to share his experience--I hope you're as excited as I am!)

[Disclaimer] This is my own personal experience and is in no way meant to speak for German-Americans as a whole. You'll understand as you read, but I would never claim my worldview as "typical" of my "people"--whether that be German-Americans, Wisconsonites, white people, rural people, urbanites, females, or any other groups I identify with. This blog is personal, and I can only speak for myself. [End Disclaimer]

Do you identify as German-American? Yes. I'm very clearly white. I have blond hair and blue eyes. My last name is Kaiser, for crying out loud.

Is there anything else about you that you attribute to being German-American? My family has been in the United States for more than a few generations and we're fully assimilated, so I can't say if my personality is "German" (nature/DNA/aligned with the majority of other Germans) or just how I was raised (nurture/shaped by my family and environment). Things like my stubbornness, thrift, snark, and penchant for argument definitely fall under the German stereotype umbrella. It's also nice to be able to say, "Yeah, I follow rules and enjoy order--I'm German," and to explain myself easily that way. I'm punctual. I like brats and pretzels and rye bread and egg noodles and sauerkraut. That being said, I'm definitely more American than German. I feel no natural camaraderie with German people, as if they were my fellow countrymen. (That might make me more German, actually, if the stereotype of German coldness/reservation is true.)

Is anything about you not German-American? I don't speak any German. I don't like beer. Or soccer--further proof I'm more American than German.

How did you know you were German-American growing up? Any family traditions? Things that set you apart from people you knew who were not German-American? Other a casual interest in my ancestry and my last name, I never felt German/German-American growing up. I think because where I grew up was very German/Polish, so I never felt apart from others. Much like being white, being German-American in central Wisconsin doesn't necessarily challenge you or make you think about who you are. My extended family drinks a solid amount of beer and we play traditional card games, but there was never a time where I was like, "OMG my family is so German it's embarrassing," because we weren't doing anything that different from anyone else I knew.

When I went to college I started to understand (or rather, understand more) that not all families valued structure and routine like mine. Moving to Chicago was even more of an eye-opener in actually experiencing how families are different instead of just a conceptual knowledge of the fact.

What do you think people assume about you when they see you? Do you get tagged with German-American stereotypes? I think my whiteness supersedes any other, more specific, stereotyping. From what I've heard from people who are now friends, when they first saw/met me they thought I was reserved, goofy, intense, prone to daydreaming, sarcastic, and (from my boyfriend) blond. All of these things are partly true part of the time, but they are in no way stereotypes based on my looks. (Except blond. Jesus learned quickly that I'm not the blond white girl he fantasized about growing up, but I think that's for the best in the long run.) When people learn about my German heritage, they say they understand me better.

Will you celebrate this month? If so, how? Probably not. I might drink a cider at some point? Like I said, I'm more American than German. If anything, I'll cook a German dish, write about it here, and be grateful for what my ancestors did for me.

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