Life in the UK

When I was asked to contribute to this project, as someone has who lived in the former GDR, I wasn’t even sure whether I would fit the bill – clearly I don’t really see myself as someone who could testify to GDR and Eastern European history, but then how do I see and understand myself? I was born in Leipzig shortly before the fall of the wall into an almost exclusively Eastern German family of largely Eastern European descent, but my connection to the GDR and Eastern Europe has never been a lived one. I has always been shaped by other people’s memories, history books and mass media. These memories were mostly my mother’s, since most of my grandparents died before I was born or when I was still very little, and I don’t really have a deep connection with my father’s side of the family. To make this link even more tenuous, I should add that I grew up in Berlin, which I have always perceived as neither East nor West, with a stepdad from Peru, and my childhood memories are very much shaped by my family’s Latin American friends – their languages, foods, celebrations and customs. I guess for a long time my identity was something very chaotic and entangled, made up of all these various elements and more, grounded not in abstract categories, but in subjective memories and anecdotes as well as everyday experiences and embodied practices.

How did this change when I came to the UK in 2013? Coming here probably forced me to reflect on these questions of belonging more than I had to before – it very likely made me aware of the tangle of identities in the first place. No-one ever questioned my Germanness and whether or not I belonged where I was before, both because I owned a German passport and because I looked and spoke like what most people (wrongly) imagine a German to look and speak like. In the UK, my belonging was constantly questioned, often from the minute I opened my mouth to reveal an accent. Some say it is strong, whilst others insist, with a lot of conviction, that it is barely there which sometimes makes me wonder whether they see it as something that I should, ideally, strive to eradicate. While I find it annoying that the first question I often get when it speak to people is “where are you from?”, I generally believe that this reaction is often based in curiosity rather than maliciousness. I am also aware that I have so far been shielded from the much more violent reactions other migrants can get. All of this made me realise that I had probably taken belonging somewhere, or at least a certain kind of belonging, for too granted. At the same time, and maybe paradoxically, things became easier and more untangled when I came here, because the web of identities described above was replaced by simpler labels that came from the outside, such as “German” or “foreigner” or, more recently, “EU national”. The question of whether I am Eastern or Western German, or none of these, became less relevant for how people perceive me (and potentially for how I perceive myself).

Going back to my initial question, I must say that I probably still don’t know with certainty how I see myself and whether I should contribute to this project. After six years of living in the UK, I sometimes feel like I have reached a state where I belong neither here nor there, which I currently perceive as a positive thing (this might change after Brexit). I am very aware that this freedom to not choose a clear-cut identity – and to not be violently forced to choose one or have one chosen for you – has a lot to do with privilege, even though everyone should have this freedom. One thing I have definitely learned in my time here is so make no assumptions when I meet people and embrace the entanglements and the messiness at the root of most people's so-called identities.

Place stamp here

Created: 20 Jun 2019, 9:50 a.m.