The Rambling American: The Invisible Man

With reverence to Ralph Ellison, Locke McKenzie confronts the dual identity of expats. When you have two nationalities, which one do you call home?

Friday 1 a.m., Knust Music Hall
The Jäger in my hand is warm and sticky from spending too much time in my friend’s sock (the price one pays for smuggling cheap booze into a concert). Regardless, I take a sip and get ready for Bon Iver, a four-piece band out of Wisconsin, to take the stage. This is the longest sound check I’ve ever heard. The crowd has already been drinking for a while (it is 1 a.m. after all), and they’re starting to shout things at the stage in German. But we all know this is in vain. This band is composed of a bunch of Americans. Americans can never understand other languages. Everyone knows that.

The lead man, Justin Vernon, has been sitting on the stage getting his instruments ready. He gives the guitar a final, good strum, and then the lights go out so the show can finally begin. He leans towards the microphone and begins to mumble.

“Hey everybody, we’re Bon Iver. We’re from a little town in Wisconsin, and this is our first European show, so we’re pretty excited to be here. Thanks for coming.”

Was hat er eben gesagt? (What did he just say?)” My German friend shouts in my ear. I lean over and try to translate.

For a quick moment, a small portion of my American heart begins to swell. I can translate for her because I understand him. Like him, I’m American. Especially having grown up in Michigan, a secret piece of me wants to give a good old fashioned Midwestern fist pump. Maybe I’ll even shout something like, “yeah Wisconsin!”.

In this little bar amongst the crowds of Germans who cannot understand most of his mumblings and who cannot envision those snow-covered plains of our childhoods, Justin and I are somehow brethren. At least I envision us as such. I do so because, for the moment, it’s convenient; because for the time being, it is somehow cooler to be from Michigan than from Germany.

This is a form of excitement that could only manifest itself in a land far, far away from the cornfields of Americana. After all, my nostalgia for Michigan can only exist when I’m not there. When I actually find myself surrounded by the strung out hippies and businessmen of Grand Rapids, I feel nothing but trapped. No fist pumps. No shouting. Just the strong desire to run.

This is one of the things I’ve grown to treasure living here in Germany. At this moment, in this bar, I choose be American, but in the next, I can abandon those ties altogether. The longer I live in Germany, the more I can control this choice. The stronger my German-speaking abilities become and the more familiar I get with the culture, the easier it is to assimilate myself into the world around me.

By learning to fit myself into one culture as well as the other, I’m developing a sort of cultural autonomy. I can choose when I want to identify myself as what. If something American comes up that I don’t agree with, I can simply say, “That’s not me. I left. I’m an international man now. I’m different.”

If there is a cool American band playing, however, I am naturally of the land.

In a very loose way, I and all other expats who play this strange game with their identity are becoming what novelist Ralph Ellison would call Invisible Men.

Though his novel, Invisible Man, plays in Harlem rather than Europe, I reflect on it surprisingly often. The book is all about subverting identity. It’s all about being free.

Near the end of the story, the nameless narrator dawns a disguise and wanders the streets of Harlem. The people he encounters confuse him with a multifarious fellow named Rinehart, who is at once a pimp, bookie, and preacher. Rinehart is the everyman, and through his interactions as Rinehart, the narrator realizes that he too can free himself from the chains of the social preconceptions that bind him. He can become anything to anyone. He has the power to manipulate the perceptions of himself. He can become invisible.

This is the turning point and success of the novel, and through it, Ellison defines a major theory of post-modern thinking. He shows us that we can be whatever we want. We can be free of society. Society is evil, and we must therefore snap the chains and beat it down.

The more time I spend in this invisible territory, however, the more I see its dark side. We are who we want to be when we want to be, but I also see that this comes at a cost.

Over the last year that I have lived in Europe, I’ve talked with other immigrants. While they seem to enjoy where they are and what they are doing, there is also a great feeling of displacement that comes with this invisible life. While some people originally planned to go home at some point—to move back to the place where they have family and friends and many things dear to them—they were unable or unwilling to do so when the time came. Despite the bouts of homesickness and the missing of best friends’ weddings, they found that the place they once considered home had become something foreign. With each returning trip, the American or the Brit that used to stare back at them in the mirror became less and less identifiable.

As a result, two years turns into five or ten or twenty, and each year it gets harder to go back. But the place where they now live is not really home either.

Each day, I recognize new things that I like about Germany, but I’ve come to realize that I will never be able to live as a full-fledged European either. Yes, I can enjoy the 25 days paid holiday each year (in the U.S. we get ten) and the fact that another world/culture lies no more than a train ride away, but no matter where I go here in Europe, I will never get Thanksgiving off; I’ll never have access to cheap, delicious Mexican food; and I won’t get to drink Natural Ice out of a beer bong again (although I could probably live without the last one). Most importantly, I will never get to see my family without paying $1,000 for a plane ticket. While they all make weekend trips to Lake Michigan together, I will have to hear about it over the telephone.

I can enjoy living here. I can even come to terms with living here, but this also means I will forever be floating between two worlds. The longer I stay, the more likely it becomes that I won’t feel at home in either. Such is the life of the invisible man. I guess there is good reason why Ellison’s narrator ends up wandering the sewers of New York alone.

Read more from The Rambling American.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.