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

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At home in Berlin, but going to school with the world
Left to right; Rona Bird, Oskar Levis and Akriti Paudyal. Photo: Rona Bird
14:41 CET+01:00
What's it like growing up multiculturally in Germany? As part of her two-week internship at The Local, 14-year-old Rona Bird describes how it is for her and fellow students at Berlin's international Nelson Mandela School.

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.

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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