Searching for a German Childhood | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 25.10.2005
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Searching for a German Childhood

People living in a foreign country often feel left out when the natives start reminiscing about their common childhood memories. A German-based artist from New Zealand might have found an answer to the problem.


German headdress meets global childhood memory

As a 17-year-old exchange student from New Zealand, Joanne Moar initially felt pretty lost at the other end of the world. She'd come to Hamburg with very little German and a very different childhood and youth experience.

When her friends got giggly about a party game that involves unwrapping a chocolate bar parcel while wearing gloves and using cutlery, she didn't really know how to react. She had no idea that "Hui Bu, the Castle Ghost" was a popular audio play on tape German kids listened to. Moar had also never heard of Harry Potter's German predecessor Winnetou, the native American hero of novels by author Karl May.

Pierre Brice in Winnetou III

Generations of German boys have looked up to Winnetou

"I couldn't connect to them on that level," Moar said. "I didn't share these memories."

Now 34 years old, Moar has since spent more than a decade in Germany and speaks the language without a hint of an accent. A German childhood was still lacking, however, so Moar decided to search for one.

Collecting memories

She devised an art project called "Becoming German" and set out to collect childhood memories from her adopted countrymen and women. Equipped with a laptop, two chairs and a table, Moar made for pedestrian zones and lakeside promenades to invite Germans to share their childhood memories with her.

Becoming German

Moar (left) while gathering memories

"People get a chance to tell their story," Moar said, adding that many people have thanked her for the possibility to remember their past.

In return, Moar lights up people's eyes when she offers a now rarely sold cherry-flavored lollipop from their formative years.

Norbert Wenning remembers the candy well.

"The one with the green stick, right?" said the professor of education at the University of Münster.

Opera lovers of the world, unite

But while it's nice to walk down childhood-memory lane with others, Wenning said that similar social backgrounds often played a much more important role than the country of origin when it comes to the ability to communicate.

Royal Opera House in Covent Garden

Visiting London's Covent Garden won't shock Japanese opera lovers

"If I'm used to going to the opera, it doesn't really matter which country I'm in," Wenning said. "Differences within cultures are always bigger than those between cultures."

He added that other factors such as geography also play a role.

"If you take a child who grew up in Istanbul, a child who grew up in a large city, it's going to be much easier for the child to move to Berlin than for a child from (rural Turkish region) Anatolia to move to Istanbul," he said.

A wealth of memories

The lack of a shared childhood culture can potentially become a problem for migrant families with a low level of education, said Cristina Allemann-Ghionda, a professor and expert on intercultural education at Cologne University.

Ausländer in Kreuzberg

Getting along just fine in Berlin's Kreuzberg district

"But it's definitely not a tragedy if someone cannot share the memory of a certain children's song or game," said Allemann-Ghionda, who spent her formative years in Italy, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.

"Many times I was in the situation where I didn't know what people were talking about," she said. "But it always depends on how one deals with the situation. I feel quite positive about it. My head is full of memories."

A typical, atypical German childhood

Full of memories -- just like Moar's online database, where 2,700 German childhoods have been entered so far.

On her Web site, people can now also receive a German childhood by entering some personal information that's used to create a tailor-made early history for them.

Becoming German

Moar also collected childhood memories from the children of migrants who grew up in Germany

But instead of finding her own definitive faux German history, Moar said she discovered that a typical German childhood doesn't exist.

"There are very many facets to it," she said. "I'm finding that a typical German childhood is not like I expected a typical German childhood to be."

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