By John Dyfed Loesche.
The Germans love “Ordnung”, which translates into order or tidiness. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in Germany there are categories into which people, who weren’t born in Germany to German parents of German heritage, are stowed away in.
Whilst you have all out migrants, who came to Germany from a foreign country themselves, you can also have people who have a so called “Migrationshintergrund”. People in this category are German or live in Germany permanently, but have at least one parent that isn’t German.
Well, this is me. I was born in Wales to a Welsh mother and a German father. I grew up in Germany and never really dwelled on my half-migrant background even though I was confronted with it day in day out. But I’ve never suffered from it, I was never sidelined in a racist sort of way.
If you saw me in the street, you couldn’t tell from my looks that I have a “Migrationshintergrund”. However, if you stopped me and asked for my name, even though I don’t have an accent, I’d give myself away in the two seconds it takes to say my name.
My parents, in conspiracy with my Nain and Taid, made sure, that I wouldn’t dodge my background. A usual first encounter with somebody I meet for the first time is of startling conformity. It goes something like this:
Both say “Hi”, “Hallo” or “Moin” (as is customary in Northern Germany). Often this goes along with shaking hands (as is customary in the whole of Germany).
“Ich bin Dyfed” (“I’m Dyfed”)
“Aha, wie schreibt man das denn?” (“Aha, how on earth do you spell that?”)
“Und woher kommt das?” (“And where’s that from?”)
Most Germans know where Wales is and that it belongs to Great Britain. Rarely do I meet people who go on to ask for its location. So, if I want to keep things going for a bit longer I just add a little background. Sometimes after being asked, other times preemptively.
I add that I was born there, my mother is from there, but that I grew up in Hamburg, as my father was German. I did frequently visit on summer holidays throughout my childhood but never really lived in Wales for an extended period of time, apart from when I did my bachelor’s degree in Aberystwyth.
(Surprisingly: Quite a few people actually have heard of Aberystwyth or have even been there. Then again, it is the biggest place in the middle of Mid Wales.)
A classic extension on behalf of my counterpart is: “Is that the Welsh form of David?” to which I reply: “No, It’s not actually. That would be Dafydd”. (People in the know sometimes take a turn towards “Little Britain” here, but that’s rare.)
When I’m in high spirits I sometimes keep conversation going by explaining, that the Welsh language has nothing to do with English. Mostly followed by the fact that instead German is closer to English. (“Interesting!”)
Sometimes I add to the confusion by stating that nevertheless the Welsh speakers quite like the German language for its pronunciation. Example given: both people know how to pronounce a proper uncompromising “ch” (as in “mochin”, or “machen”).
If I have reason to believe that my counterpart might be interested in politics I can further hint to the fact that in some parts of Wales people actually cheer on the German national football team to win a match against the English. (“Really?”)
Sometimes this spills over and the Scottish get a mention, then often leading to comparative politics and the question of nationalism and independence. “Whilst the Scottish have a full-blown parliament, the Welsh have an assembly”, I like to lecture.
Thing is, the whole name business cuts both ways: On the one hand I never have to worry about the first conversation. I have rehearsed it so many times, I could probably go through it with my fingers stuck in my ears.
On the other hand I would often just like to say: “Hi, ich bin Peter”. So, I have developed ways of dodging the whole business. I sometimes just take a blunt short-cut that makes things easier at first but can get tricky with time. Dyfed is my given name, but it’s my middle name. My first name is John.
For example I used John as my name in the army. Back then the German armed forces still drafted for their national service. I just couldn’t see myself having to keep going through the routine, getting to know so many new people. I opted for John, then not knowing that I was mostly just going to be screamed at by my surname anyway: “Loesche!”
Though my John short-cut actually has an air of legitimacy (as John really is part of my name) it came to haunt me ten years later when I found that one of my former comrades was working for the same company as I was. This didn’t keep me from keeping to cut corners, for example when I joined a class fitness boxing. (Should have just introduced myself as the Welsh Dragon, really.)
More recently I have come up with a “matter of fact” method that works pretty well: I introduce myself with my proper given name (that nobody has heard of before and definitely couldn’t pronounce without me having to repeat it three to four times) and … no further questions are asked!
How does this work? My introduction is fast and quick, I open fire with a short burst, leaving my counterpart no room for maneuver and translating into: “Sorry mate, no further questions are being taken today!” I can see some people contemplating to ask anyway. But most get my drift.
I have also encountered issues with my name whilst in Wales. Logically these have been of reverse nature than in Germany. While I was studying in Aberystwyth it so came that I was introduced to fellow Welsh students, who would then just start talking to me in Welsh. (After all, a bloke by that name would be likely to speak Welsh.) Somewhat ashamed I would then have to admit that I didn’t understand.
So, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t conceal my “Migrationshintergrund” for long, neither in Germany nor Wales. Most Germans are pretty sympathetic towards Great Britain. I have never endured being an outcast because of my dual heritage – unlike other migrant kids who actually looked foreign.
My situation has made me aware from an early age that identity isn’t a god given fact. That it is something that takes shape in the eyes of others. That you aren’t necessarily master over your own identity.
Some people are left “sitting between the chairs” as a German saying goes. This might be uncomfortable at times but at least you’ve always got something to talk about.
(P.S. Some people who after a while can’t get my story straight for some reason make out I’m Irish. Strange that. Oh well.)
Dyfed was born in Wales and grew up in Germany. He studied international politics in Aberystwyth and journalism in Hamburg. He has worked for music magazines and news agencies, and as a press officer in Kabul. As a freelance journalist he has reported from Iraq and Syria. Today, he is based back in Hamburg.