My name’s Sophia Katharina Burton. I’m 28 years old and a dual American-German citizen originally from Washington, DC. The moment I decided to move to Berlin I was on the phone with my Opa (grandfather – ed.). The idea just surfaced, as if it had been my plan all along. “I’ll move to Berlin on my own!” I spurted out, after telling him I had been rejected from the fellowship I had been hoping to get. “Of course you will,” he and the rest of my close family and friends responded when they heard the news that seemed to come as a surprise only to me. A few months later after finishing my Masters my flight was booked. I arrived in Berlin in November 2011, without a job, without friends or a partner, just the “stomach feeling” as the Germans say. In short, Berlin brought me to Berlin. It took me half a year and it wasn’t always easy, but I eventually found a great job working as an international education specialist for Nobel Education Network, and a year ago launched a migration/multiculturalism project called Collidoscope Berlin with my best friend here.

How was your integration process?

It’s difficult to articulate my “integration” process because it began long before I ever lived in Germany. As a dual citizen, I’ve always had one foot on either side of the Atlantic. I grew up near Washington, DC, where it’s common to hear several languages spoken on the street each day. At home, Arabic or Greek music would play as my German-Algerian mother and Jewish-American father prepared for dinner parties. In the kitchen, Spain, India, and the Middle East influenced my father’s cooking. Either an early morning soccer game (where I chewed on orange slices at halftime) or German school (where I conjugated verbs with other 2nd generation kids) would dictate my bedtime on weekends. I’ve been very fortunate to grow up in an international environment with the holy grail of passport combinations, to learn three languages, to travel extensively and see the world through many perspectives. I feel integrated in both the US and Germany and comfortable in many other countries, but would argue that one’s integration process never truly ends. Cities are dynamic and constantly evolving, and we must evolve with them. 

What was the biggest struggle for you when you moved to Germany?

I very rarely experience culture shock in Germany – thanks to my upbringing, little about German culture surprises me. But I am very aware of the “differences” between the two societies and my position within them. When I smile at someone in a German grocery store and get a blank or confused look in return, I feel American. When I ogle the pint of soda a waitress plops down in front of me at a restaurant in the US, I feel German. At the same time I have a very hard time accepting stereotypes and generalizations, because I don’t like to place myself or others into boxes. To function within a society one must adapt to systems, laws, customs, even nonverbal cues. These can vary greatly from place to place, but identities and personalities are even more nuanced and can’t be reduced to passports or birthplaces.

My biggest struggle in Germany is a very personal one. I have pushed myself to go outside my comfort zone, to be brave and take risks, but I have to work on this more than I’d like to admit. The longer I stay in Berlin, the longer I see myself staying here. In many ways I feel more connected to the way of life here: I see raising a family easier here, a higher quality of life, a certain standard of living guaranteed for me and others that I fundamentally believe should be guaranteed to all, especially in a developed country. If my decision was purely based on location it would be an easy one, but my life also revolves around people that are on the other side of the world. I miss my family and friends in the US dearly, and this is an ever-present struggle and consideration for the future.

What do people in your country think of Germany and Germans?

I’m perhaps a bit pessimistic in this sense, but I think Americans know very little about the country Germany is today. For the most part, American knowledge of Germany is limited to beer, cars, sausage, Hitler, an inexplicable love for David Hasselhoff. It’s hard for me to stomach when Americans make fun of the way Germans speak because this is the language that some of the people I care most about in the world speak. Germany has a dark and painful history which shouldn’t be overlooked, but it has also become a very progressive country when it comes to issues like the environment, health care, and gun control. I find myself defensive of Germans when in the US but also experience the reverse, with my most “patriotic” American moments being abroad.

Do you think Germany is a multicultural country? Why is it difficult for some Germans to accept foreigners?

Germany is a multicultural country. One in 5 residents of this country possesses a “migrant background”. Berlin alone is home to people from over 138 countries. This is no longer a question up for debate – it’s a reality. What matters now is how policy and public opinion shifts to not only accept, but embrace, this reality. I do experience this on a personal level to some extent. While in the US my hyphenated identity is no big deal and doesn’t put my “Americanness” into question, in Germany my background is often a point of discussion and looked at in either/or terms. Thanks to my darker features (and perhaps my German grammar mistakes), I am very frequently asked if I’m Spanish or Italian. The default assumption here is still that I must only be “one thing”, and that thing is probably not German.

The history of immigration in Germany is newer than in the US but I wouldn’t ignore the fact that Germany has a national integration plan, federally funded integration courses, and is making strides to address issues like dual citizenship and educational inclusion. There’s still plenty to be done – and we address many of these issues on Collidoscope Berlin – but I am optimistic that more and more people will begin to see Germany as a country of multiculturalism, tolerance, and openness. It will take time and pressure, but Germany has a very special opportunity to evolve from a history of exclusion to a future of inclusion.

 

 


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