My German grandmother was a tiny, extremely assertive woman, who died in the US two years ago at the age of 86. She stepped out of her enormous air-conditioned Jeep, outfitted especially for her with a small stepping ladder, and into the humid, sweltering heat of summer in the center of her hometown, Chicago, where she then fell over – and died. My mother thereupon went to her place of birth in the Rhineland, grabbed a few handfuls of soil from there and smuggled this through the US border. At every point she encoun- tered resistance – burial is regulated, the urn must be sealed to be buried, and so on.
My mother asked if she could toss the rose petals of the flowers brought by friends into the open grave along with my grandmother’s ashes, and this small request was granted. She secretly mixed the German soil of her mother’s place of birth with the flower petals before adding them to the grave. I don’t know how she managed to get to the ashes in the sealed urn, but in the same way she smuggled the soil into the US, she brought a handful of her mother’s ashes to Germany. She buried the smuggled ashes of her mother (with me and my sisters in attendance) illegally in the forest in her place of birth close to the town of Düren. In both directions, the official law was ritually subverted through these tiny, private gestures. In this I recognize myself, who grew up in eight different countries, so that my early life was marked by continuous border crossings, and I recognize my family’s individual memory, my mother, the capacity to survive in small and private areas wherein she consciously, with great virtuosity, inconsistency and personal joy, subverted senseless official rules aiming to determine, discipline and regulate corporeality, thereby physically marking the re-establishment of a different sense of justice.
Anthropologist Gaze – Import/Export => How to tell your kids.
Or: I am your monster.
When I was on vacation in Germany as a six or seven year old, my parents once sent me out to play. I encountered other children in the sandbox who wanted to know where I come from. I said: Rabat They said: where is that. I said: Morocco. They said: where is that? I said, in Africa. They said, that is not true, you are not Black. I said, not only Black people live in Africa, but also Arabs, Bedouins, Tuareg and white people from Europe and the United States or some who were born there, like my sister. They said, that is not true – then tell us what it is like to live in a jungle. I said, there where I live, there is no jungle, there is a city. Close by there is a desert. They said, then tell us what it is like to encounter lions on the way to school. I said, so far, I have only seen lions in a zoo, it is just a normal city, there. Where I live. But we sometimes find scorpions in our sandbox.
At this point I was chased away: You are a liar!
My kids reacted: Man, were those kids stupid, Mom, why were they so stupid. I said, back then many kids in Germany did not know too much about other countries and their parents probably did not either. But for me that was not so pleasant. And I think I may have started telling stories because of this.
In Prague I later attended an international school with children from many different countries, and I told them something – a story that I had fabricated out of something that I had once half overheard. I already knew at that time that one could create interest and garner attention with stories about the backwardness and idiosyncrasies of people in other countries. My grandmother was a hairdresser, and I said that she was pretty happy to have moved to the United States because German women were convinced that one would immediately catch cold if one washed one’s hair in the winter. And when these German women came into her hairdresser shop after the winter it was totally disgusting, they had really dirty hair because they had not washed them for 4-5 months. Lice, vermin, ... I worked my way into a more and more enjoyable common sense of exaggerated disgust, painted the grossness of what was found there in ever greater detail, highly conscious of my public’s reactions. (I suppose I assumed it was ok because I was technically “of” German women unwashed hairiness and was probably dangerously/deliciously close to possibly becoming one such monstrosity myself some day) They loved it, and so did I.
My German-American immigrant mother overheard the last part of my story. I can still hear the angry exasperation in her voice: