Being the child of immigrants can complicate your sense of place and identity. Zainab Ali explores her identity in relation to the places she has lived and where her roots lie.
In Germany, there are shops that are called “Lotto Toto Laden” which are basically lottery retailers that also sell newspapers, magazines, sweets, and tobacco. One day, I was hanging out with a friend and we went there to get some sweets.
The minute we walked through the door, a customer’s dog started barking at me and I flinched.
The customer, a German white guy, smirked and said, “Yeah, my dog doesn’t like Turks!” My German friend, trying to defend me, shouted, “She’s not a Turk!”
We were around 11 years old.
Facing Racism as the Child of Immigrants
That was only one of the racist experiences I had to endure growing up in Germany. My parents are from Iraq, so I don’t look stereotypically German.
Countless times I was asked, “Where are you really from?” or complimented on how well I spoke German. It seemed so paradoxical. Even though I was born there, and my first language was German, it wasn’t enough to be seen as German.
At the same time, my parents tried to instil love for their country of origin in me.
Up to this day, I’ve only been to Iraq once as a baby. I love Iraqi food and belly dancing; hearing Iraqi Arabic spoken awakens a homely feeling in me.
But the harder they tried, the less I felt inclined to connect with their home country.
Growing up in Germany, you pick up that being proud of your country of origin is a bad thing. Isn’t this how nationalism starts? Isn’t this what Nazi Germany thrived on?
The harder my parents tried, the more I resisted because it felt so wrong.
I don’t see myself as Iraqi. But I’ve never felt German either.
Feeling that sense of not belonging made me want to explore other places since I was little.
The German Case of National Identity
Developing a sense of belonging is one of the challenges for immigrants. Where majority populations place high value on criteria that are attainable to define nationhood — like learning the local language and respecting the country’s laws — 1st and 2nd generation immigrants’ national belonging tends to be greater (according to Kristina Bakkaer Simonsen).
And Germany, specifically, still has a lot of work to do in terms of how it defines its national identity.
In the past, the view was that immigrants had to change themselves to assimilate to the host’s cultural framework.
But if culture is defined by a common heritage and understanding of history, how would that be possible?
Germany has to redefine its own nationhood if it wants to become more inviting. The change from exclusive elements to inclusive elements in defining national identity will also change attitudes towards immigration in the host country, as Clara Sandelind points out here.
I have four brothers who at least seem better assimilated to both my parents’ and to Germany’s cultures. They don’t feel the same sense of not belonging.
But they didn’t have to grapple with how conservative Muslim culture can be when it comes to gender equality or sexual preference.
When they face racism, they turn to Arab or Muslim culture and value their roots and family.
When the sense of community of our parents’ culture gets overbearing, they can turn to German individualism.
It made more sense for them to amalgamate both cultures into a third culture. Both cultures supported a patriarchal order that allowed them to thrive as men.
But I was constantly fighting against misogyny in both cultures.
Leaving to Find a National Identity
When I left Germany, I was working as a full-time mathematician and owned a flat in Frankfurt. I was successfully contributing to the economy and lived a privileged life.
I made new friends, danced Salsa, and did some improvisational acting on the side. My life was busy.
All the distraction and financial success wasn’t buying me happiness though.
As a kid, I had always wanted to explore other cultures and countries, perhaps to fill that lacking sense of belonging I felt.
I rekindled a relationship with my childhood friend who had the same background: she was German with Iraqi roots.
She had travelled, lived in New York and London, and she was dating an Australian man. She encouraged me to go and turned my childhood dream into a burning fire. I had to leave.
Australia seemed comparably safe to travel to as a single woman and still different enough in terms of landscape and nature. So I decided to venture from Germany.
The days that led up to my departure were hard. I questioned everything. I quit work, packed everything up, and was leaving by myself.
An actor friend said to me, “Just try and go. You can always come back!”
And that has been my motto since. Just try and go, there’s always a way back.
Adjusting to a New Identity in Australia
Sydney was beautiful. But that wasn’t the only pleasant surprise.
The lady at reception in my hostel was German. How familiar!
Walking around vibrant King’s Cross, birds, sunshine, and familiar voices welcomed me.
There were so many German words around me! It felt like I hadn’t even left the country. It only took a few hours abroad to know that this was right for me.
A few weeks in, I met two German girls who were 10 years younger than me. They were on a gap year between school and university. We spoke the same language and shared a common culture.
They treated me like a German, and other travellers I met saw me as German.
My looks didn’t matter anymore. No one asked where I was really from.
I liked it and I was giving ‘being German’ a go.
Witnessing Racism From Another Perspective
We started working on a mushroom farm, where a lot of Indian women worked as well.
At lunch time, we used to sit at a table in the break room and ate our sandwiches quietly. The air was filled with Indian chatter and spices.
All of a sudden, one of the German girls said, “I can’t smell their food anymore. It’s turning my tummy!” It shocked me out of my daze.
The racism I had faced all my life attacked me from behind.
I was accepted by these German girls because we had so many things in common. Travelling away from Germany emphasized how close we actually were.
But experiencing how their racism turned against others made me flinch like the child I was when the dog barked at me.
If that’s what it was like to be German, I just couldn’t be German, could I?
Searching for Home Abroad
I stayed in Australia for 10 months, but then I couldn’t go back to Germany and everything I connected with it.
Work opportunities came up in London: a big, international city. It was hard to fall in love with the place initially because of how grey and hectic it was, and it forced me back into a routine I had left in Germany.
When I started to feel at home in London, it wasn’t so much adaptation of a national identity that led to it. I felt like a Londoner because London is a melting pot of cultures and religions.
People, like me, from all around the world moved to London searching for something else.
A lot of my friends were European with a non-European background. They also wanted to escape racism and prejudice.
And the Brits that I became friends with were usually 2nd generation immigrants.
In fact, it was much harder to connect with white Brits because they just weren’t as available or they disqualified themselves with anti-Muslim remarks.
Racism crossed borders.
With enough effort, I might have been able to build the right kind of diverse community in Germany. But it seemed easier abroad, starting over with new people in a new place.
I had to leave my comfort zone to find my own truth: It’s easier to identify the right people when you move to a place that attracts them. The likelihood of meeting someone in London who shares a cosmopolitan outlook is that much higher.
Racial Issues in London
My new colleagues were a mix of Brits and other people who had moved to London for opportunities and change. But one particular colleague had no interest in talking to me at first.
She is a mixed-raced Brit and her perception was that Germans were racist, so she didn’t want to approach me.
Even though it surprised me, I could relate to her fear. If I saw skinheads in East Germany, I’d cross the street and make myself invisible.
This wasn’t the only time that Brits connected me to Germany’s Nazi past. Another colleague accused me of ‘German arrogance’ when we watched England lose a football game and I made fun of their lack of success in tournaments.
It seemed utterly absurd to me, but I realised that people will see whatever they want to see, or that they’re scared of.
I learned that division is a choice that we carry within us.
Connecting With Home While Abroad
Moving to London also started to open the doors to explore my parents’ roots.
I started belly dancing. I met Arabs there. I lived around Edgware Road for a while and it gave me a different perspective on what being Arab could look like.
I found that I connected more with younger Arabs. And it showed me that being Arab didn’t pre-empt one particular relationship with religion. There was a variety to be discovered as well.
While connecting with my Iraqi roots, I utilised my German skills at work.
Usually, I dealt with German markets, communicating by phone and online every day. The relationships I built were very friendly. On the phone, it seemed easier to establish the initial connection. If you were able to follow up with thorough work and good results, you were treated like a normal human being.
Back in Germany, I often didn’t get as far because my looks were in the way.
Over the phone, I barely struggled. When I lived in Frankfurt, a lot of people told me I spoke German like a news reporter. Germans struggled with placing my German.
In London, all of a sudden, the question “Where are you from?” took a different meaning.
It meant, “Where in Germany are you from?”
I temporarily live in the US now. Here people find my mix of British and German accent hard to place. Interestingly, some of them even think I’m some sort of English native speaker.
I love that people say they can detect some Australian when I tell them that I spent time over there as well.
The thought that every place I’ve ever lived in is part of my accent is beautiful to me.
Feeling at Home in the World
Some might think me to be rootless, but I have a history. I make that history every day.
I’m about to move back to the UK because I miss the culturally uprooted diversity that I’ve only found there.
I haven’t ever regretted keeping on the move. It’s taught me to listen to my internal voice and intuition.
The more the outside world changes, the better my vocabulary gets for defining my inner self and the transformations it undergoes.
The thought of being part of any one country is totally paradoxical to me.
Where we’re born is random.
I made the choice to birth my daughter in the US, her father’s country of birth. She is about to spend her formative years in the UK. I speak German with her, so she grows up bilingual.
She will be the Third Culture Kid (TCK) talked about in research around the world.
Statistics show that Third Culture Kids are four times as likely as non-TCKs to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Research has also shown that TCKs are more tolerant of different cultures and people of different backgrounds.
My sense of not belonging fuelled my desire to discover the world. I wonder what her sense of belonging might be and how it might evolve over time.
I found that home is where my people are. And they usually don’t define their identities through belonging to a nation.
The group that is my people is growing bigger day by day thanks to travel and immigration. Even Brexit won’t ever be able to change that.