I have a T-shirt bearing this witticism which I received from someone who knew of me only from my newsletter for German-born adoptees. I have since become aware of its occasionally being reformulated, substituting the word “Texan” for “German.” The idea, of course, is that being a German – or a Texan – can be so self-evident from observable indicia that even strangers can see it in a person’s behaviour, dress, or demeanour. Many people have commented that I exhibit personality traits they characterise as “typically German.” I don’t know if there are heritable personality traits that are “typical” of Germans, or, if so, whether my alleged exhibition thereof is a result of having been born there, or if it’s simply the natural consequence of the particular formative experiences of my childhood. In any event, having known of my German origin for as long as I can remember, it has always been a foundational aspect of my identity.
Identifying as German has had a strong influence on many of the choices I have made in life. When, in junior-high school, we were required to choose a foreign language to learn from the available options of Spanish, French or German, naturally, I chose German. Even then, I had already formed the intention to search for my birth mother in Germany, and I imagined that it would be useful and/or necessary to know the language. My effort to learn German in junior-high and high school didn’t really pan out, and so, when I was stationed in Germany in 1979-80 as a member of the U.S.A.F., I availed myself of the opportunity to resume learning German. I discovered it came easier, for some reason, while living in the country, and I would continue to learn it – mostly by using it, when reading letters from and writing letters to friends I’d made while I was there, for example – more or less continually for the rest of my life.
When my parents purchased a new (used) car, ostensibly for my mother to drive, but with which I would in any event learn to drive, they asked for my input. I suggested buying a Volkswagen Beetle. I was partly inspired by my German teacher, who drove a Bug; but I also wanted to learn to drive in a car with a stick shift. (Ultimately, the car became “mine” by default, as Mother refused to drive it.) Ever since, whenever I have owned a car of my own (until 2010, always a VW Bug), I would display a “D-Schild,” an oval-shaped placard formerly affixed to vehicles in Europe to identify the nationality of the owner (“D” stands for Deutschland).
Other, less consequential signs of my Germanophilia included the purchases of a three-foot-by-five-foot tricolor flag, which I would hang on the wall wherever I might be living at the time, as well as an album of songs by the German singer Roland Kaiser, which I found when shopping at a nearby record store in Brooklyn, NY, not long after I’d moved there in 1980.
At the same time, I never felt any strong sense of fealty towards the United States. When I was naturalized, at the age of five, repetition of the requisite oath was probably waived under INS rules due to my age; my adoptive father signed the certificate. Even so, when, as children, we were required to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, I cannot say that it represented anything more meaningful to me than a rote recitation of a memorized sentence. Eventually, I publicly acknowledged this lack of significance by boycotting its daily reiteration, beginning in junior-high school. (I don’t recall if anything happened as a result of this protest, but I imagine I would remember if there had been significant consequences. Perhaps my right to do so was simply acknowledged and respected?)
Growing up as a boy in America in the 1960s, I was acutely aware of the war in Vietnam, as well as my eventual obligation to register for the draft when I turned 18 and the concomitant potential risk of being sent to fight in that conflict, should it still be going on at that time. Even before the draft was officially ended, in 1973, I had acknowledged – to myself, at least – that I was gay, and so I had already formed the intent, if it came to that, to apprize the Selective Service officials of my sexual orientation, thereby avoiding military service by peremptorily being deemed “unfit.” War or no war, I had no desire to be drafted into the army. Having never been in the closet, as it were, I wasn’t worried about any backlash to publicly “coming out,” but I never had the chance to prove the strength of these convictions; the Selective Service office in my hometown was permanently closed in 1975, the year I turned 18. I eschew patriotism as easily as I eschew religion; both are equally meaningless. (The irony of my subsequent voluntary enlistment in the U.S.A.F. is not lost on me; however, that decision sprang not from any patriotic feeling, but rather from a desire to end what was looking like an interminable period of unemployment, with the added appeal of potentially acquiring a skill that could be parlayed into a civilian job later on. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, either.)
I don’t know when the thought first occurred to me, but by the summer of 1978, at the age of 21, it was already well established in my mind; I wrote in my diary at the time, “The more I think about it, the more I want to know if I may acquire dual citizenship.” The question was more properly formulated as, “I wonder if I ever lost my German citizenship.” Be that as it may, shortly after I wrote those words, I obtained a form from the German Consulate in New York City which they said I needed to complete and submit in order to answer the question. The information required to be provided concerned the citizenship status of my natural relatives; my mother and father, and their respective mothers and fathers, and so on, as far back as information was available. (German citizenship is acquired via blood – jus sanguinis – as opposed to where one is born – jus soli.)
As soon as I was able, i.e., as soon as I had searched for and found my birth mother (having been born illegitimate, only her information was relevant), I completed as much of the form as I was able and sent it in. Had you asked me at the time, I probably would have said that I fully expected there to have been some basis for involuntary expatriation, so it came as a very pleasant surprise when I received my Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis, a certificate attesting to my status as a German citizen. I immediately applied for and obtained a German passport. (Interestingly, like the passport, the citizenship certificate bore an expiration date; I faithfully renewed it until they finally changed the law and issued a certificate that doesn’t “expire.”)
I am very enamoured of the idea of having dual nationality, and I eagerly mention the fact whenever circumstances allow, sometimes showing off my Reisepass. I have never used my German passport for purposes other than identification following my return to Germany in 2018, but I did once encounter a problem when I obtained employment at a company that contracted to provide background investigation services to the federal government. The contract was with the Department of Defense, and I had to officially acknowledge my dual-national status in the course of having my own background investigated. The DOD had no problem with my retaining my German citizenship while performing the contracted work; but it did demand that my employer hold my German passport for the duration of the contract – or my employment, whichever ended first. As it happened, the contract ended first, and my employer, in order to continue employing me, had to reassign me to work under a different federal contract, this time with the Department of Energy. Unlike the DOD, however, the DOE did object to my retention of a foreign nationality, and, for want of another alternative position within the company, my employer was forced to terminate my employment because I wasn’t willing to renounce my German citizenship.
It did not take long after I’d begun trying to ascertain the means and methods I would need to employ to search for my birth mother, in the mid-1980s, that I discovered that such information was unavailable within the existing Adoption Reform Movement in the U.S.; nor did the available literature offer any guidance. As a result, I felt very disconnected from my fellow, U.S.-born adoptees, particularly after I learned that German-born adoptees had been given access to their original records in the late 1970s. After visiting my recently discovered half-brother in Germany, in March of 1988, I decided that I would try to fill that information gap by publishing a newsletter, which I entitled “Geborener Deutscher” (“German by birth”), and which I then distributed to all the existing adoption search support groups in the U.S.
I likewise do not know exactly when I fixated on the idea of returning permanently to Germany. I do remember wishing, as early as 1980, when I was discharged from the U.S.A.F. while still stationed in Germany, that I could have remained in the country, instead of having to return to the States to process out. I think I recognized, however, that it would not have been practical to remain in Germany then; my command of the language was completely inadequate, and I had joined the Air Force in the first place because of my difficulty finding work in the country where I had grown up. But having spent almost a full year effectively living in Germany, I had come to believe that it could be done, under the right circumstances; the seed had been planted, and remained always in the back of my mind. Eventually, it matured into a promise to myself, as well as a life goal I would express at every opportunity, a goal that I vowed I would attempt to accomplish as soon as the time was right.
A bit more than 25 years from the day my first German passport was issued, the time became right. With the deaths of my husband, in 2015, and my adoptive father, in 2016 (my only other immediate family members had already passed away: my sister in 2003, and my mother in 2010), I had lost all personal ties to the U.S. of any significance, and so I began seriously contemplating my “Rückkehr” – my return. Moving was something I was planning to do in any event after my father died – I had never particularly liked living in New Mexico – and the first thing to do was to figure out if moving to Germany was even practicable.
The logistics were pretty straightforward, but there was one prerequisite that represented a “make or break” criterion: German residents are legally required to have health insurance; if I couldn’t afford to obtain health insurance on my limited income (SSA survivor’s benefits on my late husband’s account, supplemented by the proceeds of the sales of both my childhood home and my then-current residence), either within the state-sponsored system or from private sources, moving to Germany would not be possible. Once I was assured, however, in December 2017, that I would, in fact, be able to get coverage within the state-sponsored system once I had established residency in Germany, I started preparing to relocate, a process that culminated in my arrival, on June 23, 2018, in Frankfurt-am-Main, with little more than the clothes on my back and my then-12-year-old cat, Rusty. (Some might imagine that the recent political upheaval in the U.S. played some role in my decision to relocate when I did, but it was purely coincidental; my late husband just happened to pass away two weeks before Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, and my father just happened to pass away one month prior to the 2016 election. It took as little time thereafter as possible, given the need to await the final settlement of my father’s estate, to begin the actual process of moving, and arrange for the orderly “wrapping up” of the life I had built up to that point.)
April 2, 2020, marked the second anniversary of my arrival in Germany on my initial mission to find a place to live, either permanently or temporarily while looking for a more permanent residence. I was extremely fortunate to have found an apartment – just a furnished room, really, but nonetheless adequate for my purposes – within the first two weeks; and then, after briefly returning to New Mexico to tie up the loose ends of my old life, an apartment better suited to long-term residency within three months of my permanent return to Germany in June. So far, everything has been as good or better than I imagined or expected. In particular, it feels as if I have done more bike-riding since returning to Germany than I had in 25 years of living in New Mexico. In any event, I have absolutely no regrets. I do not miss anything about my life in America, except for some food items that are unavailable, or prohibitively expensive to obtain (and even those items are not as numerous as one might imagine, because, while they are invariably more expensive to obtain, they’re not all prohibitively expensive).
When I was awaiting a determination of my citizenship status in Germany, I published an article in Geborener Deutscher, which I headlined, “Am I German or American?” Some time later, after having established my status as a dual national, I published an updated version of that article under the headline, “I Am Both German and American.” But these labels referred exclusively to my citizenship status, and not to any other form of self-identification. If I had been writing about how I identify culturally, I might have said, “I am neither German nor American.” Being an accidental citizen of two different countries, and having no sense of belonging to either, I sometimes describe myself as a “citizen of the world”; but that is as much a misnomer as “German” or “American.”
Nevertheless, regardless of how long I live in Germany – and regardless of how much I might wish it weren’t so – I will forever carry my “American-ness” within me. And while I feel very much more at home here than ever I did in the U.S., it’s really just a matter of comparison. I never really felt “at home” anywhere in America, and that feeling of alienation only increased with time. It didn’t help that I never developed any familial bond with my adoptive parents; or that I socially isolated myself as a child, as a reaction (perhaps an overreaction?) to perceived social ostracisation; or that I never found community with any of the social subgroups to which I claim membership (adoptees, generally, and intercountry adoptees, particularly; or gay men). Consequently, I have experienced an intense sense of disconnection from humanity, a persistent feeling of “separateness” that began as mistrust and which has morphed, over time, into misanthropy.
I often imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t been adopted, or if I hadn’t been adopted by Americans; the life I might have had had I grown up in Germany. As I envision it, it is a life that probably would have been less stable or comfortable, but which might have been more fulfilling; a life that might not have provoked me to distance myself from my fellow man, and which might have afforded me the opportunity to develop the sense of belonging that has forever eluded me – and which I know now I will never find. I do not necessarily regret the life I have lived, but I do sometimes feel intense regret for the life I lost, and likewise, intense anger at having been deprived of it.
© 2020 William L. Gage. All rights reserved.