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At home in Berlin, but going to school with the world

Rona Bird · 26 Mar 2010, 14:41

Published: 26 Mar 2010 14:41 GMT+01:00

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With an English mother and a German father, I’ve been raised bilingually amid two distinct cultures.

That hasn’t made growing up in Germany always easy, but fortunately I’ve found my place in society inside Berlin’s international community.

What mainly connects me to this community is the Nelson Mandela School, which promotes open-mindedness and tolerance toward different cultures amongst its students. With kids coming from all kinds of national backgrounds, such a multicultural environment is a great place to learn about different values and customs.

An important aspect of a multicultural upbringing is national identity. For most people, the question of where they come from is easy to answer. But what if you come from multiple countries? Or what if you don’t really feel particularly connected to any one place? One would suspect that children who grow up travelling the world such as the sons and daughters of diplomats would have tremendous problems identifying with one country in particular. However, contrary to people’s assumptions, these kids usually know exactly where they come from. When asked, they normally say that their home country is the one their parents are representing abroad.

Click here for Rona's photo gallery.

Originally from Nepal, my friend Akriti lived in India and China before moving to Berlin. She verified my theory that children who travel the world are often very sure of their national identity even if they can’t say exactly why. Upon asking her why she felt particularly connected to Nepal, she answered without hesitation. “My family’s there and because of the language...I don’t know, I just like it somehow,” she said.

Even though she feels that her roots are in Nepal, Akriti mentioned that she is very fond of Berlin and that compared to the other places she has lived in, Germany is better developed. She said that she liked the city mainly because she has made many new friends here and has learned new customs.

Another friend of mine, whose father works at the GTZ (a German development aid organisation), confirmed what Akriti told me. Despite having lived in Chile, the United States and Bangladesh before coming to Berlin, he feels most connected to Germany. The fact that his father is German and that Germany is the one country that he and his family kept returning to probably also lead him to consider it his home. “Germany is the one place we always came back to, no matter what,” he said.

Do the children of non-diplomats feel any different about growing up multiculturally? From personal experience, it is safe to say that they do. On one hand, having lived in Germany all my life has definitely acquainted me with German society. On the other hand, spending most of my time ensconced in the English speaking community in Berlin has put me slightly out of touch with German youth culture. But in Britain I feel a bit disconnected from other people too, because I have never actually lived there. Since I don’t really perceive myself as either British or German, I usually just tell people I am from Berlin.

But my good friend Oskar Levis has a slightly different opinion on growing up in different cultures despite starting at the Nelson Mandela School at about the same time and having a similar background as me.

Oskar is 15-years-old and was born and raised in Berlin; his father is American and lives in New York. Having spent most of his life in the German capital, he feels perfectly connected to the city and its inhabitants even though he’s half American.

He confided that he has an “automatic love of everything American” likely stemming from the fact he only lived in the United States for a very short time period. Oskar also admitted that when people ask him which of the two countries he likes better, he usually answers that he prefers the USA, even though he is equally fond of Germany. “I can be either totally German or totally American,” he said.

United in diversity

Our school in central Berlin is a state-sponsored international institution that teaches in both German and English. It unites children from all sorts of different backgrounds into one student body.

It stands to reason that such a diverse community comprised of children and teachers from different cultures makes it easier for people who don’t speak perfect German to fit in. But does such an international environment affect people’s motivation to learn German and their willingness to integrate into everyday life in Berlin?

Frank Aboagye, a teacher at the secondary school from Ghana, said his students can sometimes find it difficult to learn German at first. “The students should be encouraged to learn German, not forced,” he said.

Story continues below…

Upon asking Akriti from Nepal what her attitude to learning German was, she said her motivation to study the language wasn’t very high. She does hope to really improve her German someday though, since she reckons that it will increase her later career prospects. “I'm trying my best to learn German, but the grammar is just really hard sometimes,” she said.

But life in Berlin isn’t always straightforward even for kids who grow up bilingual like me and my friend Oskar.

He said it’s a lot harder for him to learn a third language, since he isn’t used to systematically studying grammar and vocabulary. “When everybody started learning English in 3rd grade, I was practically teaching the teacher,” he said. “Then, when I got into secondary school and they wanted me to learn Spanish I thought, 'they’ve got to be kidding me'.”

It’s the same situation for me with French. Fortunately the multicultural aspects of the Nelson Mandela School have taught us to be open-minded. Even when it comes to grammar.

Rona came to The Local for two weeks for her Schülerpraktikum, an internship most 9th grade pupils in Germany use to gain insight into a profession they find interesting.

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Rona Bird (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

15:31 March 26, 2010 by Gretl
I only get into my Northern European heritage when one of my co-workers talks about how American I am. Sure, I am American, and they can be, too. Afterall, I can go to Prague, Regensburg, Speyer, and even the ruined castle of Waldeck 5 km from my house and say, "See? We owned that. In fact, here's my ancestors' graves in the cathedral." Becoming an American is a matter of choice. German? Yeah I got some of that, as well as a lot of other European countries.
16:18 March 26, 2010 by Dinaricman
Grelt, why do you have to state Northern European heritage. I thought that there was one Europe. Do you feel that there is something wrong with southern and eastern Europeans?
20:34 March 26, 2010 by clarkina
I agree with Kommentarlos. I think its a very good piece,and

I wish her every success!
04:18 March 27, 2010 by parker7usa
Growing up like that though is totally awesome because you are exposed to so many cultures and customs most people have never even heard of. I was born and raised in Germany (Dinkelsbuehl, Bayern) but due to my parents divorcing have lived in the USA since 1975. I am considered "american" and unless I tell people about my background, they would never know. I refer to US as "us" and Germany as "them" and when someone asks me my hometown, I say the US town I grew up in, St. Louis, MO (have been living in Texas since 1999). But, deep down, I am and always will be a Dinkelsbuehler from Germany.
07:38 March 27, 2010 by wood artist
I enjoyed the article immensely, but the comments reveal something fundamentally flawed about most Americans.

If someone asks "where are you from" in the context of a ethnic background, it could be for two reasons.

The first, while somewhat impolite, might be to explain why your skin color or other physical feature is what it is. Their mental response would be "ah, so no wonder you have that olive complexion" or whatever. While I can understand that curiosity, it seems a bit impolite to me.

The second is more troublesome, because it seems to suggest that by identifying your ancestor's country of origin they feel they can place you and your opinions and lifestyles into some handy box on a chart. "Oh, you're German. Well, then that means you...."

My own background, or at least a portion of it, is Scottish. However, other then a love for the bagpipes and an appreciation for the highland country, I have no particular "Scottish" thought patterns or other inherent values. I'm actually much more in tune with Germany, for very complex reasons that aren't important, except to me. To learn of my background will tell you nothing about me beyond explaining why I might where a kilt to a formal affair.

Does being a generation removed from a former homeland make anyone "automatically" something? I doubt it. Unlike the writer, it's too bad the rest of us can't simply be citizens of the world, and enjoy every culture for the things it contributes to the whole, selecting those parts that we particularly like to include in our own makeup.
22:49 March 27, 2010 by grunwaldaaron
Rona, nice article.
12:43 March 28, 2010 by Cileni
Hi, I grew up in a Monoculture and only spoke my first foreign language at University. Doing internship abroad, I learn the world and I move on to get a job in Europe in science.Since then, I have worked/lived in 5 different countries and last year on my annual visit to my home contry I realized I was a totally stranger. I call myself now a 7-culture person. I no longer talk to people thinking they are Indian, american, european or japonese. For me they are world citizen like me - like I feel. In every country you have people in a spectrum of differences and you learn to live with this differences. For me is the same now. We are all in the same country within the same spectrum. This country is called earth and we all works to improve it a bit.
16:49 March 28, 2010 by Talonx
Dessa, I think you may have read a little more into the article than is actually writtena. I read it and understood that the primary point was that contrary to many peoples expectations, Multikulti kids get along just fine, especially in Germany. I don't have a long family history (mainly composed of immigrant populations not welcome elsewhere, e.g. Polish, Irish, German, French Hug., etc...), but in my experience most others that I know tend to know at least a bit about their origins, then again non of my ancestors family histories were stripped away by slavery. Regardless, I don't think it's fair to say that people aren't excepted in Germany, I would argue that people are more tolerant in Germany than in the U.S. They teach the past, thickly, and I would cite this as the reason why they are so tolerant.
14:30 March 30, 2010 by DoubleDTown
see confused Americans (that's people from the USA) talking about ethnicity and the 2010 census form here: http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2010/03/29/nr.census.race.cnn?hpt=Mid
17:27 April 1, 2010 by Biltong girl
I was born and raised in South Africa and unless you belong to one of the black tribes (Zulu, Xhosa etc) everyone knows for a fact that your ancestors stemmed from somewhere else. We find it rather interesting as opposed to impolite as often it can be quite a varied mix - my mother's family is Irish/British while my father's family is French/Dutch. Two of my three children were born in SA, but are being raised here, so it will be very interesting to see how they define themselves in 10 years time.

I think in general people who are raised in these multicultural environments are more open minded and accepting. Most Germans are first suprised that I'm not black and then amused when I explain my background- although I do have to answer (what I consider silly) questions such as 'Do you have hair stylists in Africa?' Its amazing that some people still don't realise there is a difference between South Africa and Africa. I must admit I was speechless though when I checked into hospital for my caesarian a few weeks ago, and a nurse actually put her arm next to mine and said 'but you look just like us?'
18:18 April 2, 2010 by leftySamurai
unlike many of you, I kind of see dessa's point. in terms of Multikulti, you can't really compare Germany to North America though. what I see in Germany is a battle between the Germans who claim and hope Germany is a multicultural society like in the US or Canada, and the Germans who just want to be left alone without dealing with anything foreign. in all fairness, we can't expect them to be anything like the Americans or Canadians, after all, Germany or any European country for that matter is not founded on immigration.

so if you assume average Germans to be even remotely multiculturally conscious and sensitive, then you'd be disappointed like dessa and myself.

what's troubling is that both lefty wing Germans and right wing Germans have absolutely no idea the reality for foreigners, they have very extreme understanding of Auslaender though. we are either criminals or hippie world citizens that they have to embrace, either way, kind of like circus animals. if you ain't German, you ain't "normal."

I am all for sovereignty and independence of every country, but I have a problem when the government and the politicians brainwash their countrymen and countrywomen that the country is something it is not. if the majority of the people don't want foreigners, the government should respect that, and make it clear to the world.

take a look at Japan, they keep foreigners away from the mainstream society, at least they are honest about it. visitors / temp workers are happy to visit there for eccentricity, and the Japanese are relatively happy for not feeling invaded.
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