Lens: Coming (home)

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I’m pretty sure it was the 1st grade. We were drawing pictures of our families and I carefully wrote Mami under the lopsided stick figure cast as my mother. A kid next to me leaned over and inspected my work. “That’s not how you write ‘Mommy’!” he squealed. “Yes it is!” I responded fiercely, confident that this was exactly how my Mami had taught me to spell it. Our teacher overheard the bickering and swooped in for the rescue. We were both right, she explained patiently. Mami was just “Mommy” in a different language.

That was the first time I can remember realizing that something about me was “different”. That I grew up with two languages, one of which was different than English. That I had more than one home, one of which was different than that of my classmates.

Growing up, I didn’t need a plane to travel from one home to another. There was my outside home, with school and friends and TGIF and snap bracelets and Rice Krispie Treats and all-you-can-eat buffets and pop culture references that I (mostly) understood. Then there was my inside home, where my mom confused the word “crush” with “crash”, we were told to put spit on our bug bites, summers were spent with my German grandparents instead of at camp, and Nutella was always king over peanut butter & jelly. That’s the thing about transnationalism: It wasn’t just geography that marked the borders of my two homes. It was the words, the scents, the movements, and most of all, the people.

Transnationals are distinguished from migrants and immigrants because they are rooted in more than one country and culture. They are not simply “migrants” because they are categorized by more than temporary movement. They settle and become invested in the political, economical, and cultural patterns of their “host country”. But they are not simply “immigrants” either, because their movement is not primarily one-directional: they remain engaged elsewhere, maintaining connections, contributing to their “home” society, sending remittances (money), participating politically, etc.

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Of course there was the occasional collision of my homes. Usually they were trivial, like when I was gawked at in the middle school cafeteria for pulling pâté and baguette out of my lunchbox (à la “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) or when I had to leave Friday school dances early because of Saturday German school. But sometimes they were bigger, like the handful of times I was called a “Nazi” or “German-Jewish-American-Princess” by classmates and when our parents decided to pull us out of high school and move to Germany for half a year.

Overall though, straddling my two homes was and remains relatively easy because my “differences” came across as interesting at best and weird at worst. They almost never held me back. Unlike many other children with immigrant backgrounds, I wasn’t so much switching between non-dominant and dominant culture as I was dominant-foreign (European) to dominant (upper-middle class white American). I didn’t struggle with English at school, my parents had no trouble helping me with my homework, and no one looked down on me for eating with fork in left hand and knife in right (except maybe when it was pizza).

Transnationals can also be identified as “cultural straddlers” who navigate life between multiple worlds. Anthropologists and sociologists call it “code-switching”, meaning their language, behavior, and mannerisms shift within different social contexts, depending on what is appropriate at what time and with which people (similarly to the way one acts differently at a job interview than at home with friends). Groups within the same nationality can also code-switch between different cultural identities that, based on historical and structural forces, have contributed to distinguished speech, capital, personal tastes, etc.

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Now 28 years old and living “abroad” the past two years, I still navigate between my various identities with relative ease but my transnationalism has become markedly more pronounced. I switch regularly and fluently between two passports, two languages, even two sides of my wallet. With time, I find myself switching more seamlessly between health care systems, political processes, and workplace cultures.

But now an ocean more clearly demarcates my two homes and, no matter which side I’m on, keeps me away from people I care deeply about. That is the switch I find most difficult.

When I step into a plane heading east or west over the Atlantic, my mind begins to shift and retrieve minute details stored in the back of my mind. Does the hairdresser also get a 20% tip?… Ach ja, store’s closed on Sundays, make sure to grab food tonight… Don’t forget to take your driver’s license when you go out, they’ll probably card you… German passport at EU control, American at immigration… But deeper within me is a greater shift that pushes and pulls, twists and turns, fuels me with excitement and longing and sometimes sadness. It doesn’t present itself in clear or rational thoughts. It’s just present.

A week ago I sat in the plane, about to land in Washington D.C. for the first time in almost 10 months, staring down at my U.S. customs form. I had scribbled in my passport and flight numbers, the itemized list of chocolates and coffee I was carting over and their approximate value, thinking as usual about how all the Europeans in the plane were just expected to speak English and fill out the same form. Language obviously wasn’t my problem, but I was stuck nonetheless:

Please check one box: Visitor or Resident

Didn’t they get it? I’m always going away, and I’m always coming home.

– By Sophia Burton

All feet photos by and of yours truly.

3 Comments

  1. beautiful post, soph.

    • the switching of codes rang very true for me. i’m curious how much more challenging/different that switch would be if it was between two groups of different (dominant) races.

      • Thanks Max! I’m sure your experience is similar. Code-switching comes in many forms and many are more challenging than mine. It’s unfortunate that people associate certain backgrounds with “culture” and “exoticism” while others are relegated to a low-class status or contribute to prejudice against someone in terms of their intelligence or social class.

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