I am German-American. Very proudly so as Kristy will attest. Of my grandparents 3/4 claim identified as German. 2 out of the 4 had German as their first language. The third it was a mixture of German and English at home. Even the fourth branch, which is predominantly English-Scottish-Irish, has a nice spot of German back in the days of colonization of Pennsylvania.
While I did not grow up speaking German, I was made acutely aware of my family’s heritage. In some cases I didn’t know it wasn’t normal. I say “gesundheit” more than “God bless you” and until I was in college, I thought EVERYONE’s Dad yelled “Kommen Sie HIER!” when he was royally ticked off and wanted to have a serious talk with you. I have family members who have made livings in polka bands. Things I found common were seen as foreign and strange to my new friends (consumption of sauerkraut and cabbage in all forms, tendency to sing “O Tannenbaum” instead of “O Christmas Tree”…) when my family moved to an area with a virtually non-existent German population from the very predominantly German Farm communities we’d always lived in before.
My surname, however, is a bit odd. Even I know that at first glance, it does not appear “German”. For reasons of not-wanting-to-be-stalked, I will not give you all of it, but I will tell you that it ends in -ian. More than once I’ve been asked if I was Armenian, as -ian is a common ending for Armenian surnames. But it’s not Armenian. My great Uncle has documents showing that part of the family came from Prussia. I’ll grant you, where they were living is now Poland, not Germany, but they spoke German, settled into very German communities, and obviously identified as German. From everything my great-uncle has gathered, the surname was mangled somewhere on entry to the United States–a not unfamiliar tale for immigrants. The first part of the surname actually seems very similar to the partcular region we know they hailed from. It also appears that at one point the name bore the “von” prefix–a sign of land ownership and nobility in Germany. But, like many a Schmidt became a Smith and a Mueller became a Miller in the hands of an Anglo clerk at the port, so too did my surname appear to suffer. Certainly I’d like to know what it really was before the mangling, but ultimately, my last name is incredibly unique, if you know it and you meet someone with the name you KNOW the are related to me. According to Kristy, I am not allowed to give up this name upon marriage because it’s just fun to SAY. For me, it’s German because that is the way my family has identified ourselves since long before I was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
And all that is just the branch from which the name comes. That doesn’t include the part of Grandpa’s family that were German noblemen, or literally the first German family in Texas, or the part that is a member of the most well documented non-royal family in Germany (or all of Europe for that matter). It also doesn’t include Grandma’s family, where I still have cousins living in the same town in Germany where my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents (and possibly much farther back) were born and raised. Or my mom’s mother who grew up eating pickled-everything and remembers her “Grosspapa” living behind the house, and whose family name is all over the painfully German Lutheran church in the tiny Texas town where she was born. If my mangled surname isn’t enough to satisfy a German, I’ve got a whole list of other names who share just as large a percentage in my DNA that are so undeniably German its ridiculous.
So, here I am in Budapest at an international conference, squeezed into an elevator that’s kind of like the UN. I’m jammed up next to a German (or perhaps he was Austrian, I didn’t really ask), trying very hard to keep my elbows pinned to my sides so as not to hit him. He looks at my name tag. “Did you know your name is Armenian?” I smiled and said, “I’ve been told that, but actually me whole family comes from Germany.” As I’ve said, this is old hat for me. I’ve been asked this by work colleagues, people I’ve just met and even random people messaging me on Facebook. He hrmphed me in a way that only a German man over the age of 45 can do, and said, “THAT is not a German name. That is Armenian.” The clear implication was that I was an little uneducated, unsophisticated waif who was either ignorant of or ashamed of my heritage and chose to refer to myself as German to cover my tracks and that in either case, he resented the fact that trash such as myself would sully his fair nationality.
And NOW I understand why people don’t like Germans. Outside of the obvious Word War II problem (which was the first Great German Disappointment), I have never understood negativity toward Germans. My experiences were always very, very positive. I’ve never, EVER had an encounter with a German like that. I’ve only ever been embraced by them. In the case of family it’s been the natural connection of shared blood, but even strangers have eagerly questioned about “Where in Germany your family comes from?” Never have I been written off like this, never. I’ve nothing at all against Armenians, I’ve met several who were exceedingly polite, if a little shy, but the grandfather from whom I get this name definitely didn’t grow up speaking Armenian in his family. I’ll grant you that there’s a high probability that at some point these folks were Polish, but Armenian is a leap beyond reason. Knowing all this, I DO NOT appreciate the disdainful look I received from this man as he took it upon himself to correct me on what I’ve known all my life, and to inform me that I was not of German descent.
But it’s all right. After informing me that my name wasn’t German, and hearing my response, with the same arrogant sniff he said, “But you are American.” As if to say “this is better than an Armenian, although not by much.” I know that there are plenty of Americans that give the lot of us a bad name, but I was polite, friendly, and had been very careful not to bump him as I got onto that crowded elevator, so my behavior was definitely above reproach, no matter what other Americans might behave like. But I didn’t rise to that tone. I smiled again and nodded. “Yes, I am.” What I meant was “Yes, I am you arrogant sonofabitch. I get all the fun of German beer-drinking, sausage eating heritage and none of the guilt of a genocide. I get to rock out to a polka, and maintain a sense of humor. I get to sing “Stille Nacht” and “Aber Heidschi Bum Beidschi” at Christmas….but I don’t have to pay a God Damn VAT. So SUCK IT.”
To be honest, I really should have stuck it to him with the honest response: “Oh, I’m not just an American. *I* am a Texan.” And turned up my nose. But I didn’t. Anyone ignorant enough to look down their schnoz at my surname doesn’t deserve to know the presence of Texas greatness by which they are being graced ;).
Because there’s a real reason my family left what was once Germany: We were just too God Damn awesome to waste our time there.
German Americans: Because the European Continent Wasn’t Zoned for This Much Coolness.