Not one or the other, too German to be Turkish

As soon as I finish writing something else on the subject of nationality, and the strange fluidity between identities, one more thing seems to find its way onto my radar. The January 6 edition of Marketplace on NPR (and American Public Media) aired a story tonight on the reverse migration of Turks back to Turkey, after several generations have lived and worked in Germany since economic growth created worker shortages fifty years ago.

What was most intriguing to me, beyond the economic ramifications and readjustments for new reverse migrants, were the cultural chasms in their lives. Most of the people featured in the story were born and raised in Germany but with Turkish ethnicity, and so always remained foreign to a certain degree. But these adults embody some entirely German characteristics and will continue to have blended identities. This bit from the story says so much about the contradictions and combinations that arise when the "nationality" construct takes on multiple layers:

[Reporter] Stephen Beard: Ahmet Bahadiarli is driving around the pleasant suburb of Bahcesehir on the outskirts of Istanbul. Ahmet settled here when he arrived in Turkey more than a year ago, because it reminded him of Germany, the country where he was born.

Ahmet Bahadiarli: I was looking for the Germany in Istanbul or the Germany in Turkey. Bahcesehir is a planned suburb. I'm living in a gated community.

He likes his gated apartment complex not because he's worried about crime. It's because in unruly Istanbul, he craves German-style order -- prompting the question: Why did he leave Germany?

Bahadiarli: I never felt really comfortable in Germany. May I behave like a German, I think like a German, but I never feel like a German. I always feel myself as a foreigner.

Even his German friends, he says, were too ready to dismiss all Turks there as muggers or Muslim fanatics. But here in Istanbul he feels at home. And since he makes a living as a day trader and all he needs is a laptop and an Internet connection, he says the move has been fairly seamless. He thinks he'll stay.

As a construct that spreads itself far wider than a single country or ethnicity or linguistic group or even a continent, nationality is a strange thing indeed. We have this irresistible urge to categorize and organize our world into neat, little boxes. It is a universal compulsion, it seems, to think in non-inclusive terms. The consequences are cultural characters wholly caught between two homes.

There's always going to be a cultural clash, says business manager Yildiz Taylan. She left Turkey at the age of nine, and now is back from Germany at the age of 40 to find her roots.

Yildiz Taylan: I am very, very German, I have to admit it. The first step to finding myself and finding the culture, is to admit "OK, I'm too German to be Turkish anymore. I'm sorry, it's gone!"

A fluid sense of family: on adoption and the global diaspora of orphaned Chinese girls

It's become a family joke of sorts that I may someday have a family that looks rather like that of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's. That is, a multicultural bunch of kids, a collection of orphans that I've taken under my wing. Whether this becomes a reality will remain to be seen, but I most certainly feel strongly about adoption for my own life. And on this subject there's a large elephant in my own theoretical room, involving the largest single-gender diaspora in history: the international adoption of Chinese girls. We all know I have a minor interest and fascination with China and its people, and I would be lying to say it did not extend itself to the prospect of someday providing love and family for a daughter of China.

With a couple free weeks, I was able to breeze through Karin Evans's book on the larger historical phenomenon at play here, The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past. Evans, herself a mother of two Chinese daughters, spent years pondering the connections lost and found, birth mothers and families, the larger historical ramifications of so many girls leaving China and what their dual identity would mean for their own lives, their families, and the whole world as they grow (and have grown, in some cases) into adults.

Her questions, discussions, and stories resonated with me on many levels, as a woman, as a historian, as an American, as a global citizen, and as someone who feels strongly in favor of adoption. Some of the letters to her oldest daughter, written before she had ever seen her face, brought me to tears. "When we get together, you and I, I won't really know what you've been through--who carried you and gave birth to you, what she first whispered to you, how long she held on to you before having to make a deep, sad decision. I am certain the loss of you will linger with her all her days," she writes to Kelly. Evans does an incredibly poignant and thoughtful job imagining the lives and loss of the families that gave up each of her daughters, in response to the one-child policy, poverty, the persistent favoritism and preference towards having sons, and other cultural and social factors. Or, as one letter accompanying an abandoned infant said, due to "heavy pressures that are difficult to explain."

The most fundamental story from this historical narrative, however, lies with the daughters of China, the "lost" generation of girls. Many did not survive, victims of abortion--by choice or forced--and infanticide, and those who do make it to orphanages were illegally abandoned in public places, parents hoping their daughters would somehow make it to an orphanage and from there into a loving, providing family. Those who have miraculously survived have become parts of new families, some in China, some across the world, and a very large number of them in the United States. Their stories will be flooding into our lives before we know it, as they each face the enormity of the dichotomy they embody in their own, individual ways. How will they come to terms with their two nations, and how each one has treated them? (I can't wait to see and read.) One of the most important aspects--and difficult, perhaps, for adoptive parents--will be evaluating the entire process and potential value and damage both within transnational adoption. Taking a deeper look at the whole process and the lives affected, I understand it as no light undertaking, but rather a lifelong weight of work more complex than anyone can anticipate at the outset.

It again rose in my mind throughout the discussion of these girls and their futures that the notion of nationality can only go so far. Jennifer Jue-Steuck, a young woman adopted from Taiwan and a PhD candidate at UCA Berkeley as of 2008, described her complicated position and experience eloquently, as "floating down like a feather to an unmapped country between 'Chineseness' and 'Americanness.'" Nationality is once again called into question, as soon as you try to get at what it really means, and begin to determine what traits or characteristics render a person as having one specific tag. Return visits to China, by adopted children, yield questions. A bit of hypothetical conversation might go:

"Are you Chinese?"

"Nope, I'm American. But I was born in China."

"Then you're Chinese."

"I'm Chinese-American."

This is truly one of those times when the term is challenged most, and it enthralls me. What's more, in the cases of Chinese-born adopted daughters, it also challenges the entire notion of family, as does any international (and domestic, for that matter) adoption. Some of my longing to adopt comes from the desire to expand and learn more about the people of this world, and most of all to provide for a child, already born, who needs me. But after reading more about the complexities, I realize it is also because the fluidity of a family that is based on human love, rather than biology alone, stabs very deeply to the core of our very natural and instinctual selves. Evans quotes an essay by adoptive father Evan Eisenberg, who writes:

Adoption urges is toward a more fluid sense of family, a broader sense of community. . . . We move into a richer environment than the nuclear family can provide. Although modern adoption remains firmly within the nuclear orbit, it is inherently a part of this richer notion of child raising, this soup of relations that may be thicker, even, than blood.

The stronger dose of this kind of interpretation of family, the better, in this world. Evans also comes to a personal realization regarding genetic inheritance and its actual impact in our lives. While her daughters do not know their biological families' medical histories, they do exhibit interests and inclinations that, had they been biological children of theirs, would have been attributed to various family members.

When Kelly and Fanny turn out to love music, singing beautifully, taking up instruments, or dancing across the living room, it would be natural, were they our birth daughters, to credit the genetic contribution of Mark's grandfather the accordion player, say, or my mother the dancer. Yet the process of falling completely in love with these girls has changed whatever thinking I might have had about genetic inheritance. Whatever Kelly blossoms into is completely hers. What Fanny enjoys and brings to our family is all hers alone, too. We'll probably never know who their talents and inclinations come from or through, and it doesn't matter.

No matter our biological makeup or what nationality we fall under--in whatever complicated way-- a broader and more fluid notion of family garners love and acceptance. That is the message, loud and clear, in the stories wrapped up in Evans's book, exemplified through the lives of the adopted daughters, adoptive families, and a human drama occurring on an international stage. I absolutely believed this before, and am ever more reassured of it.

Although adoption regulations have increased in China (through a 2000s-version set of social and economic forces that you can read about elsewhere), there are still millions of children, born and unborn yet, who need homes, love, parents, siblings, grandparents. The country of origin does not matter to me; China happens to be the country with the most explosive conditions, and the largest of-yet studied group of orphans. What matters are the children, and there are several unborn children who will someday need a home, who will be waiting on the other end of a winding, red thread, for me to be their mother.

Another bit on American, African, and identity

I can't help myself, it's just too complex and juicy an issue. Right after I posted that last bit on nationality, in between cleaning a turkey and chopping up salt pork and tons of garlic, yet another discussion hit my radar on origins, culture, and what you most relate to. This time we're examining the African-American identity, in Malik Washington's writing titled "Embracing the Africa in African-American," part of Michael Martin's Tell Me More blog series on NPR.org. The bit that gets to the heart of this matter, and obviously resonates with what we've been discussing:

"Are you black Americans or white Americans?"

That was the question put to me and other African-Americans, in a junior high classroom in Accra, Ghana.

For some of the visitors, it was utterly offensive. For others, it was simply shocking. How could we, black people, be confused for white?

For me, it was utterly simple.

The question came as no surprise since so many African-Americans don’t see themselves as African. That, by default, just leaves them identified as just “American”. The very term “American”, after all, implies “white”. Everybody else gets a hyphen.

Many African-Americans, in fact, don’t know what to think of themselves.

African? American? Both? Or neither? “Black” seems to be an accepted hybrid term that falls short of claiming either entity yet still denotes exceptionalism in this society.

Nonetheless, this ambiguity isn’t entirely neutral, as black people generally seem prone to distance themselves more from Africa, than America – either consciously or sub-consciously.

This brings me back to thinking about the era not so long ago in American politics, when slavery was the thorn in the government's side, and politicians just did not know what an America with free whites and blacks living alongside each other would look like, or how it would function after such a system ended. One of the popular ideas was to send freedpeople "back to Africa," to a population that would theoretically understand or relate to them better. Obviously absurd to us now, what is most absurd is thinking that African-Americans who had been born and lived their entire lives in this country could possibly be considered not of this country. Certainly the African-American fused culture had taken on a life of its own by this point, creating a large minority of Americans whose customs and food ways and stories and religion had distinct African influences; that is what scared white politicians and many of their constituents.

But there is no returning to sender, no reversal of time when whole lives have been founded in new and divergent societies, and indeed, when new cultures are created from the fusion of others. This is another thing I have been trying to illustrate. Because someone's ancestors were not like ours, it is all the more important that we take time to understand cultural nuances that exist side by side in one singular, yet multicultural, society (and, incidentally, world).

Once the African-American identity had calcified, it could neither be ignored or removed. While some slaves had seen Africa, it was  a very low number by the time abolition became a seriously debated political issue, and even fewer African-Americans today would probably identify as precisely with the African continent as they did then. Yet they are not, do not consider themselves, that "white American" that was mentioned in Washington's musing. That nationality is distinct from white American, yet an immovable part of the larger national identity.

Turks in Germany, calling nationalilty into question again

It is a complicates issue, as I wrote recently, identifying oneself in the hyphenation-happy categorization rampant in within the notion of modern American nationality. But as has long been touted, this is not an all bad phenomenon. Yes, it puts people in oftentimes artificial categories, Chinese-Americans born here still caught awkwardly between a culture they have grown up in and the culture of their ancestors, which collide in their homes and schools and jobs. Japanese-Americans taking desperate measures in WWII to ensure to their neighbors that they, too, are Americans in this--and Arab-Americans who have spent the last decade being reminded of that 1940s episode. Hispanic Americans who today get stuck in the middle of an immigration battle and animosity towards an ever-larger Spanish speaking minority and the threat of linguistic heterogeneity.

Yet there is enough of a belief among Americans to have ensured that through everything, we have made ourselves more multicultural today, even if it surely provides plenty of demons for us to face in our public lives (battles over where to build a mosque, for instance, or absurdly, the President's ethnic origins).

The United States is not alone, for certain. Consider the xenophobia that just as often plagues European nations, like Germany's fifty-year troubled relationship with its Turkish immigrants, beginning with the Recruitment Treaty of 1961, when Turkish people moved to Germany as workers in building West Germany's "economic miracle"--its massive growth at this time. Many stayed, much to the chagrin of Germany nationals. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel came out and said recently that multiculturalism in Germany had "utterly failed." This clash of nationals against immigrants was the subject of a recent story on The World, where correspondent Matthew Brunwasser quotes a gentleman named Cerel, who says the problem at the core of the relationship today is that "Germans expect Turks in assimilate, not integrate. In other words, to be indistinguishable from Germans."

Says Cerel: "There was always xenophobia in Germany, but right now it's mainstream, it's uttered in a situation where Turks are so integrated as they have never been before. That's not a good sign." Turks have been deemed a scapegoat for German woes, but Turks are beginning to look back towards their native Turkey, as their homeland is booming, while Germany is not looking nearly as rosy. The economy of Turkey is expected to grow 7 percent this year, more than twice that of Germany's, according to the news story.

Yet Brunwasser goes on to say, such a tormented relationship has created the feeling among some Turks of being an outcast in both countries--being in one long enough to no longer identify as strongly with your native culture, but clearly still looking like a foreigner in your adopted land. This is a very nearly universal phenomenon in immigrant groups (indeed, very often even if you are relocating within your own country, but far enough removed from your cultural roots). What often happens as well, is that the citizens of the adopted country often know little about their immigrant populations' cultures and traditions for quite some time, engendering misunderstandings and racial prejudices based on stereotypes for far too long.

Brunwasser concludes: "The mono-ethnic countries of Europe don't have hyphenated identities, like America. You're either a German, or a foreigner. Though if today's demographic and economic trends continue, Germany, and Europe as a whole, could be forced to change."

I say with confidence, that line "could be forced to change" most surely hides the larger truth: will be forced to change. Or even, simply, (hopefully,) will change. The U.S. has its own immense multicultural shortcomings and the hyphenated nationality is arguably one of them; but I appreciate and value it compared to the alternative.


America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.