When it comes to etiquette, there are universally accepted forms of behavior--saying thank you, please, bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner party--but then there are lots of American faux pas that seem to really bother Germans.
For example, don't let one of your hands end up under the table on your lap while eating; when passing seated viewers at the movies or in the theatre, don't turn your back to them rather face them while squeezing by (I always find this awkward but have adapted) and then there is this one, committed by no one other than our new president: a man putting his hand in his pocket. The caption under the photo reads "Laid back or disrespectful?"
The author of the Die Zeit article (Germany's highbrow weekly newspaper)is disappointed by the otherwise "gentleman like Obama". But it appears other heads of state have made the same blunder: Sarkozy, Berlusconi (which could also be perceived as "I'm the big man in charge here" says the author.
Go figure. And I can't seem to stop complaining about the Germans' lack of manners. Listen to me here on NPR Worldwide giving my own critique of the Germans and their, ahem, bad manners.
Photo: Die Zeit, Nr. 6 29.1.2008
I'm trying to imagine what was going through Ervin Lupoe's head as he wrote a suicide note, as well as a final explanation as to why he considered it best to kill his five children. I try to think about the Human Resources people at Kaiser Permanente, who fired not only Ervin, but his wife Ana Elizabeth, in this economy. I'm trying to get into the heads of a couple who agreed to kill the children they made together: an eight year-old, twin five year-olds and twin two year-olds. I'm shuffling the information that led to Ervin's desperation: both parents unemployed, five children, a pile of debt.
Then I read another headline: Wall Street executives were paid $18.4 billion in bonuses in 2008; the year of the bailout, which was supposed to save the jobs of millions of Americans. The bailout that would allow banks to lend to each other and create credit and make the world a better snuggly place. I'm thinking of the 60,000 lost jobs yesterday and I'm starting to feel like I was, as the Germans say, verarscht, or hood winked.
We have enough Marie Antoinettes but where are the angels? (Obama is but one man)
If you have a story/anecdote about an angel, a real life do-gooder or just an uplifting account of someone helping out his fellow brother or sister, please leave a comment and spread the good word!
The peroxide-blond, Polish journalist in my German class couldn't believe that she and I shared a profession. We went around in a circle and introduced ourselves and when I said that I was a journalist she twitched and smiled nervously, "I, me, ah, too journalist." My German was also better than hers.
After every person in the class introduced herself the Polish woman asked me again, "You are journalist?"
"Yes," I said, noticing her quivering pink frosted lips.
"You study in America to become journalist?"
"You have opportunity to go from, eh, ghetto to university?"
OK, so let me start off by mentioning that this happened eight years ago, when Berlin didn't have as many black people walking around. But back then, I'd had too many Bush Girl moments to take this with any degree of patience. My neck began to curl around and I was trying to think of the best way to give her a taste of her own clicheed medicine, in German, without being too crass. I was, naturally, the only student of color in the room. Even the Spaniards were blond.
"Pardon me," I said. "While you were still waiting in long lines for bread, I was using a computer."
My comment sent a silent chill across the room and thus began a cold war between me and my colleague.
Now, between you and me, that childhood computer was the first Macintosh that is nothing more today (or even eight years ago)than a hunk of outdated junk. Apple is celebrating 25 years of the first Macintosh and, of course, when I learned of the anniversary, I had to think back to my Polish journalist friend.
I can't help but feel a little nostalgic.
I'm not going to lie, yesterday I was feeling sorry for myself because I was neither in Washington DC, dancing at the Haitians for Obama Inauguration Ball nor was I at an inauguration party here in Berlin, my children were too sick to leave with a babysitter.
But when I looked over at my boys, cheering on cue and chanting O-ba-ma! with fervor, I realized I'd been feeling sorry for the wrong person. If last night belonged to anyone, it was my children. They don't yet know that Obama is the first black/bi-racial/African-American (take your pick) to be elected president. I want them to learn first what is possible and not what was once impossible. When they are old enough to learn about The Civil Rights Movement, they will remember last night, the first time they were allowed to watch television, the first time they were allowed to eat their dinner in the living room. They'll remember that Mama and Papa were cheering and were told that "this is special, this is important."
When I considered how privileged my kids are, to learn history in this order, I started to feel better. I toasted with my husband who had come home early with a bottle of champagne, Bionade (organic spritzer) for the kids and a pizza, and I happily answered the questions being shouted during the inauguration:
"No, Obama doesn't have the Chicken Pox, that's just a mole." "No, the canons won't shoot anyone, there are blanks in there." "Yes, Obama probably went pee pee before he came out."
So perhaps that's why I noticed some other things about the inauguration that others maybe overlooked for more adult observations:
That Obama thanked the wait staff at his inaugural lunch
That Michelle kissed the military emcee before they got in the limo
That Sasha and Malia were so well-behaved and poised (my eldest son noticed that, too)
That John King on CNN couldn't stop playing with his computer screen
That the BBC anchors kept inadvertently crediting the UK for America's knowledge of pomp and circumstance
That the Secret Service walking with "The Beast" were segregated! (two white ones on the right and two black ones on the left)
That Michelle was about to get down when her high school band marched by
That the teenage girls from a high school in D.C. shook their groove thangs a bit too hard for the president, who seemed reluctant to smile at them
That normal people are going to be occupying the white house
That George W. Bush, like most of us, seemed relieved to be getting on the helicopter
Photo:Alex Brandon,AP, flickr
One of the dangers of growing up with soundbites and fast clips is that we lose the entirety of what makes something great. We rely on re-hashed sentences and goose bump-inducing phrases that ultimately stand out because of the (often unseen) words that come before and after them.
Today, despite having sick children at home, I devoted some time to reading three speeches, in their entirety, by Martin Luther King, Jr. Not surprisingly, I still came away thinking about the known phrases that are often heard and printed on this day. But having read the the full thoughts in which these phrases were embedded, I can't help but feel a bit wiser and even more grateful to this stunningly gifted visionary.
"Democracy is the greatest form of government to my mind that man has ever conceived, but the weakness is that we have never touched it. Isn't it true that we have often taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes? Isn't it true that we have often in our democracy trampled over individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression? . . ."
"Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments."
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial, "outside agitator" idea."
"These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions but we must all protest."
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Photos: Martin Luther King, Jr., George W. Bush,Solidarity, Monks Protesting in Burma ,Barack Obama
A year ago I took a part-time job that barely paid anything once I deducted babysitting expenses, but it was an opportunity to work with a population I often write about: German kids with an immigrant background.
Funded through the state’s equivalent of a community college, I was supposed to teach mostly Turkish and Arab-German teenagers English. It was something of a mission impossible since many of them didn’t speak or write proper German. They were Germany’s evening news cliché of immigrant kids from around the way: their parents spoke little or no German, they were poor and living off the state and wary of Germans.
When the plump white German director introduced me, they seemed relieved. Some greeted me with a smile and a warm “A-salam Alakum.” One girl asked, “You’re the new English teacher? Cool.” They were interested in tales of New York City, the real meaning in hip hop lyrics and everything Obama.
“He’s a Muslim, right?” They asked for confirmation. When I pointed out that he was a practicing Christian, they mentioned his "contentious" middle name and said with confidence, “He surely has a little Muslim in him!”
Before we made a round of introductions, I held up pictures of people I assumed they could identify. Rhianna: “Umbrella girl.” Fifty Cent: “Come on, that’s easy.” Obama: “Who doesn’t know who that is!” Özcan Mutlu: Blank stares and a few inaudible murmurs. They couldn’t recognize a Turkish, Berlin politician but they believed that Obama’s success, at least symbolically, could change their status even here in Germany.
After the course ended I kept in touch with a diligent student who consistently came to every single class(she might end up a politician herself one day). She sent an email to “wish the best” before the election. Then a congratulatory email after Obama won.
When I saw her address in my inbox the other day, I assumed she wanted to relay another congrats or a yahoo before the inauguration. But when I opened the email, I saw pictures of dead Palestinian children, their brains lying next to their opened skulls, pools of blood surrounding them like auras. “Who are the terrorists?” she questioned in the email. Then she asked, “Why isn’t Obama doing something about this?”
For the first time since becoming her teacher, I couldn’t begin to answer her question.
he decided to shag a black Russian model in a closet (while Barbara was pregnant with their second child!) and impregnated the model! At first he denied the child was his, but the resemblance in the photos released in the press was beyond comical, it looked like he'd spit the kid out.
He also dated a black German rapper, Sabine and then Lily, a half black Dutch woman. After a three-year relationship with Lily , he dated the first white woman I have ever seen in Boris Becker's vicinity, Sandy,(his manager's daughter) and got engaged to her in a hot messy minute. They allegedly broke up last month via a cell phone text message. Classy.
Believe me, I think people should date anyone they like, absolutely. And lots of men have types, so I don't logically have reason to have beef with Boris. (although I was personally suspect about dating German men who EXCLUSIVELY dated black women).
It could simply be that Boris Becker irks me so much because he's a womanizer. AND, I have no respect for a man who cheats on his pregnant wife, that's just low, regardless of race. But it resonated deeper with me since Boris' marriage to Barbara was a confirmation that he seriously loved a black woman. When he cheated on her then dated a slew of other black women after her, it seemed like a cheap fetish.
Yet the white fiancee is history and he's back with Lily, he calls her his best friend. Well, all I can say to that is "Boris treat her like a friend, not like a cheap trick."
When a boy asked my son, “Why is your mama brown?” I felt my heart sink. It wasn’t because I felt bad for my son that his mother looks different but that it became an issue, one that my son up until that point hadn’t noticed. It made me think back to the time an American girl asked me why my mother called me, “Wozann?” That girl made a very normal, unconscious part of my life an issue and I didn’t have the language back then to communicate that was simply how my Haitian mother spoke.
The expat experience is always romanticized as being adventurous, eye-opening and thrilling because it’s a chance to re-invent one's self. Having no history in a place allows for mystery and fresh starts.
But having no history, your own people, your own language and your traditions when you’re trying to raise a child, can be downright alienating. There is nothing that makes me feel more out of place than not being able to sing along during children’s musical events, not knowing the plot of “an old favorite” or not getting some social references because I simply didn’t grow up with Germans who are now parents. (I could get used to being the only black person around much faster than not being able to participate because of a cultural gap).
So, for you ex-pat parents, I’ve made a short list of some of the things that have saved me along the way. Some of these issues pertain to race, because I’ve got the double challenge of raising bi-racial children abroad. If you’re an ex-pat parent, I'd love to hear some of your survival tactics:
--Take a music class with your toddler: You learn the culture’s classical nursery rhymes and get to know parents from that culture. THEN order all the nursery rhyme books and CDs from your culture so that you can sing yours too. (also key for language acquisition) I was shocked by how much of the text I’d forgotten to typical American nursery rhymes like, I'm a Little Teapot. For the Haitian songs, I wrote them down phonetically so that I could remember them that way.
--Read to your child in your language: This may seem like a no-brainer but I realize my kids speak English as well as they do because of our huge library of English books. I noticed in families where the kids don’t speak the less dominate language as well, there are a lack of that language’s books in the house. It’s all about Amazon!
--Don’t, ever, ever speak to your child in any language but your own. My husband speaks to our kids in German and I do in English, always. Language experts have proven that this is the most effective way of raising truly bi-lingual children. Even though people stare at us at the playground, I always speak to my kids in English. My kids answered me in German for a while, but I never faltered and now my kids know to only answer and speak to me in English, otherwise they don't get a response.
--Race is not an issue before kids are about three years old, so don’t make it one. (Don't believe me? Show your two year-old a picture of a person who is not your race and ask "Who is that?" Don't be surprised if he says, "Mama.") Kids eventually figure out on their own that their parents are different colors. With my children it happened around three. They realized on their own that Obama looks like them, or that other black people (not that they see so many of them when we're not visiting my family or reading books--and make sure there are books where characters look like both of their parents, even if they don't notice it yet) look like their Mama. I let the reality that my husband and I look different become questions and observations my kids come to on their own. If you start explaining before they start asking then they get the idea that their life isn’t normal.
--Try to find other people from your culture or your culture’s language: Unfortunately, this might mean hanging out with people you might not have a lot in common with. As all of you ex-pats know, a shared nationality does not a friendship make. If you’re American, this could mean befriending some Brits or Canadians or South Africans. Francophones also hail from many countries and sometimes speaking your own language on a regular basis is enough to make you feel a little less foreign.
Ok, I could go on, but I realize the longer the posts, the fewer the readers. Maybe this will be a series.
Peace and happy parenting.
Illustration: Frané Lessac, We Are All Born Free, Amnesty International
We’ve had arctic temperatures in Germany this past week and when I step outside, I am literally in pain. It feels like sharp icicles are piercing my bone marrow. Even wearing three sweaters, long underwear and thermal gloves, my teeth begin to chatter after barely a minute outside.
My youngest child, on the other hand, hates wearing gloves, no matter how cold. Ok, maybe just a weird kid thing, I suppose. But then I see my German neighbors take mile-long walks in below freezing temperatures! "Frische Luft!" they say grinning, fresh air.
I remember once when my German mother-in-law--who wears a trench coat in weather like this-- tried to convince my Haitian mother to go out on a walk to get some of this fresh air and my mother looked at her like she was crazy and said, "No, uh uh, that's cold air."
I watch from my window in utter fascination when I see the neighbors pack their skis in their car and say they’re going on vacation. My husband knows not to even try and suggest something like a ski trip. For me, a holiday translates into a sparkling ocean, a radiant sun, bare feet in sand and, preferably, buildings painted warm colors like yellow and peach.
But here is the thing. I can’t STAND IT when it gets hot in the summer and Germans, very frequently, ask me, “But you must be used to this weather, right?” It’s one of my pet peeves because I always find the comment so ignorant, especially when they know I grew up on the East and not the Ivory Coast. Why should I be able to tolerate 39 degree Celsius (100 odd degrees Fahrenheit) better than a white European? Do they not see the sweat pouring down my face?
I mean I certainly hear Germans complain about the cold. Ok, so maybe they’re not wincing and howling the way I am. Still, I wouldn’t go up to a white German and say, “You must be used to this cold?” Or is there a difference?
It forces me to think back to the white boys in my Maryland high school who used to wear shorts and a sweater in winter. I would certainly die of hypothermia if I wore shorts after October and the other few black students merely shook their heads and said "white folks". What is the real reason there are no or very few black people in winter sports? (of course, I am not forgetting my Jamaican brothers on their bobsled, but still) What comes first, the reality or the stereotype?
(. . .for more of my German pet peeves, be sure to listen to me on NPR Worldwide’s Berlin Stories next month. . .)
Photo: Ian Britton
Just thought I'd share this with you all. It's a collection of musicians from New Orleans to Moscow (and many cities in between) playing and singing "Stand By Me," as a part of the Playing for Change: Peace Through Music project. It's a hopeful message in trying times. Have a lovely day.
When I was about seven years old, on my first trip to Haiti, I remember seeing skinny, dark-skinned girls sweeping front paths, carrying buckets of water on their heads and dragging heavy bins, while other children their age walked to school in crisply pressed uniforms.
I recall taking an interest in these girls because they were barely older than I was yet something in their faces disturbed me; they were young but they had weary expressions that belonged to tired old women.
I didn't know the name for these children until I was older and picked up a book called Restavec, by Jean-Robert Cadet. When I asked my parents more about it they said it was a shame but true, it was their country's dirty little secret.
The term restavec (or restavek in Creole) means "stay with" and refers to poor children taken in by families as servants. The children are supposedly given food, clothing, and even schooling in exchange for work. But the majority are not sent to school or allowed to play. They are essentially child slaves. Reports on the topic, from former restavecs and children's organizations have shown that restavecs, mainly girls, are beaten, left to sleep on floors, poorly nourished and given raggedy clothes to dress in. That's why it was so easy for me to recognize their status when I was only seven, they are at the bottom of the Haitian caste system.
It is a tragic irony, because Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery (see my post from 1/2/09). Yet today, there are still restavecs in Haiti despite the international attention that has been focused on the situation. In fact, we only have boys in the Clermont Center for Homeless Adolescents because the girls have usually been snatched away to be restavecs.
To learn more about restavecs, check out Fondasyon Limyè Lavi an organization dedicated to ending the restavec situation in Haiti.
Tonight's episode of Law and Order deals with a child slave trade ring between Haiti and New York, (NBC 10pm/9 Central). American Current readers, do let me know what you think of the episode, as I'll only be able to see it later and online.
Thanks for reading this and do pass it on!
Photo: Peggy Callahan, Free the Slaves
When I read about the Vatican's recent study regarding hormones in water from birth control pills, which are supposedly polluting the environment and causing infertility in men, I couldn't help it, I felt my face shrivel up into a skeptical smirk.
(This study certainly has nothing to do with the church's outspoken opposition to birth control.)
Does the Catholic Church, in this day and age, seriously think a world without contraception is a viable option in a planet that is already overpopulated? And who is going to feed and take care of all of these children born from "conjugal love"? The Catholic Church alone? I'll believe that when I see the Vatican donate all its gold flatware to poor families eating scraps with their hands. How the church can push an anti birth control agenda when most children born in Catholic countries like Haiti or Mexico, live in dire poverty, is beyond me. . .
As for The Vatican's concern for the environment, please. I can buy that water is contaminated by birth control pills, but probably also from other medications and chemicals the world has convinced itself it can't live without. And aren't trash (it can take up to 500 years for a diaper to decompose) and CO2 bigger threats to the environment?
If this were a serious environmental threat, I bet Germany's Green Party would be at the forefront of an anti-birth control campaign. Imagine, then the German birthrate would jump to 10 kids per woman, in comparison the the paltry 1.3 children per woman it is now. The social welfare system would be even more exhausted, the price of real estate in Berlin would finally go up and everyone could retire at 45.
But I probably wouldn't be here as immigration would cease and, as a genetic carrier of twins, I would be an even bigger threat to their environment.
Photo: Becca Schmidt
Once my father was diagnosed with hypertension in the early 1980s, my mother banned pork in our house. Traditional Haitian delicacies like griot—marinated and fried pork cubes—became a thing of the past, replaced by lean chicken and fish. Health articles and advertisements back then confirmed that pork was the new evil. My mother was effectively convinced that my father would die of a heart attack if he so much as looked at a pork chop.
When I arrived in Germany eight years ago, I was re-acquainted with pork in all its wonder. Various shades and textures of Prosciutto were slapped on bread, fruit, pasta, salads, you name it. And then there was the wurst, a kind of hotdog that can be found anywhere, and I do mean anywhere. In Berlin, there are men with portable grills hanging from their necks so that busy passers-by can get a wurst-to-go. The wurst is to a Berliner what a bagel is to a New Yorker. Even the Turkish shops here have their lamb-filled halal version.
Influenced by my mother's phobia and by having grown up, gone to university and been close friends with Jews, my first thought was that this pan-pork environment was disgusting and unhealthy. I long rejected the frequent offers of swine. But the aroma of a grilled wurst when you haven’t had breakfast, or the sight of a thinly-sliced Parma ham adorning a dollop of creamy brie washed down with a superb Gran Reserva, is a temptation that I was ultimately unable to resist. So I went through my wurst stage and even indulged in a Berliner classic, the Curry-wurst: a sliced wurst topped with spicy ketchup and curry powder. Repulsive, you say? Well, get pregnant surrounded by this stuff, then talk to me.
But ultimately, my American perceptions of pork returned to haunt me and I concluded that large amounts of Schweinefleisch (literally translated as pig meat)were indeed nasty and unhealthy.
When we went shopping at the butcher’s I always found it gross that children waiting with their parents got handed a wurst as a special treat. It never bothered me that my kids weren’t offered a cold wienie until my husband told me that our kids always got one when he went with them to the butcher’s.
Surely we weren’t going to the same butcher? But it was indeed the same one and every time my husband took one of our sons to buy meat, the kid came back reeking of sausage. When I went, the woman behind the counter never looked down once to see my expectant child, waiting in vain.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m black that my kids don’t get the treat. I mean, even when they’re with my white German husband, my kids are obviously mixed. Still, it makes me wonder although I should simply be happy that, as long as they go shopping with me, my kids aren’t doomed to a future of clogged arteries.
Photo: Armand Marechal
Yesterday, (sorry, I was tending to my children's Chicken Pox) wasn't just the first day of the New Year. On January 1, 1804, Haiti won independence from the French, making it the first free black republic. Most Haitians begin the holiday by eating a customary bowl of celebratory squash soup.
Haiti has a rich but troubled history and I'll be filling you in on recent events and issues, as my family runs a center there for homeless boys.
The currents in my family story began in Haiti and surely some part of my adult life will be spent there, too. Until then, Happy Independence Day, Ayiti Cheri!
Flag of Haiti image courtesy of 4 International Flags
I love New Year's. It's a chance at a new start, to wipe our slates clean. All that went wrong in 2008 (OK, maybe not the economic disaster) can be put in a cupboard and locked away.
Here are some random things I'm grateful or hoping will be gone in 2009, as well as what I'm looking forward to, in no particular order.
ADIOS! (and good riddance):
Rich white dudes as presidents: As most of us noticed, the wealth never trickled down, rich Republicans burned the funnel.
Wall Street Crooks: Enjoy your time in jail Madoff, hope you make some nice new friends. Fuld, you deserve jail time for letting Lehman Brothers fall into the ground. Hope a hearing sticks your ass in the slammer where you belong, with other thieves.
OJ: You were rich enough to get away with murder but stupid enough to go to jail for trying to get back your own junk. Being dumb is not a crime, but karma sure is a biatch, isn’t it?
Moose hunting jokes: I didn’t mind the jokes as much as I did the source of them. Sarah Palin was such a scary vice presidential possibility that I lost sleep over the election. Thanks to all Gods and powers that be that America saw through her and McCain’s shoddy campaign.
Million dollar homes on $50,000 salaries: Um, yeah, you’re going to actually have to afford the house you live in from now on.
The War in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other Bushmares: You have shamed the American legacy at home and abroad, you have created havoc and bloodshed in Iraq and you will go down as the least liked president in history. I assume Yale won’t be having you on its guest speaker’s list?
Talented people on drugs: Amy Winehouse, you fool. How can you win five Grammy’s and have a voice as sultry as yours and still waste your time with junk like heroin and crack??
SUVs: Even though America rewarded bad behavior by bailing out the auto industry, these environment killers still have to say goodbye to the age of gas guzzling, CO2-producing SUVs.
Tyrants: Mugabe, it’s time to go. Billion dollar bank notes and children dying of cholera is nothing to hold onto. Step down and give Zimbabwe a chance to thrive, again.
WILLKOMMEN, BIENVENUE, WELCOME!:
Obama: The reality has started to sink-in that brilliant history was made when we elected him to lead our country. Here’s to a new era.
Civic journalism: Thanks to technology like text messaging and ol' fashioned blogging, ordinary people have an influence on how stories are told (and what the stories are).
Mixed people: Everyone is mixed, or knows someone who is. Obama is not new, he’s just an example of the greatness that is possible when people from various racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds don't close their minds to loving across lines. Trust me, our kids will be like, “So what was the big deal about electing a bi-racial president back in 2009?"
Living within your means: Stop looking at the Jones,’ their house went into foreclosure. Here’s a chance to focus on spending and wasting less, prioritizing and saving.
Swapping: Can your neighbor change your brakes if you look after his kids for three weekends? Can you get free yoga classes for baking muffins for the center's snack bar? (true examples, by the way). Money doesn’t have to buy everything and a little ingenuity can help us make it through the tough times.
Unity: Virginia and North Carolina, major former slave states, voted for not just a Democrat, but a liberal, half black Democrat who dared to believe that Americans can get beyond race and focus on the real issues. Yes we can, people!
Happy New Year!!!!
Photo: Ian Britton