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Cultural Identity Crisis…or Not?

It has been long said that there is a natural rhythm of the world, one that is esoteric in nature so that few may keep up with it. The rhythm of the world is a saucy tango, rich in sudden shifts of movement, the pulse endearing. Many instruments comprise this rhythm, but I have always considered myself a musically gifted person, perhaps more metaphorically than literally, and the compassion that I have nurtured for the world’s pulse is a direct result of befriending those instruments. A citizen of the world is a metaphorical player of a symphony; they are rich in many cultural experiences accumulated over the course of their life. I consider myself to be a naturalized citizen of the world through the variety of cultures I have immersed myself in — no matter how simple my experience.

I remember the day when I discovered that flying to Germany would be one of the most important experiences of my life. Across the Atlantic Ocean, there were relatives aware of my existence and I vaguely of theirs. Photographs told me more about many of them than I first realized and my first impression of many of them was that they all held a soft gaze, my grandmother especially. There was something angelic about my grandmother’s appearance and I believe it was all in her eyes; the warmth radiated from them despite their icy blue hue. My grandfather, I noticed, had a very intense, serious gaze but one that was not incapable of compassion. His complexion was darker than my grandmother’s and his hair and eyes, reflective of his Italian-German heritage, were black and chocolate brown, respectively. I was cognizant of the fact that language would be the greatest obstacle for me when I first met my distant family, and I remember cursing my lack of motivation to learn German in the last quarter of my flight. However, my excitement overtook the regret. Germany was always that place across the ocean I would never see unless it was for a funeral, according to my father. Ironically, it was also due to the graciousness of my father that Germany was only an eight hour flight away for a fifteen hundred dollar ticket.

Surprisingly, I found language to be the least of my worries after we landed. The airport in Frankfurt, Germany was bustling with the vigor of New York City, and I fathomed some sort of strange, dance-motivated flash mob would occur any second. Sticking close to my sister and mother was hard to do because I was interested in taking in my surroundings, no matter how confusing and crowded it was. Language was a secondary issue, as I heard German, English, and French all around me. When my aunt Conny and uncle Roland were found, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Conny speaking to me in English while entrapping me in a hug. Roland greeted my mother in German because, as I later found out, he was more interested in his family and cars to learn English. I humorously imagined that he would like Nascar if he came to the United States.

Twenty minutes went by before I was subjected to the scariest ride of my life on the infamous Autobahn, a network of highways not usually constrained by speed limits. Roland’s BMW coasted by other vehicles with Conny’s blue Mazda trailing by a few feet. We were heading for Lorch Rheingaukreis in the state of Hessen where my grandparents awaited our arrival. A loaf bread in the backseat was taking a flight of its own, so I scrambled to snatch it from the air. Clutching the bread, I noticed how disorderly the highway seemed but also how the drivers coped with it, falling in sync with one another, passing each other with no crude gestures or viciously mouthed obscenities. It is hard to imagine such an artful chaos occurring on an American highway. Because of this experience in Germany, the urge to pass people without a second thought is dominant for me, but then I have to remember that here, in the United States, the speed limit is enforceable. I noticed that even when Roland reached the more simple, stretched out country roads in the hills, his speed remained unchecked by local law enforcement. The laid-back nature of the German people both confused and surprised me, but I also found it enjoyable because of how different it was.

Yet, contrary to my initial mixed feelings about meeting my grandparents, the real joy of finally seeing them in the flesh after the long, scary drive to Lorch Rheingaukreis made no room for regret. The hugs, smiles, and laughter were real to me, real enough to where language was not needed. My mother hastily scrambled to translate my English for them, but my Oma, as I now affectionately call my grandmother, was too preoccupied with studying me to listen to her. My Opa, as I have dubbed my grandfather, seemed content enough to see me and continued to smoke his cigarettes and drink his black coffee.

Immediately after the energized greeting, my mother, sister, and I were offered food from the refrigerator. Among the food items offered, Nutella, bread, cheese, meat, and jam were the most abundant and my hands automatically went for the Nutella. My possessiveness of the hazelnut spread was inherited from my mother, and Conny remarked to her sister, in English, that I already knew how to be German. I felt a great sense of pride in her words but I was also stumped by them. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with a cultural identity crisis. I was quick to question my favorability of Nutella over peanut butter and German spaetzle over hotdogs and hamburgers. Of course, I was an American as I was born in the country, but I felt comfortable with the idea of labeling myself as German because I could not feel anything but pride with the term. Middle school had been a nightmare for me when I brought up the fact that my heritage was deeply rooted in Germany. Accusations of being a Nazi casually flew through the air though many who tossed the term around like trash had no idea of the connotations it carried. I never once felt like a killer or suppressor of minorities, and I knew my German relatives felt the same way. As my grandmother described it to me: “Nazis are trash and their flag is shit. Having to keep a picture of Hitler in my home during the war was absolute shit.” Listening to her, I was easily able to determine that for her, being German was still a thing of pride. While there was brief dark moment of time in the country, that never meant the current people had to be labelled for it. The world is quick to label all Germans as Nazis and the Japanese those “crazy, suicidal kamikazes” for the atrocities accomplished only by their ancestors.

Even today, as I drive down long stretches of Amish-filled roads, I am reminded of my adventures on the Autobahn of Germany. The people were in sync with each other and, for the most part, carefree. I noticed that they embraced their culture despite having heinous connotations shadowing it. I am pleased to call myself a citizen of the world because I am human and, to me, the humans of every culture are equal to one another. I am undoubtedly American but I cannot help but to favor Nutella over peanut butter and spaetzle over the “All American” hotdog. The foreign words of Korean and Japanese music hold a strange enchantment over me as I drive down long stretches of roads. I probably picked up my affinity for them at the age of eight, around the same time I learned I was German. Needless to say, it is because I can call myself a German and listen to music that is dubbed as “strange” by American society that I have become a player of the world’s most diverse symphony. The citizen of the world is probably the weirdest person in existence and I am proud to call myself that person.