“But Where are You From?” / Awkward Emissaries & Other Meetup Shenanigans

Earlier this month, I headed out solo to a Saturday night Biergarten meetup near Schlesisches Tor. The fortnight prior to that had been rather solitary: my partner was visiting the US, and a number of my Berlin friends were on extended vacations. Meanwhile I’d successfully filled my time with work, dog, Netflix, German interactions, and lots of social media. But after two weeks mostly inside my own head, I was admittedly a bit starved for English-language conversation. And so I turned to meetup.com and its international offerings.

The venue was easy to find, but when I arrived all the tables were packed, making it difficult to tell who was with the meetup and who wasn’t. So I floated uneasily for a few moments before finally approaching a guy — slim, bespectacled, relaxed demeanor, holding a Club Mate — seated at the end of one of the tables. Sure enough, he was part of the meetup crew. He introduced himself as S, invited me to pull up a chair, which I did after ordering a drink. On my return, S joked that my choice of dark beer shows I’m assimilating nicely into German culture. I nodded to the Club Mate in his hand and asked if he wasn’t a drinker, or if he just wasn’t drinking tonight. He laughed and replied that it was the latter, a little too much partying the night before, so I teased that he’s assimilating nicely into Berlin culture. Clinking glasses together, “To assimilation!”

We went on to talk about a number of things, mundane but amusing stuff, like other places we’ve lived and the various degrees of difficulty being an “outsider”. S had been to several US cities, a few of which we shared common references: Berlin’s sometimes uncanny similarity to Seattle, for instance, with its green spaces and the hipsters and the art/music scene. At one point we’d meandered onto the topic of music genres, attempting to parse the many nuanced subgenres of “rock”, floundering utterly while throwing unfamiliar band names at each other.

We were just about to sort ourselves out when another guy interrupted, drawing up a chair, and introduced himself as D, from Russia. S and I each gave our names, nice to meet you.

“So, where are you from?” D asked, looking from me to S. Then, settling on S, and without giving him the opportunity to answer, he rattled off a number of countries in rapid fire, “India? Pakistan? Nepal?” as if he was going to guess it.

S shook his head with a sort of weariness that said he gets asked this way too often. “All wrong, man. But it’s okay, it doesn’t matter. What about you, what do you do?”

And this is where it was going to get awkward, of course, because D wanted to know where he was from. D wasn’t being intentionally rude about it, just clueless: failing to pick up on either the slightly cringy tension in the air or S’s attempts at politely refusing the question.

There’s a German word for the sudden wave of nauseous discomfort I was feeling as I watched: fremdschämen. It’s basically vicarious embarassment, or, according to Wiktionary, “to feel ashamed about something someone else has done; to be embarrassed because someone else has embarrassed himself (and doesn’t notice).”

Indeed.

I attempted to interject and distract with some silly comments, but D was weirdly focused. So S ended up relenting, told him he’s from Paris. But that wasn’t the answer that D was after, so he pushed further. Again, not maliciously so, just awkward as all get out, because I could tell what was going on in his head: D needed to put things in the appropriate “box”, and so he was trying to square away S’s dark and not-stereotypically-Parisian complexion by tracking it to its “source”. So when S subsequently caved and told him his parents’ country of origin, D leaned back abruptly with all the satisfaction of someone having solved a complicated math equation, “Ah! Okay, there!”

And then it was my turn. Not feeling entirely chatty on the topic of origins either, I tried to leave it with a sheepish, “I’m from the US”, then adding, “Well, I moved from the West Coast.” But of course D wanted more specificity than that, grinning widely at the game of it, “Yes, but where are you from??”

I squirmed, playfully sidestepping, trying to make a point, “Man, I always hate answering that question … Where I’m from is probably the least interesting thing about me …” I made sure to catch S’s eye with that last bit.

S gave a sharp, slightly exasperated laugh, “I know, right??”

*high five*

But for the sake of keeping things flowing and shrugging off the uncomfortableness, I acquiesced and gave my humble origin story, much to D’s satisfaction. Soon enough he’d be furiously trying to fit me into what he knew of Americans, and, more specifically, Texans, and I’d be pointing out that a lot of the reason I’m where I am today (ie. somewhere else) is because I didn’t fit in with a lot of aspects of where I was.

S ended up saying goodnight not too long after. I can’t know for sure if he was put off by the interaction or just tired. In any case, this left me sitting with D who went on to tell me about Russian-speaking “ethnic Germans” living in Berlin, the cultural disconnect and struggle with identity, in a way neither German nor Russian. And as an American, I suppose I find this pointed talk about ethnic identity unfamiliar (aaand uncomfortable). We’re much more accustomed to framing things according to social, political, economic, or racial identity. Whether the idealistic melting pot or our unfortunate national history (re: treatment of indigenous peoples), the concept of “ethnic American” is a very different conversation.

Anyway, I have to wonder (as I often end up doing) what is this need to sort people? To put a person in a box? And such arbitrary boxes too: race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, etc. Indeed, nationality is still one I’m getting used to thinking about. It’s a funny thing living in an international city, each of us becomes, whether we like it or not, a sort of awkward emissary representing the culture we left behind. Or worse, we become caricatures for the many flavors of Otherness we represent to those we meet. Tread carefully, friends!

At some point later in the night D confided, “I always like talking to Americans.” He had lived in the States for a time and “had a lot of friends there”. He said he’d tried to discover those secret little enclaves of American expats here in Berlin, where they hang out, but with little success. And that’s when I realized he was looking for that familiar touchstone with me, trying to reconnect with his experience and understanding of American culture. And I was failing to provide that, the enclave thing. I had to confess to him I don’t exactly consider myself representative of your “typical American experience”, whatever that definition might be. I’m not here (in Berlin or at this meetup in general) to make friends with other Americans — and if I do have American friends, it’s not simply because they’re American.

D seemed almost disappointed at that. But shortly thereafter he seemed to relax and stopped trying to pin me into these awkward conversations about America. Instead, we hauled things up onto a more international stage.

In the course of the night I ended up having a number of diverse and fascinating exchanges with different individuals, each hailing from different parts of the globe: France, Russia, Australia, India, America, Germany, Sweden. But, as with myself, where they were from was probably the least interesting thing about them.

***

Not too long ago I met up with a friend for a beer and a little philosophizing, as one does. We got onto the topic of youth and identity, particularly as tender little introverts, sensitive and susceptible to the influence of our immediate surroundings and the characters therein, the subtle but inevitable entanglement that ensues. We talked about the unique existential crises you face in your 20’s as you struggle for a sense of separateness from family, from school, from the familiar environment of your childhood as you attempt to evolve into adulthood. Who am I really? And if you’re lucky, by the time you’re in your 30’s a lot of the angst will have rolled away. It gets easier with time, or so I’m told.

In my 20’s I made a series of moves, each placing more geographical distance between myself and where I grew up. Each move was a step toward increasing separation, a new iteration and exploration of the same unresolved question: who am I? Life in a new and unfamiliar place. Who are you when no one knows you yet? You’ll gravitate toward one box or other for easy associations, weak associations. It ends up being broad strokes, and the box becomes a thing to be resented for its inadequacy, for its squarish severity.

With each move, I discovered again and again my sense of self still saturated with an inescapable otherness, as if not fitting in had become woven into the fabric of my being. That bugged me a lot in my 20’s. In my 30’s I’m more at peace with it. I draw strength from it. Part of that is the distance and maturity afforded by the passage of time. Another part I credit to Berlin itself, a city of artists and anarchists, misfits and internationals. As an expat, there’s an understanding that you’re not going to blend in seamlessly with local culture. In a sense, you will always be awkward, you’ll always be other, but at the same time that’s fine. In that, there’s a weird sense of existential acceptance and belonging, as if to say time and place have finally intersected, and I’m finally where I’m supposed to be, which is here in the present, this moment, this space.

Identity is so much more than the passive happenstance of one’s origin or genetics. It’s dynamic and individual. It’s a deliberate thing, an action, an evolution, a process that never stops so long as you’re still in this world.

Clinking glasses together, “To identity!”