When Estranged Turkish Dads Sound Like German Bankers
I grew up with a single mother. My parents got divorced right after I was born. I don’t have any recollection of it, but I’m told I saw him until I was three or four. I don’t know what exactly happened, but it somehow faded and I haven’t seen him since. It was weird to not relate to kids my age in this way. We didn’t really talk about him. My mom occasionally asked me if I wanted to meet him, but I would shyly change the topic, as it made me uncomfortable. When I was fourteen years old, my mom told me that my dad’s family immigrated to Germany when he was just a small child. They originally come from Turkey. It shocked me, as I wasn’t expecting anything like that at all, but still didn’t move me enough to contact him. However, just before I turned eighteen, things started to change. All the colleges I applied to were outside the country. I realized the time to meet him was limited, and I might not really get the chance again, as I would be outside the country most of the time except some semester breaks. I called an old phone number and my paternal grandmother picked up the phone. Not a week later, my dad called me back. To this day that’s the only contact that I’ve had with him.
An article published by Deutschland.de, states that in September 2017, 20% of families were single-parent households, resulting from divorce, death or other matters. Of those, 90% were single mothers. Single mothers have become more common, as traditional (sometimes patriarchal) family structures are being challenged. The single mother status holds economic and social consequences. When mentioned in the media or governmental and independent studies, single parent families are portrayed in a negative light, with emphasis on hardships, such as increased likelihood to fall beneath the poverty line, and to have less access to education and career opportunities, lowering children’s success rates. Germany provides a child allowance, which gives single parents an additional 190 euros a month, a minimal help considering living expenses. Due to the correlation between wealth and family structure, my family status was rare in the middle class community I grew up in. My private Catholic school experience surrounded me with typical German families and a pressure to live up to expectations of normality. Painful comments and questions about my dad would frequently arise and there wasn’t much understanding of my situation. I was raised by my mother and my maternal grandmother (Oma) who took on the other parent role, as we were her only nearby family with a close bond. My mother has always worked full time while managing our household and caring for me. Sometimes it felt like a loss that I didn’t experience having a father figure in my life, but now that I live on my own, I also realize the strengths it gave me. I’m incredibly independent and I have a close bond with my mom and Oma. They are a fierce support system.
Living on my own has also increased my awareness of all the different identities that I have to live and deal with. I had never seen myself as anything other than German because most of Europe defines you by your passport. When my mother told me that my dad is originally from Turkey, my first reaction was shame and embarrassment. Having dealt with bullying since the age of twelve, I felt like this would be like another notch against me. The Turkish community in Germany has been consistently negatively stereotyped and targeted, especially throughout my lifetime. I was the only person in my class who had Turkish origins. I never told my classmates. The word “Turk” is frequently used as an insult in Germany. I had already felt it was wrong to use that word as an insult, but now it also targeted me. I had wondered for a long time why I didn’t look more like my classmates, and here was my answer.
I wasn’t raised as a part of the German-Turkish community. I haven’t felt any connection to them prior of gaining knowledge of my heritage, and I still don’t fully see myself as part of that community. Still, I am most definitely aware of their struggle, as I only need to look in the mirror to know that I’m also Turkish. When people learn of my origins and my lack of knowledge of Turkish, they get upset. That, in turn, upsets me, because it makes me feel not Turkish enough. The only indicators of my Turkishness are my love for baklava and facial features. I am educated and relatively cultured, something that Germans don’t associate with children of Turkish origin or of single-parent households. That gives me some privileges, but it feels far from acceptance or nourishment.
The recent tensions between Germany and Turkey haven’t helped the division within the German-Turkish community. This tension comes from the identity crisis specific to young Germans with Turkish origins. It manifests itself in debates over citizenship, patriotism, belonging and the question of leadership. There is a longstanding debate over dual citizenship, as many have two passports. Several German politicians are calling for a cut-off at age 24. Everyone should decide between the German or Turkish citizenship to show the commitment and loyalty one has for one’s sole country. This is bolstered by controversial actions of Turkish President Erdogan, such as his inquiry about campaigning in Germany prior to the Turkish elections. This is divisive in the German-Turkish community, with both sides calling the other unpatriotic, while Germans call the whole bunch unpatriotic, considering that the German-Turkish community is benefitting (some people even say “taking advantage” ) German policies, yet supporting a president in a country in which they wouldn’t enjoy the same freedoms, and rights.There is a narrative that this is worsening the lives of people who directly face the consequences, back in Turkey. I did not grow up with these discourses which makes it hard for me to relate to the community in that way. Oddly, my experience living in the US, and feeling a strong sense of belonging there, led me to better understand these roots. I have always felt like I lived between multiple cultures, as my Oma is from the Bavarian part of Germany, which is quite different than the Northern part in which I grew up in. After my time in the US from 2014 to 2015, I got a sense of how painful it can be when people who don’t understand being stuck between two cultures force third culture kids to choose.
When my dad called me for the first time, a week after I spoke with my paternal grandmother, I thought someone from the bank was calling, he sounded so German. He didn’t say his name on the phone, so I assumed it was official business for my mom. I don’t know if I should have expected otherwise, as I knew that he came to Germany when he was around two years old, and was fully educated in the German system. I almost dropped the plate of food I was holding. His voice was strange. He sounded exactly like those German men I so disliked. It felt unfamiliar. I didn’t know in this moment if I really wanted to get to know him. The phone call made me excited but also nervous and angry. However, I thought of the grandparents that I have never met, the language I have never spoken, the culture and country I have never experienced, baring political debates on TV and the occasional run to the Baklava patisserie. We concluded that I would call him when I had time and wanted to meet. It has been a year.I haven’t gotten around to that yet, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I have yet to have time or want to meet. This upcoming winter break, I’ve made it one of my priorities to meet him and my other family.
When I got to Paris and started going to AUP, I found myself among people who were embracing their identities and openly talking about them. It wasn’t because they were ashamed but because they grew up knowing of them, and I found that inspiring. It is definitely a more American approach to dealing with your identity. This was not the case in Germany back when I was growing up. Having learned so late about my identities, among them a Jewishness I only learned when I was eighteen years old, I thought it necessary to start dissecting them and my related feelings. I started to embrace the terms, especially “Turkish,” as something I take pride in rather than feeling ashamed of it. Being Jewish didn’t surprise me as much as being Turkish. For most of my childhood I felt a connection to Judaism, as my mother educated me early on about some of the history and generally seemed to regard it highly. At some point I started questioning if a Christian would really have multiple mezuzahs and a menorah at home as well as pray the Shema occasionally with her daughter before going to bed. I would start commenting “One day I’ll convert to Judaism,” with my mom responding, “ You don’t need to.”
I was raised with a very liberal Catholic grandma, and a “Crazy Jewish Mom” and until I became a teenager and grew fed up by catholicism and the church in general. I went to mass, even though I always disliked it and it felt a little wrong. It was a different kind of catholicism from American religious groups, not as conservative about social issues. My mother had her reasons for not disclosing my Jewish identity, yet it’s once again an experience that sometimes feels like a loss. It has been difficult to reconcile all these identities, as anti-Semitism is on the rise, coming from not only Muslim communities but also the growing far right, manifesting itself in Pegida, and the AFD party, as well as people who simply don’t care. Most of the German-Turkish community expresses a negative attitude towards Israel or doesn’t care, but few, if any, see my Jewishness as an absolute positive, especially when combined with my lack of knowledge of customs of both Turkish and Jewish cultures. This makes it hard to find a place to fit in. How can I be both, when I fear I wouldn’t fit into either, due to my lack of engagement during my upbringing, my most transformative years? This is something that I’m trying to figure out and make peace with.
For me, this is easier among the students at my international American university, as it is more encouraged. It’s an experience that, if not the exactly same, many others share in similar ways. I have found space to be open about these struggles among peers that I haven’t had for most of my life in homogeneous Germany. It is uncomfortable to think of my identity in terms of Germany. German society will always make me feel a little uncomfortable, whether I want it or not. I have accustomed so much to other cultures that I find it hard to go back to Germany. Each time, I feel like a foreigner, going back to a familiar place, reminiscent of a home. I have yet to organize this in my mind, but I look forward to meeting my dad and my paternal family, with the hope it will lead to some understanding. I try to take pride in my story and to see the “losses” more like experiences I have yet to have. The experience I did have, growing up with two wonderful women, will always be my own.