by Britta Jensen



My brother and I have figured out that it takes less than seven days for a letter to transverse the globe from his home in Abuta-gun, Hokkaido, Japan to my flat in Amberg, Germany. His notes remind me of the multi-lingual missives my high school best friend and I wrote in a tiny green notebook that still resides in a trunk of journals I have kept since I was eight.

Now notes to myself are often written in three languages: English, Japanese and German. Individuals familiar with my background often ask about my “Asian” handwriting, love of hospitality (it’s difficult to leave my home without having had something to drink or eat), and will make fun of the fact I bow when I’m deeply grateful. A well meaning colleague went as far as to tell me it was time to “get over” the way I was raised so that I would have an easier time assimilating to life in the U.S. After twenty two years (split between childhood and working adulthood) spent living in Japan, South Korea and Germany I have come to appreciate that integration into any culture is often a two-way street.

My early life started close to the Mexican border. My mother was an interpreter for the deaf and my early memories are of conversations with hands, Mexican markets where she would bargain for the best vegetables on offer, and eating spicey dinners with our neighbour from Turkey. My family often drove across the Coronado Bay Bridge singing along to “Peki, Peki, Anlidik.” It wasn’t until two decades later, while dancing with my Turkish tango partner, that I learned the song’s translation. Unlike our neighbour, my partner wasn’t eager to talk about anything from his native country. He had learned early the necessity, even in New York City, of subsuming his other cultural identity. Like Yiyun Li states in her essay “To Speak is to Blunder” once he came to the U.S. he “became a new person…These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom…” I wonder how necessary it is for us to shed one identity in order to adopt another?

I understand the weariness of many an immigrant. When my family made a rare pilgrimage back to the U.S., relatives warned us about writing in hieroglyphs. My sister and I were told to stop speaking in Japanese in public because people would assume we were talking about them. For individuals not accustomed to speaking in more than one language, it was probably inconceivable that we weren’t being intentionally exclusive about communication. My sister and I were accustomed to speaking in two languages in a language mishmash. We also had assumed, mistakenly, that the cultural melting pot that the U.S. was famed for being, would go with the flow when it came to our speaking Japanese in public. We hadn’t spent enough time in the U.S. to know otherwise. America was still a famed country that had gilt edges whilst we were away. On NYC subway we became a target for every weirdo who wanted to ask us if we were speaking Swedish.

When I started taking post graduate courses at Columbia University I stopped hiding my multi-lingual background. In my first creative writing class the instructor asked us what we were afraid of.  My answer: “that my English isn’t good enough to become a decent writer.”  My brain considers all the languages I’ve studied one whole, not separate  branches on a language tree. Perhaps it is why half of my stories are set in places I’ve created, because the reality of where I came from is too difficult to extrapolate without making a setting that can integrate all of these cultural forces.


It can be hard to describe what it is like to feel that a place is home, even while the people who inhabit that place will always view me as a foreigner. (Or, as the above right graphic exhibits think it is okay to comment on my genetic origins because I do not belong to the dominant culture).  Nevertheless, the pervasive racism in Japan could not destroy my love of my home because I had spent so many happy moments there and felt like I was woven into the fabric of my surrounding community.

When I moved to the northern tip of Manhattan, I had had similar feelings of integration in Washington Heights where I was invited to christenings, baptisms, weddings, and various other cultural celebrations. I quickly learned Spanish, lived in Argentina for a summer, and found a wonderful second home. This false sense of cultural security made me believe it was possible to assimilate anywhere.



In South Korea I encountered my first obstacle to integration: I had no relevant background or knowledge of Hongul (Korean). I had been there once in high school and though the country had encountered huge shifts of technological advancement, Daegu, where I lived, didn’t have enough foreigners for people not to constantly stare or point at me. There were enough false cognates in Hongul for me to have a very hard time learning the language.

However, after a year and a half of individual study I was able to read. It probably helped that I started attending an all-Korean congregation and sang in the regional choir. Surrounded by a band of Korean ladies between the ages of 15-70 they would whisper the words of the songs to me so I could write them down. Every Sunday baffled children would watch me sing in Hongul and wonder why it was I couldn’t have a conversation with them. Integration was not possible, but I was happy in knowing I had a community where I had a defined function and purpose.

When a job transfer gave me the opportunity to move to Germany I relished the opportunity to live in Europe and to be reunited with beloved friends. I left with the assumption that I would integrate much like I had in Korea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the cultural differences that only residents can be aware of.

Because I am a teacher, I have certain assumptions about learning that even beloved colleagues do not share. I believe that if you want to learn something, you will. Mastery in almost any skill requires a combination of sacrifice, good teaching, and focused repetition. Because Japanese and Spanish felt like they came so easily to me (and never quite required the same level of proficiency that my life in Germany demanded) I thought I would pick up a language in which I could already read, in no time. Local residents in my neighborhood quickly became frustrated when I didn’t learn German fast enough and became a burden on their hospitality.

Until this point the idea of “not learning fast enough” was foreign to me. Everyone learns at the pace in which their brain can work. Consequently, in Germany I was doing many things too slowly: driving (even when I was driving 10km faster than the speed limit), shopping, counting money, speaking, the list seemed to be endless. In my first three years there didn’t seem to be a week that didn’t go by that I wasn’t reduced to tears in the privacy of my car. I had chosen to reside forty-five minutes away from work in the largest  nearby city so I could learn German. Finances and writing/work obligations kept me from taking night classes and I was stuck in a limbo. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for the population of migrants and refugees that soon took up residence in Amberg.

At that time, I didn’t have the patience to realize that acquiring a language– that you haven’t had a lot of exposure to– takes time. I spoke as much as a two year-old in my first three years in Germany. Now, seven years on, I speak almost as well as a highly cognitive four year-old. Germany is not an easy country, particularly in my region, to integrate. Often policy makers for refugees, migrants, and foreigners do not understand that integration requires being invited into local people’s lives. It requires a certain hospitality that often the average German lacks. When I speak to friends about this they admit, frankly, that this is a problem. But, could this also not be isolated only to Germany? I have felt similarly in America: but do I set the bar higher for the country of my birth?

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay entitled “Teach Yourself Italian” she perfectly identifies what any immigrant needs “someone with whom I can struggle, and fail.” Essentially, integration requires good teachers. These can be friends, actual language teachers, community members, neighbours. A willing community is necessary where patience is at the heart of embracing different cultures. I have found this, once again, in my church community. Unfortunately individuals without such a network can suffer.

Two things have made my life in Germany a delight: having local friends, especially Germans who have lived extensively in other countries. These friends have been patient to help bring my language skills to the next level. One good friend, a homeopathic healer has helped me to understand that if I visualize that I am already good at something, I have tricked my brain into going along for the ride. But, if I concentrate only on my mistakes, the grimaces from fellow shoppers, then I won’t latch onto the good and the beauty that comes from having the humility to learn, to make a fool of oneself and enjoy the transitory moment of being vulnerable.



Karlovy Most by Milo Jens

There is a certain blind faith I am exercising in going back to the U.S. It is the country of my birth, of my passport, but not necessarily my overall culture. I have become what some refer to as “third culture.” I have lived abroad longer than any of my other relatives, including extended family. At work I am surrounded by individuals who will never go back to the U.S. Some claim they will be buried on German, or foreign soil, rather than go back. I used to believe I would suffer the same fate.

I am aware that I have changed and like Lahiri, if I mention my tenuous cultural beginnings I often receive mixed reactions because of my pale appearance. “[M]any people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it….They don’t want me to change.” (“Teach Yourself Italian”, p. 11). There is an immense pressure to assimilate back to what I never was.  It is too late, because I have already changed and certain cultural variables can never integrate into American culture. Instead of letting this upset me, I am happy to belong to a subset of humanity that is growing: those without a primary culture, but whom are content almost anywhere.

I welcome your insights on integration and culture.

4 thoughts on “Returned From Abroad: Barriers to Integration

  1. There is so much to unpack in this blog. I don’t know where to start in terms of a response. I’ve been reading it all morning, stopping to read parts out loud to Anna.

    What do I think about culture and integration after reading this?

    I will be thinking about this for a while today.

    I found this line particularly powerful:

    ” . . . He had learned early the necessity, even in New York City, of subsuming his other cultural identity. Once he came to the U.S. he “became a new person…These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom . . . ”

    So powerful, I stopped reading to share this blog on FaceBook with my network. I went on to share:

    [Britta] just moved back to the States (Austin Texas) after living in German for . . . . a while. She is originally from Japan, but spent her early life near the Mexican boarder. Britta is a six foot tall blonde; she’s a white girl. Her experience is uniquely foreign while at the same time divorced from typical biases that conflate culture and race. And so the social scientist/behavioral economist in me is fascinated with this blog about her unique perspective and experiences.

    At the time I wrote that I had not finished your blog. I would amend that to say, “Her experience is uniquely foreign while at the same time divorced from typical [American] biases that conflate culture and race.”

    The irony of the liberty I’ve taken “to comment on [your] genetic origins because [you ] do belong to the dominant culture” is not lost on me.

    Also not lost is the observation of a uniquely different “bias” . . . I’m not sure what to call it. The expectation that you fit in to buckle to the “immense pressure to assimilate back to what [you] never [were]. Mostly to accommodate others so they don’t feel awkward. I don’t know. I’m really just thinking out loud. Like I said, I will be thinking about this for a while.

    • Rho: your analysis and comments are wonderfully refreshing. I am really glad that this article resonated with you and I welcome further thoughts because I agree with you: I am not a part of the dominant culture for a number of reasons that you’ve already illustrated above, despite my outward appearance. Today someone commented on my accent (I’m sure it’s not surprising that after a decade of living overseas I do speak English with a bit of an accent). It was a really kindly meant and thankfully I believe my other-ness can be a binding force instead of a divisive fractious thing.

      I look forward to more conversations with you and wish you and Anna very well!

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