Cultural scene

“I’m both” – The Book zweiheimisch shows Perspectives in Dealing with Two Cultural Backgrounds

Cover zweiheimisch; Copyright: edition Körber-Stiftung

Germany sees itself as an immigration country: 15.3 million people with an immigrant background live here. Many of them have grown up with two cultures, moving around self-confidently with and within them. What we can learn from young people who feel "zweiheimisch" (i.e. having two homes) is described in 12 portraits in a book of the same name.

In view of the 15.3 million people in Germany with an “immigrant background” this book really ought not to be necessary. Even with lives of such variety it still ought to be completely normal for immigrants to live in German society and how they live. However that isn’t the case, says Cornelia Spohn, biographical researcher and National Director of the Verband binationaler Familien und Partnerschaften e.V (i.e. Association of Families and Partnerships with Dual Nationality). Rather, she sees a paradox: although these people fight for their place in our society, it is a shameful fact how difficult we make it for them. That is why Spohn has initiated and published the book zweiheimisch. Bikulturell leben in Deutschland (i.e. “having and feeling like having two homes”. How to live with dual nationality in Germany). Her intention is to emphasise the positive aspects of immigrant society through the life stories collected here, as there are enough negative ones. For example, according to Spohn in her introduction, the typical prejudice maintained by many Germans is still prevalent, namely that most children of immigrants come from socially disadvantaged parental homes in any case and can hardly speak German. From there it’s not far to the standard viewpoint that integration has failed because most immigrants only live in their own world, in other words, in the often cited “parallel societies”.
Those portrayed – immigrant children of Turkish-Christian, half-Cuban, half-Iranian, Montenegrin-Muslim, Vietnamese, Kurd, half-Italian, Kazak, half-Ghanaian and Tunisian origin aged from 17 to 32 – do everything in their power to disprove these prejudices. They are very open with their discussion partners which may also be because the three journalists chosen for the project also have immigrant backgrounds.

The fact of "being different" as a chance

All 12 portrayed certainly do not have easy family, social and political backgrounds. But what they all have in common is an early recognition of the fact that they are different from others and hence that they have to react in some kind of way instead of resigning themselves to being victimised. All show a basic ambition in school and professional life, and often also in private things – for example, when they have to play translator or teacher for their parents or when they experience a structural disadvantage in everyday life through their parents’ lack of knowledge of German and poor chances on the job market or even unemployment, which at the same time constitutes a further burden. Almost all of them mention that their relationship to their parents is difficult in this respect: “However much they love me – in many things they cannot offer me support; it’s I who supports them,” 17-year-old Mehmet puts it. Mehmet did his schoolwork completely independently right up to being accepted for a Gymnasium (i.e. secondary school geared to university entrance) where he jumped a year straightaway. Along with this, he took on the task of Streitschlichter (i.e. mediator in quarrels) at his school and through this position as a mediator became a trustworthy partner to whom both fellow pupils and teachers could talk. For this social commitment, along with his extraordinarily high achievement at school, he received a pupil’s grant of 100 euros per month from the Hertie Foundation. Naturally this goes straight into the family income which, apart from that, only consists of unemployment benefit and child allowance.

Disadvantaged? In a socially weak position? That’s not how Mehmet sees himself. It’s true he strongly criticises “all the things politicians say” about integration because he is convinced that integration has much more to do with the search for one’s own way of combining one’s two poles with one another than with gaining German nationality. But he also demands greater efforts at integration on the part of his own countrymen and women: “It’s precisely many of these young Turkish people who are always talking about not being welcome here and about being discriminated against by Germans. And then they take this as a excuse to close themselves off and barricade themselves in their own ghetto. This society offers a wide choice of possibilities to make something of oneself.”

„Strengthening self-confidence and educational opportunities

Editor Cornelia Spohn; Photo/Copyright: Nadine Bracht It wasn’t as easy for others being "zweiheimisch" as it was for Mehmet who learned at an early age to be both a self-confident German and a Kurdic Turk. The 32-year-old half-Italian Thomas for instance went through a relatively long phase of defiance when he discovered he was “different” in which he downright rejected everything about himself that was Italian. 40 years after the guest worker agreement between Italy and Germany he draws the following balance: “Most people in Germany think the Italians here are completely integrated, but the statistics prove otherwise: of Italian school children the proportion attending special schools at a national level is alarmingly high, higher for example than young people of Turkish origin. On the other hand, the proportion of those who are Gymnasiasten (i.e. those at secondary school geared to university entrance) is surprisingly low”. Thomas thinks this partially stems from the fact that the first Italians in Germany mainly concentrated on working so that they could return to their home country as soon as possible and thus never learned how to stand up for their own interests in public. On the other hand, Germany saw the first working immigrants as guests and never made them any offers of help and support. Probably that’s why Thomas is trying to do his part to contribute to a better future for immigrant children: he is a member of the academic staff of the University of Cologne responsible for educational support.

„Only the acceptance in a plural society is still lacking

Youth is a difficult time in any case and one in which one is very sensitive of the image one gives to others of oneself and in which one puts one’s own identity together from various experiences, encounters and social achievements. The way in which the young people in this book – in addition to having to grow up – also tripped over the fact that they were culturally different but, instead of falling, finally carried on with a doubly strengthened self-confidence is impressive. That they see the hindrances in their lives as opportunities shows that here a generation is growing up which has unsuspected development possibilities to offer to society. These young people “show through their presence in everyday family, school and professional life that they are enormously competent in running their own lives and have the resources at their disposal through which to contribute to a new social reality within a modern, pluralistic society,” explains the psychologist Tarek Badawia in the epilogue. – If society allows them: the supposed “real” Germans have to learn that it is not a question of “either/or” or of “we here – you there”. If these young people don’t feel torn apart, why should society itself?

Cornelia Spohn (Editor): zweiheimisch. Bikulturell leben in Deutschland. edition Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg 2006. ISBN No.: 978-3-89684-063-9.

Kerstin Fritzsche
is a member of the Online Editorial Staff.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Translation: Moira Davidson-Seger

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
December 2006

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