USA critique

September 11th

This is one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever tried to write. It’s one of those where one sitting is not enough to ideally formulate every idea I’m trying to express. The trouble is, if I don’t post this now, I never will. I know I’ll want to return to it at some point, so that what I’m trying to say becomes more clear, appropriate and powerful. But for the moment, it’s my attempt to pay tribute to the victims of the September 11th attacks, both living and dead.
I am especially grateful to the men and women everywhere who make it their jobs to come to the aid of others, regardless of the risks to themselves.

It’s a weird, serendipitous coincidence that I started watching American Sniper with my family last night, and then finished it today. As the closing credits started appearing on-screen and I saw the original footage of the funeral procession of a man who died at the hands of another veteran, I needed a bit of time to think about how I feel about US war heroes (the term should not be thrown about lightly) and how I feel about the Iraq War.

I’m not the patriotic type; I’ve mentioned that before. Removed from all social media (except blogging), I also didn’t see what inevitably many US Americans posted today. However, whether I want to admit it or not, being in school that morning in September in 2001 affected how I situate myself in relation to the world. Of course I see myself as US American. However, on days like today and during my stay abroad in Germany, I’ve had to ask myself several times what that means and the responsibility that comes with it.

While in Germany, I took a course called “Representations of War in British Film and Lit.” As a part of the course we read Wish You Were Here, which was about the brother of a British soldier who serves in Iraq and Afghanistan and dies on active duty. It was the first time I had talked about the Iraq War in an academic setting, and of course it was amidst German anglophiles.

In case you didn’t know, the German population as a whole was not really a fan of the U.S. going to war with Iraq. Thus, because I also had been selected to provide the Referat, or presentation, of the context of the novel, I found myself in the position of justifying the war. I’m not completely proud to say that I recognized the aggressive military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as being the result of pain and confoundment. At least, those are the emotions I still feel today, and I think this may confuse the issues surrounding 9/11 for many US Americans.

However, while in Germany I’ve been forced to think about the other factors in Bush declaring war in the name of the USA. I was challenged by another exposure to the representation of the 9/11 attacks in the form of the 11’09″01 film series. I saw Sean Penn’s contribution and it showed me for the first time the ways in which the 9/11 attacks have been processed by intellectuals and maybe even critics of the US.  One could argue that the attacks brought out the best and the worst of the US.

Looked at with the distance of the Germans and the British, as well as most intellectuals in the US, the terrorist attacks can be examined as a disillusionment for the US. Sean Penn’s images of the hard-working American who has lost his wife and exists in the shadow of the Twin Towers forced me to consider how the fall of the Towers could be a positive thing. While writing that, I don’t think positive is the right word, but the image of the flowers blooming and the husband being forced to live in the present, not in a past where his wife is still alive, makes me think there is some value in the the US being shocked into having to try to understand its country and how it is received by the rest of the world.

This is something that I’ve never had a problem understanding, since I’ve been putting my country in relation to another one for almost all my life. As anyone with exposure to other ways of living can tell you, having two things to compare allows one to look more critically at each thing. However, while I’m not proud of the US entering into war with another country, I can take the time to understand the situation more clearly, just like while I feel the pain of seeing what one person can do to another (or many), as in the countless examples during the Nazi Regime of the 3rd Reich in Germany, I can also take the time to understand the situation more clearly in relation to the events that occurred before it. Wanting to learn and understand (if understanding is even possible) does not excuse the behavior on either side, but it also does not exclude me from wanting to be affiliated with either country.

So, while I know it’s easy to try to forget the things that cause us pain, I’m glad to be reminded of the 9/11 attacks to remember the people who lost their lives as well as to take a bit of time to think about the world since 9/11 and how it has changed. American Sniper reminded me how people will honor the sacrifice of others (whether it was asked for or not) and how some people believe in the war and some don’t. The significance of today’s date, the moments of silence and my own personal memories reminded me, yet again, of how much pain this earth has seen, regardless of which nation the people belonged to.

There’s so much more that can be said in relation to this, and I fear that I could not address all of them, leaving this post off limp and weak. But ultimately it’s up to everyone to decide for him/herself  how to relate to the events. Thank you for reading!

From Sea to Shining Sea

A US Patriot in a German Grossstadt- Happy 4th of July!

I’m not really patriotic, few people in my family are. Part of this is because my mother is German and her upbringing involved very little flag waving… though why any form of German patriotism is still likened to extreme nationalism speaks to the pervasive power of collective memory. My father served in the US Air Force and continues to serve the government in a different way, working in Immigration offices where he has the unique opportunity to watch new US citizens be sworn in every day. He is a patriot, but not a blind one. Through his experiences, I think he is able to look at his country objectively. Anyone who experiences other cultures and learns other languages will be set on a path of comparisons and thinking that add nuances to the world as he/she knew it, or thought s/he did. However, the person who is able to go to another country, experience many good things there, and then come back to his/her own country and say s/he likes it better there makes a much more powerful statement than the one who stayed within the same borders his/her whole life and says it’s the best place to be. I can say that I like to be in the U.S.  and be very specific about why.

Having lived in Germany for nine months now, I’ve seen a lot of Germany. There are many, many things I like and could appreciate for the rest of my life, but also a few things that bother me about a few individuals who grew up here. Of course, one can say the same about the U.S. Americans.

I have learned to differentiate between individuals, communities, political and social commonalities versus individual idiosyncrasies. But before I go off on a list of things I’ve learned from being here in Germany, which I’m saving for the end of the month, I want to talk a little about what I’ve learned about the US and the German perspective of the US.

I’m sorry, but while most Germans I have met think US Americans are very nice and very helpful, a lot have also said that they consider US citizens uninformed and almost stupid when it comes to politics. They see many Americans as conservatives who oppose abortion, believe in the right to bear arms, and fear taxes and a good health care system. There is a lot of confusion about race relations in the US, and many think of the US as being New York, Washington D.C., or LA and San Francisco, when there really is so much more to the country. It’s interesting that the social stereotypes about the country reflect spaces different than the cities Germans imagine when they think of the US.

One thing that all Germans I have met agree upon, however, is how beautiful the country is. Perhaps it’s also just the wide expanses of nothing but nature that the Germans appreciate, squeezing 80 million people into a land half the size of Texas. There’s no denying the strength of the beauty of our country, and I can’t help but think that the beauty passes onto the people somehow too.

I should probably try to write more (after all, I wanted to be more to grant this post a little more critical weight), but the sun is shining outside, and it’s too warm to be inside. One thing I’m really missing right now is the beach near my home in the US, but I’ll be there soon enough.  Hope my US readers have a great day! And that the Germans have fun grilling this afternoon. I have a term paper to write… yippee

Some bad, mostly good, and a post in which I try to catch-up, but fail

I knew this would happen inevitably, that I would have a lot to post during the beginning of my stay here, but since classes have picked up swing (we’re halfway through the Vorlesungszeit [labeled as such because there’s also a Vorlesungsfreie period that’s still technically part of the semester during which students don’t attend class and frantically finish term papers]) I am kept a lot more busy. I’ve also got more things going on outside of classes, so I’m sufficiently kept out of my room off the interwebs, which is probably a good thing.

Basically, there’s too many small things that have happened to note (and still keep your interest), but I have noticed on a larger scale that the more I’m here, the more I’m learning about people, not just Germans in particular. Coming to a new place means meeting new people, experiencing new things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s foreign or not. I think that When U.S. Americans move to another city, or even a new block, it’s also a “foreign” location that needs to be explored, and one’s place in it also needs to be found. The primary difference to another country is that culture and customs are expected to be different from what one already knows and there’s so much more to learn.

As far as saying that I’m learning more about people, let me explain. Basically, I have had many good and a few bad experiences here. For some reason, I attribute the good experiences to human nature, general good of people, and the bad experiences to being particularly German. that is, when something negative happens to me, I attribute it to being a victim of German atttitude rather than that just being part of the person’s nature.

I need to remind myself that all people are capable of being nice or mean, regardless of nationality…but still, I can’t help but wonder if being a little ornery is a northern German trait.

On the other hand, I recently had the pleasure of working at a charity bazaar put on by the German-American Women’s Club of Hamburg. This event was hosted to help raise money for various charity organizations, primarily those helping children. I met many very nice German men and women who had some kind of ties with the U.S., whether through school, work, and/or love. They were excited to meet me and the other U.S. student, and pleased when they found a willing audience for their experiences. But what struck me was how generous these ladies at the bazaar were. Never mind the fact that they put together many similar kinds of events to help raise money for the student exchange programs, meaning they work hard so that the other U.S. student and I have an inexpensive place to stay, a bicycle… Never mind the fact that they invite us to seasonal get-togethers and gift us generously, expecting nothing in return. What really amazed me what how they thanked us, sincerely, for helping out at the bazaar. It was a sacrifice of our time and efforts, true (selling raffle tickets can be exhausting ;)), but it was only a small way to repay what they do for us. And still, we were the ones who were thanked and gifted with antiques and wine bottles that had been donated for the event. I think the point is, we will never be able to repay the generosity of these ladies. Are all Germans extremely generous? Who knows, But these ladies are.

The Fourth of July in the middle of November

The Fourth of July in the middle of November

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Good ole homemade German specialties

Yet, despite positive things one can say, there’s also the negative things. For example, Germans can be really rude about line waiting or insecurity.  I was surprised today when I hurried into a local bakery to buy lunch for later (a very German thing to do), by the encounter I had with an older lady. It could have been a very different encounter with anyone else, but with her it was a bit, well, not positive.

Basically, I was in a hurry because I wanted to catch the S-Bahn to get to class on time. I didn’t want to cut anyone in line though, and I was also anxious to see everything that there was to offer behind the mile long display case. Sweet pastries were on one end and belegte Brote (sandwich rolls) were on the other. The problem was, the sandwiches were on the opposite end of where the lines were, and it’s never really clear, when there are three people behind the counter, if it’s a line that needs to be formed, or three. At any rate, this lady had just ordered and paid and I was standing by her to see what it was I wanted to do next. She turned to go, and I didn’t know what it was she wanted to do next, so there was this awkward dance thing where she moved slightly right and I moved slightly right to eventually get out of her way… at any rate, to make a long story short, the end of our exchange was “Da bildet sich die Schlange und da steht man sich an. So macht man das in Deutschland…” I felt demoralized in that instant, and all I could say was “ja, dann, entschuldigung.”

But looking back at it now, I realize that I shouldn’t take being treated like an imbecile personally. I think, for some people it goes along with the attitude that the youth have no manners. This attitude varies from person to person and I think I’ve experienced in in the U.S. before. It’s just that here I feel like people are generally more impatient and OCD about lines waiting for food or to pay for their food at the grocery store… so maybe the Germans are just always hungry?

I guess the bottom line is, I’m learning to look beyond my first impressions of Germans and make distinctions based on the individual circumstances. I am entering more intimate interactions with Germans that teach me more about them, and them also more about me. That is, I am helping the Germans I meet to make new observations about U.S. Americans and help distinguish what it means to be “American” for them too.

For example, there’s the idea that Americans are really nice. I know people find me nice, and in general, on first-time, interpersonal basis, I have found that Germans respond well to my partially, through my father, southern upbringing. Yet, I’ve seen how Germans think this niceness is superficial, and I have to spend some time convincing them otherwise. I find myself struggling in my second or third encounters with new people I meet, as if I’m an aspirin, sugar coated, but bitter as time goes on. I know I’m just as nice the second time as the first, and I know I am sincere in wanting these acquaintances to find it pleasant to be around me and want to undertake more things with me (hey, I’m a foreigner in a foreign country, I get lonely!), and if I find them nice, I’ll tell them so. But the Germans need a little more time for acquaintanceship to turn into friendship.

Okay, so I have to be a little more patient.

In response to the recent queries I’ve had about whether I have finally “arrived” in Hamburg, yes, I believe I have.

Here’s photos to prove it (?):

Fehrnsehturm in the fog

Fernsehturm in the fog

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Leaves falling in Hamburg, something I'm not used to at all

Leaves falling in Hamburg, something I’m not used to at all

I ain’t no skinny b*tch, but I also don’t have buns, hon’: Some Notes on Body Image in the USA today

There’s a movement away from wanting to be “thin” or “skinny,” and I think that’s a good thing. Yet this movement seems to be taking us to the other extreme. We have songs about big butts and magazine covers with women who can hire chefs and trainers to keep them slim, but what about the rest of us? The ones with some fat jiggling here and there, but not necessarily in “all the right places”?

This post is a sort of attempt to address a growing concern I have for the US, and I wonder how body image is addressed in Germany. While abroad, that’s one of the things I’d like to find out.

I am not going to attempt to unravel the great knot of health, fitness, beauty advice and see just what  it is that girls are “supposed” to do nowadays, because I know that  a) I am not going to unravel anything, perhaps just loosen the knots a little and b) there is nothing anyone should “suppose” to do, except for maybe be kind to others, be kind to oneself.

These thoughts were brought by my runs  shortly before I left (dear radio stations: no runner should have to hear the same song twice within one workout hour) and the current hits topping the music charts. The one that come to mind (and that I’ve had to listen to most frequently) is “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor.

I must say that this is a totally catchy tune and really enjoyable to listen to. Some of the lyrics are even enthusiastically empowering, especially “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top”; just the question is, to whom and at what cost?

Good lines:

“Yeah my mama she told me don’t worry about your size”

“I see the magazine workin’ that Photoshop
We know that shit ain’t real
C’mon now, make it stop”

“You know I won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll
So if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and move along”

“I know you think you’re fat
But I’m here to tell ya
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top”

but then there are some not so good lines, like in the skinny girl bashing:

“stick figure silicone Barbie doll”

“them skinny bitches that”

There’s also some boy stereotyping about what boys “really like”:

“Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”

“‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase”

All about sex, as if that’s the magic act that validates how we look. Being happy with one’s body should not be grounded in how it can please someone else:

“And all the right junk in all the right places”

“I got that boom boom that all the boys chase”

“a little more booty to hold at night”

What we should be singing about:

Being healthy, alive… boys and girls being allowed to love any part of the body of their boy or girlfriend. There’s no such thing as universally sexy.

Rather than talking about how the body we have is/matches some set idea of what’s sexy, whether skinny or curvy, we should be saying that because it’s our body, and we live with it and work with it, we’ve learned to rock it. It’s the things our bodies can do that are important, and if we develop good habits of what we do with our bodies, our bodies will begin to reflect it.

Celebrating the things our bodies can do and the resulting confidence is what makes us sexy, no matter what the size.

Just some thoughts.

A German says goodbye to his adopted homeland

Today, I want you to read this article (if you can; if not, send me a message and if enough people request it, I’ll translate): 

Die USA machen es ihren Freunden so schwer by Die Welt correspondent Uwe Schmidt.

It says some things that I have felt, but couldn’t express better myself. Mostly, it is a bitter-sweet recognition of some of the best and worst traits of the US, but somehow, the negatives outweigh the positive. In general, the country’s strong standing in the world, morally, politically, and militarily is weakened by a congress who no longer reflects the opinions of its people, a republican party that has strayed further and further right, an economy that lets its stars shine and everyone else fall, a president who isn’t even recognized by a large percentage of the population… the list goes on. While I agree with a lot of what Schmidt writes, I am envious of his ability to move back to Germany and move on with his life.What about those of us who chose to stay?

Some choice quotes:

Jedes Land hat die Vorurteile, die es verdient. Man muss ihnen nicht folgen. Every country has the prejudices it deserves, but one doesn’t have to believe in them. 

Wer Amerika durchquert, versteht, warum sich das Land und seine Menschen selbst genug sind. Es ist eine gigantische Insel, wir anderen sind das Meer. Those who cross America understand why the country and its people only need themselves. It is a giant island, and we others are the sea.

Nach 50 Jahren Raubbau an der Infrastruktur, Jahrzehnte, in denen mindestens die Republikaner Steuererhöhungen prinzipiell bekämpften wie eine tödliche Seuche, beginnt die dritte Welt, die erste zu fressen. After 50 years of over-exploitation of infrastructure, decades in which the Republicans, among others, principly fight tax raises like a deadly plague, the third world begins to devour the first one. 

Das Problem ist nicht, gegen Amerika zu sein. Das Problem ist, dass es Amerika seinen Freunden so viel schwerer macht, es gegen seine Ignoranten und Verächter zu verteidigen

The problem is not whether or not to take sides with the Americans. The problem is that the U.S. makes it so much more difficult for its friends to defend the country against those ignorant and condemning.