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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I come from the land of no history

Sometimes, being the only American in the room can be a little, er, embarrassing. I find myself in that position quite often, especially in German class.

I've taken nearly five months of German classes since arriving in Berlin. Actually, I should call them integration courses, since that's the official name, and that's also the goal: integration. The German government wants to mold me and my fellow Auslanders (foreigners) into good Germans. So they require folks like me to take these courses in order to keep my residency permit. Mostly, the courses just focus on language, but they also sneak a bit of German culture, politics and history into the mix. Out of five different classes, each with 17 to 25 people, I've always been the lone American. As such, I've also been an object of curiosity in my classes.

Probably about 1/3 of my current classmates come from various parts of Africa, another third comes from Poland and other former Soviet-bloc countries, and the final third is a mix, with folks from China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Brazil. And then there's me: The Newbie. I call myself that because I've only been in Germany for less than a year; most of my classmates have been here for at least three years, some as many as 23 years (Yes, 23 years, and they're still taking German classes. Whether this speaks to their language-learning abilities or to the difficulty of the German language, I can't say). I also call myself the Newbie because I come from the U.S., which is not only part of the "New World," but which also is sort of new, or maybe young, in other ways, which were impressed upon me in class recently.

We were reading a sketch in which a middle-aged guy looked back on his life in Germany, and remembered when the Berlin Wall was built, remembered seeing Kennedy during his visit, remembered the Wall coming down, etc. That prompted my teacher to ask the class what historic events we had witnessed. Everyone had a story: The Africans of Civil War and strife, the Poles of the end of Communism, the Pakistani of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. As one student after another told his story, I scanned my memory for something, anything, that would compare. 9/11? It was dramatic, sure, but I was thousands of miles away when it happened. I compiled a mental list of other big events, and as I did so, I realized that while I had indeed experienced a lot of history, I had mostly done so from some distance, i.e., via the television.

I started panicking. What was I going to say? Should I be honest and tell them about the really important moments of American history that I had witnessed? The revelation on television about our former President, his intern and a cigar? The invention of the iPhone? Or something even more critical to world history: The final episode of Seinfeld? Or Lost? Or the Sopranos?

Damn it's embarrassing to be an American sometimes. Luckily, thanks to someone's narrative about suffering under the hands of Slobodan Milosevic's terror, the conversation changed to: Who was your country's worst despot. I relaxed a little bit as a picture of Dick Cheney, riding in his wheelchair all Dr. Strangelove-like at Obama's inauguration, popped into my head. Finally, I was up. I opened my mouth to speak, but the rest of the class answered for me: "Bush!"

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