Do you remember sitting cross-legged in front of the television screen, watching Mr. Rogers button his cardigan and lace up his tennis shoes?
I do. With a cookie in-mouth and hair all curly, a million smiles a minute. It was Saturday morning to a T—made perfect with steaming pancakes crafted with Mom’s magical sourdough starter. After Mr. Roger’s moral lessons, I would saddle up to the dining room table and slurp up syrupy goodness.
There it was—a baldly American weekend morning as red-white-and-blue as they come. And yet, I enjoyed it all in a house once owned by high-ranking Nazi officers, next to the Bad Godesberg morning market, minutes from the Rhine.
My friends often tease me for being un-American—for being so profoundly German that my grandfather actually owned a signed copy of Mein Kampf. And yes, I am that—as I remember delicious breakfasts of brötchen and jam, German cousins trailing behind me as we ran through vineyards in wine country, and sipping glüwein while watching my breath crease the cold in the middle of a murmuring Christkindlmarkt.
These are cherished treasures from a unique childhood. But there are others that shape me: wandering Fairfax malls with friends when I was in middle school, rifling through video games at Costco while my mother shopped for more important things, taking my prom date to Denny’s before an awkward series of poses and dances.
So what makes me American? What makes me German? It’s somehow a confluence of both that shapes me, with no clear divisions and no nationalities that come to the fore. I yearn to be back in Germany, that is true—I feel a certain fundamental connection to the country and its people. But I am equally at home here.
Often, people ask me where I’m from. Usually I tell them I was born and raised in Germany so … that makes me German. Right? I say it because it’s sensationalistic. It grabs people’s attention, and it makes me interesting. But having spent 18 years in the United States—and always an American citizen—I am a son of this country. Still, the borders and affiliations that concur with nationalism just don’t draw me in. They don’t fit me, nor I them.
That, perhaps, makes me more a resident of the world than anything else. I relate to people, not citizens. I grew up knowing, befriending, and loving Koreans, Chinese, Thai, Italians, Germans, Brits, Sri Lankans, citizens of UAE, and a hundred other children. We were just … children. Friends. Companions. And until I grew older, I didn’t really think of myself as American. I was just Jeff.
I will probably still tell people I’m from Germany—if only because it’s the first country I knew, and it’s the home of my childhood. But I will always carry fond memories of Mr. Rogers. Of Saturday morning cartoons. Of catching leaves in fall. Of lingering around 7-Eleven and roller-blading through parks after midnight. Of a million other quintessentially American things, that to me, are just things—pieces of a rich childhood, framed and fostered by my parents. They are the things—German or American—that make me, well, me.
Speaking of which, who wants to go to the mall?