Is “Denglish” an Identity?

The New Mexico sky is overwhelmingly big. Most of my childhood was spent staring at the stars carpeting the sky at night and chasing towards it during the day, searching for an end, or a beginning. When I, at 20, moved away to the claustrophobic, concrete chaos of New York City, I pasted stars on my ceiling. New York city is a box: everywhere you look only a little square of sky. Nothing unending. So I felt free again and inhaled only when the plane landed back in New Mexico. There I could see the sky that had once been my whole world. The sky, while I grew up and each time I returned to New Mexico, signified freedom — the freedom to stay, and then, the freedom to leave. Every time I came back, I was reminded of the privilege I’d had to step on a plane — the privilege to leave in the first place.

The New Mexico sky wasn’t the only defining feature of my childhood, although it is still inseparable from the years when my life revolved around the sun and the darkened sky that always called me home. However, my own father, growing up in a contained Soviet Union satellite state, had not had the same freedom. Confined to East Germany until the fall of the Iron Curtain, no one appreciated the large, open, sky more than he did. Juxtaposing my life against his, I felt like a bubble caught in a breeze, free to go and grow wherever I pleased. His stories, though it must be said they were not all negative, coloured how I saw the world from the time I was old enough to understand the idea of a prison. He wove together this mysterious world, where one’s actions were always measured, where no one could run to the end of the world because you already knew where it was. This was a world where grief was not measured anymore because they’d stopped counting suicides a few years into the regime, where not free speech but the appearance of free will was praised above all else.

My parents moved to the US when I was 3. My mom, homesick for the U.S. after 8 years in Germany, and my dad ready and itching to test out his freedom. When they moved, my dad didn’t speak any English, while my sister and I loved to float between both languages, borrowing words as we saw fit. We floated for a few years between New Mexico and Berkley before settling down permanently in the town I would get to know as my home. It was a small place in New Mexico called Taos, known mostly for its steep ski resort and hippie community. I grew up fascinated by my dad’s stories. At 14, Taos grew too small for me and I moved for the first time to Santa Fe; it was my first time living alone in a new city. I thought of what it must have felt like to have to stay in a place that you had outgrown. As I got older and made it a habit to shed cities as snakes shed their skin, my father’s past remained with me. Every time I got on a plane, crossed a border, posted against Trump on Facebook, or organized a strike or a protest in New York City, I had this thought in the back of my mind. I had an appreciation for having the freedom to do such things — although this never spiralled into an appreciation for the United States of America itself. My father knows more than anyone that the US is no less and no more than the veneer of what it seems. He was satisfied with a green card instead of citizenship. Like him, I appreciate never being tied down for too long, not committing entirely to one place, one city or country.

If I wanted to escape the confusion of my identity, Bard Berlin seems only to cement my bewilderment. It is an English speaking university on the edge of the biggest German city. It is easy to spend days speaking, reading, and writing only in English. Occasionally, I feel guilty about this. If I were more German, perhaps I would be less keen to speak only in English. As it is, my propensity for German shows up in my writing. All my editors tell me my sentences are too long. If I could, I would string every English word together in one long, unbroken sentence. But we don’t do that in English.

When I visit my grandparents, they regale me with tales of life before and after the Wall, how things had changed, how currency became useless overnight. In my bedroom stands a little battery-operated radio gifted from them that still works. It ties me to this history I feel is both mine and foreign at the same time — much like how I feel about America. I say I am from Taos but not the States, or New York but not America. In Germany, I say Berlin, but not the country. I am a sleuth in an unaccented voice both ways, able to get away with claiming just as much ownership as one could and should. Which means, in America I am not “American” enough, and in Germany, I am not “German” enough. When I am in Germany, I will say that I miss green chili native to New Mexico only, spicy hot chocolate, the lake an hour and a half away that is my escape every summer. When I am in Taos, I miss less from Germany. Maybe the smoke filled cafes, or the way Berlin always seems to be half asleep. Milchkaffee. My grandparents, slowly growing older.

My grandparents who, when I visit, sit and drink strong coffee, casually correcting my German. Occasionally they wonder at how “my” president could ever think building a wall would be a good idea. I tell them history seems farther away to those whose bedtime stories didn’t involve the Stasi, that it is much harder to appreciate the necessity of freedom when no one has ever taken it away from you. My grandfather tells me he remembers the end of World War II, drives me around Leipzig and points out everything that was once rubble. He says, it takes much less time to destroy than to rebuild.  

2 replies on “ Is “Denglish” an Identity? ”
  1. Kaya, I enjoyed reading your article. Very nice!

    donna o’donnell figurski
    Author of “Prisoners without Bars: A Caregiver’s Tale”

  2. Kaya, WOW. Really liked this post. It is true that so many people have forgotten what things were like behind the Iron Curtain, and this piece summarizes that perfectly. (Which calls to mind that whole saying about studying history because otherwise we are doomed to repeat it – but it’s maybe not just studying the facts, but being exposed to cultural, real-life stories which should make the most impact.

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