My Father: How Moving to America Has Shaped his Perception
of America and his Own Identity
by Max Bauer, July 2014
For over a century, since the first major wave of immigrants started coming to America in the 1880’s, the United States has captured the imagination of people all over the world looking for prosperity. My father was one of those people. He visited the United States for the first time in the early 1980’s, and eventually settled down in East Lansing, Michigan, as a professor at Michigan States University. Like immigrants of all national and ethnic backgrounds, my father was drawn to the allure of the American dream, as much as he was drawn in by American mythology. To my father, America represented a land of freedom and progression. It was the birthplace of the blues and the rock music that had caught his ear as a teenager. Every immigrant comes to America with his or her own preconceptions of how life in the United States will be, and, upon arrival, many of them find that trying to generalize the United States in such a way is a futile task, as the country is so vast and so diverse that trying to label it all as any one thing would almost certainly be a lie. For my father, above all, America represented hope, and a chance to break free from the antiquated European culture for a new and exciting adventure. In many ways, he found what he was looking for. His time spent in America has been both exciting and illuminating, having changed many of his preconceived notions about the United States, while simultaneously changing his personal identity and the way he now perceives his European identity as a whole.
My father was born in Austria in 1955, to parents who had just survived the horrors of World War II, and were now dealing with its fallout. His father had been an accountant and his mother was the most wonderful housewife. After the end of the war, his parents moved back to their hometown, Puchberg Am Schneeberg, a small but stunningly beautiful town surrounded by mountains on almost all sides, content to spend the rest of their lives away from the horrors they had been forced to endure. It was here that my father was born and raised. Having always been an ambitious child, my father set his sights far beyond the borders of Puchberg at a young age. Exceptionally smart, he focused on studies, and saw them as a gateway out of the rural lifestyle he had hoped to escape. When it was finally time to go to college, my father chose to study at the University of Vienna. Vienna is the intellectual and cultural center of Austria, as well as my birthplace, and is where my father took his first steps on the path that has lead him to become head of his department, Telecommunications and Economics, at Michigan State University. Like many of those who eventually migrate to the United States, he was drawn by the allure of the American dream, as well as its culture. He eventually was able to experience America first hand, getting the opportunity to study in the United States. After doing research for his dissertation in the United States, and meeting my mother, he moved back to Europe briefly, before finally being offered a job at Michigan State University. Both my parents still live in Michigan, where my father is a professor and my mother runs a film festival. I believe they are happy, though the stark contrast between American and European culture was at first difficult to reconcile.
The lure of American culture, both the promise of boundless opportunity for those willing to work hard enough, and the wonderful Rock and Roll music that had always captured my father’s ear, enticed him into studying in the United States. I asked him why he chose the United States, and what had drawn him to this country. He told me the story of an uncle of his, who was a prisoner of war during World War II, and how he had been stationed in a prisoner of war camp in Virginia. His uncle had always spoken very positively about the United States. His uncle felt they had treated him very well, and he was grateful to them for having rescued him from the German army, for which he was being forced to fight against his will, on penalty of death, as many Austrians had been. It’s hard to overestimate the importance the opinions of family can have on a child’s impressions, and I think his uncle’s opinions of America were the foundation of my father’s interest. The second reason my father was drawn to the United States was the opportunity for success. Even compared to an academic sphere as developed as that in Vienna, the United States was among the most exciting places to be, both in terms of academics and opportunity. According to my father, “America was seen as a place of big opportunities that were more flexible and more entrepreneurial than Austria at the time”. Like many immigrants before him, the possibility of financial success played a major role in his decision to come.
From the perspective of my father and many Europeans during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the United States seemed like some new species of exotic flower, blooming and bursting at the seams with social movements and entirely new genres of music, largely in part to the press coverage and cultural significance of the counterculture movement. During this time the United States was very much defined by the era of the hippies, and the psychedelic music associated with it. From an international perspective, it wasn’t hard to imagine the United States as a place where one could lose themselves in the counterculture entirely. Donald R. Wesson, whose study, “Psychedelic Drugs, Hippie Counterculture, Speed and Phenobarbital Treatment of Sedative-Hypnotic Dependence: A Journey to the Haight Ashbury in the Sixties,” of 1960’s San Francisco and the chemical dependence that for many originated during this time, summarized the general attitude of the 1960’s well: “the 1960’s were a time of social upheaval, wars, vibrant creativity, and missed opportunities” (Wesson 2). To a young Austrian growing up in a fairly isolated town, the United States must have seemed like a place where exciting new things were happening, and where the chance to express oneself and feel free existed on every corner. In some places, that reality existed. In most places, however, the counterculture scene developing in San Francisco was far from reality. Like many immigrants before him, my father made the mistake of associating what was happening in San Francisco, and the personal values inherent to many aspects of the hippie movement, such as social equality and freedom, with the entirety of the United States. As a result of my father’s misconception of the majority of Americans and their value, I believe he placed significantly less value on his European identity than he would have otherwise. Not to say that my father didn’t love being from Austria; he truly did. But, the stories of freedom of expression and the unbelievable music coming from the United States were dynamically opposed to many aspects of European culture, a culture my father described as “rigid yet steeped in history and art.” Eventually my father found his way to America, where he experienced the reality of American culture first hand.
After having spent some time in the United States, the preconceived notions my father held about American values, as well as his conception that America could be defined as a homogenous entity, changed. Before truly emigrating to the United States, the only time my father had spent in America was in the urban and progressive areas of New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. In many ways, the people, who in those areas tended to believe in certain values, such as social equality and environmental conscientiousness, were more similar to his European peers than they were to the people in the Midwest, where he would eventually raise a family. The true culture shock for my father occurred when he finally accepted his job at Michigan State University, and moved to the Midwest. Before that point, he hadn’t realized just how different various parts of the United States could be. He commented on its variance during our interview, “I remember when we arrived in Michigan, I was shocked to see just how different everything was. It seemed like we had landed in the wrong place. It was then I realized just how vast, and how diverse, the United States was.” As our family started to settle in, both my parents had a hard time at first adapting to life in the Midwest, and with relating to the people. Even my mother, who was an American citizen, having grown up in San Francisco, was taken aback by the difference in values. In the Midwest, relative to the places my parents had lived, life moved slowly. The people focused on community, raising children in a safe environment, and enjoying their relationships with other people. Compared to the often self-centered, individual success oriented life style prevalent in cities, the Midwest, at first, seemed dull. But soon, both of my parents started to truly enjoy their new life. They could enjoy the safety of the community while raising their children. They also started to form long lasting friendships, friendships that may not have been possible in an urban setting, due to the almost paradoxical isolation brought on by dense populations. Though my father had always wondered what would have happened if he had stayed in Europe, he never regretted moving the United States, both for personal and professional reasons.
Trying to define European identity in any absolute terms may not be valid, but if one were to ask people from Europe how they relate to their countries as a whole, I believe there would be several commonalities between the responses. Having spent a lot of time in Europe, both with my family and on my own, I feel fairly qualified to speak about the similarities across Europe, and the differences between European and American identity. The immediate difference between the two cultures is simply the length of time each has existed. In many ways, the United States is a nation that is still developing its national identity, having only existed for a handful of centuries. In Europe, on the other hand, there are thousands of years of intellectual and artistic history built into the cultural center of each nation. Art and history are such an integral part of European culture that I believe that all Europeans have a greater appreciation for the humanities than most Americans. The second major difference is the physical space that Europe occupies. Europe has about twice the population as the United States, though it occupies less than half the space. This astounding compression of cultures and languages has, in a very natural way, contributed to the international mindset of Europeans. They are constantly coming into contact with people that speak different languages and the importance of multilingualism can never be overstated, while in America it simply isn’t a priority. All of these characteristics are very present in my father, and though he may have once felt restrained by European culture, I believe that today he appreciates it more than ever.
The stark contrast between my father’s European identity and the staunchly American personalities he came across in the Midwest at first seemed like a barrier he would never cross. He was used to the progressive and exciting areas of New York and San Francisco, and trying to reconcile his Austrian values with the slow paced life in the Midwest was difficult. The most difficult part was trying to relate to the humor in the Michigan. The fast paced city life of Europe, with thousands of years of culture and history, clashed drastically with the wide open spaces and the often culturally lacking values of Michigan. Drinking Coors and watching baseball weren’t particularly engaging activities for my Father, and he soon longed for the culture he had left behind, even refusing to return to Europe in fear that the process of having to return to America would be too painful. His refuge was work and research, where he was no longer trying to artificially assimilate to a culture he didn’t belong in. “I think that my own personality is much more in tuned with European senses compared to culture here in the US. I never regretted it on a professional level, because there were so many more opportunities here in the US, but I always wondered what would have happened if I had stayed.” Fortunately, life in Academia proved very fulfilling for my father, but the sense that he had lost the connection to his roots was a traumatic experience. For any immigrant, the sense that they somehow abandoned their past is often present. European culture, that to my father once seemed rigid and stuck in place, now felt like an essential part of his identity. It took the shattering of his preconceptions of America to realize that his roots were not only there to be escaped from, they were a fundamental part of how he saw himself as a person.
Due in large part to the experiences my father has had teaching at Michigan State University, his connection to both European and American culture has significantly increased. By realizing that many of the idealistic notions of America he had were on many levels not true, my father has grown to understand that he initially gave less value to his Austrian heritage than it deserved. Having only recently become an American citizen, my father has adapted his identity to the winding road of his life. He truly is a man of both worlds, able to operate seamlessly in the culturally rich environment of Western Europe, and the fast-paced, success oriented American lifestyle. To put it in his own words, “I feel at home in either country. They’re both my home now”. Today, my father takes every opportunity to visit his home town that he can, having learned to embrace both the country he came from and the country that he has raised a family in. I see my father as a man who is constantly evolving, and always looking to take the first step on some new adventure. His identity is in many way elastic; he seems to be constantly growing. Over the years, the world view he has adopted has given him a heightened sense of patience and understanding, and has helped him overcome both his own tribulations and given him the insight to help other people overcome theirs.
Over the years, various experiences have changed the way my father perceives America and Americans, and as a whole have changed the way he relates to his European identity. By moving to America, my father’s preconceived notion of the United States as a homogenous entity in which the same value systems exist throughout the nation, changed, and as a result, he developed a greater appreciation of his European heritage, which he now enjoys for its culture and relation to history. Though at first he saw his European roots as antiquated, to the point that he felt being European was a disadvantage, he now appreciates the unique cultural sensitivities it has instilled in, and the diversity it adds to his identity, both in how own eyes and the eyes of others. He once believed that he could generalize Americans, but he ultimately realized he completely underestimated the complexity and the vastness of the nation. Many immigrants have the experience of expecting a nation to be a certain way and finding it to be much different. According to Marcella Ramelli, whose article “Being prepared for acculturation: On the importance of the first months after immigrants enter a new culture” appeared in International Journal of Psychology, the first few months in a new country are often shocking for an immigrant, as they find themselves needed to behave and even think in a different way than they had expected. She writes, “When immigrants arrive in a new country, they are repeatedly confronted by situations unknown to their cultural perspectives. As a result, immigrants often experience anxiety and a sense of uncertainty due to the invalidity of their old thinking-as-usual” (Ramelli 2). After spending time in the Midwest, which differs tremendously from the cultural hubs of San Francisco and New York, where he spent time doing research, my father realized the extent of the diversity of the United States. He had always envisioned the United States as brimming with an omnipresent excitement, and though that feeling does exist is some places, many parts of the United States have different values. Realizing the false assumptions he had made about America, he grew to appreciate the simplicity of his Austrian roots, and as a result embraced his heritage more than he ever would have otherwise.
“Weekend Interview with My Dad.” Personal interview. 9 July 2014.
Wesson, Donald R. “Psychedelic Drugs, Hippie Counterculture, Speed and Phenobarbital Treatment Sedative-Hypnotic Dependence: A Journey to the Haight Ashbury in the Sixties.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 43.2 (2011): 153-164. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 July 2014
Ramelli, Marcella, et al. “Being Prepared For Acculturation: On the Importance of the First Months after Immigrants Enter a New Culture.” International Journal of Psychology 48.3 (2013): 363-373. Business Source Premier. Web. 23 July 2014.
Sample Transcripts of Interview between Max Bauer and his Father, Johannes Bauer
M: First question is, why, uh hello? Why did you choose America, why was America your country of choice to migrate to?
J: That’s a very good question. I don’t think there’s one answer there’s multiple reasons for it. One was since I was a kid I was fascinated by America, umm, I was always curious about it. For one probably my uncle, I don’t know if you remember him, he was a prisoner of war. He actually was moved to a camp in the US, in Virginia I believe. And uh, but he always spoke very favorably about America, and so that left a very good impression. And you know my family grew up in war torn Austria, after WWII, Austria was divided into 4 zones. One was American, one was Russian, one was French, and one was English. And my parents wound up in the Russian area, and all they did was talk about the hardships they had sort of dealing with this so at the same uncle, just by luck, ended up in an American zone and so again he was very favorable towards America. So again that’s one reason, from very early on I have this sort of positive image of America. Secondly, when I was a teenager I really liked American rock music, like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers and the Doors and all those bands, I mean they were just with us all the time, I that got me interested in that sense. Lastly, you know I saw America as a place of big opportunities that were more entrepreneurial than Austria. And so then I had a chance, as a fellow student, to spend some time in the US, to write a dissertation that included some work in the US, and I found some grant money, and some financial support to come to the US for a while, so I moved to New York first for a little bit and then to San Francisco to UC Berkeley and in New York Columbia University, and I would explore the country in between. So I picked up a VW van in California, it was like a camper van, I went to the Southwest and the national parks and everything and I was quite fascinated by the country and then I went back to Europe and I decided, well first of all you know Susan and I, Mom and I, met in San Francisco when I was at Berkeley and the solidified the connection and eventually I became curious to work in the US, mostly because first of all when I left, I felt I hadn’t learned enough about the country. So I wanted to come back. The opportunities in Austria were not, and in Europe in general, were not as good at the time in my opinion. So I came here, and we stayed. That’s pretty much it in a nut shell. So fascination for one, personal ties for two, and work opportunities, much better than they were in Europe.
M: mmhmm. Ok so what age were you when you moved to the United States?
J: When we finally moved, I was 35.
M: Ok so you came to America first for school.
J: Yeah let me think about it. I was in my early thirties or late twenties. And you know there was a time when Susan lived in the United States, and I lived in Europe. And we had this long distance relationship where I lived in Vienna, and I started looking for job opportunities in the US. I started applying for jobs and had a few interviews. I mean I remember I was in Atlanta, at a big conference, and Michigan States offered a job, and invited me to an interview on campus and so I came here and talked to them and eventually it worked out and finally we all came back to the US.
M: Ok great. Dad I’m gonna make sure that this is recording and I’ll call you right back.
J: Alright, ok great.
M: Hey so it worked. So umm next question is, when you first arrived in America, what expectations did you have?
J: (pauses) Hehe. I have to think back. You know I came over very very naively, I mean I thought I would just, well you have to keep in mind that when I came here I was doing work on my dissertation, and I was supposed to do research, and my dissertation was comparative research so it was comparing American economic policies to European policies. I thought I would be able to just talk to a few people in different organization and in private industry and then I would understand what was going on in the US. I was shocked at how complicated the country was. And so at the end of that first year, I realized that I knew nothing. I was actually quite disheartened. I was actually really quite discouraged because it was way more complicated than I ever had imagined, and the little bit of work that I could do in that one year seemed to totally be inadequate to the size of the country, and you know other things, such as it being energetic, and there being lots of music was great and big sky scrapers and the fascinating experiences in San Francisco and New York and all those things, I had read about it ahead of time, I had heard about it many times, so it was great to see it all live. But in terms of the work I did, I thought everything was much more simple than it turned out to be. It was much more complicated than I thought it was. And much bigger and much more complex.
M: Hmmm, well which of those expectations turned out to be true, and which turned out to be false. Well I guess you sort of covered that.
J: Maybe we should talk a bit about when I came back, when I was hired by Michigan State. Because at that point I hadn’t really emigrated yet. I hadn’t thought about living in the United States until I was hired. When I came back in 1990, I had very few expectations. To me it was all an adventure. I thought it was very exciting to get into professional life and develop a career here. You know I didn’t really know for exactly how long I was going to come and I didn’t really talk about it explicitly. We thought maybe for 3 years, maybe 2. And then go back to Europe or something. But uh when I came here I realized I was in a tenure position so there was a chance that I would get an unlimited contract, so I figured ok I’ll just and see if I can get tenure.
M: Well I’d say that seems to have worked out really well.
J: Yeah yeah sure. And then after 3 and a half years, they were willing to give me tenure early, usually it takes about 7 years. And now I thought, well I have tenure, if I have tenure why would I want to go back to Europe? And then you know you and Tatia had friends, and a social environment and you liked going to school here and we had a nice house and there didn’t seem to be much reason to take you back to Europe. You know, I expected things to be more dynamic, more entrepreneurial at the university because in the end a lot of it was very bureaucratic, although things have changed in the meantime, I did not anticipate that there would be so much material. But here everything was so vast and so big, I mean in the end, once I lived there, I realized how big the country is. How diverse it is and how complicated it is. You and I actually expected to make more money than I actually did. After taxes and everything that was taken out. In the beginning, eventually, we had enough for a house. But you know it was never easy for me, because I always regretted leaving Europe for some reason. At first I didn’t like living here. But also because we didn’t have enough money we had to sell the apartment in Vienna, so we could have some money for a house. Soo, we didn’t really go back to Vienna, because when we left, Europe opened up, and as a result real estate prices rose, and so by the time two years later when we thought about going back, everything was twice as expensive. So what happened had happened, and I always had second thoughts about what would have happened if I had stayed in Europe, especially on a professional level, because I think that my own personality is much in tuned with European senses compared to culture here in the US. I never regretted it on a professional level, because there were so many more opportunities here in the US, but I always wondered. So for the first 5 or 6 years I deliberately didn’t go back to Europe, because I thought it would be sad, and I wouldn’t want to leave the old world, because there was always this sort of sense that I had lost my roots. And you know it’s interesting to talk about your Mom because she came back to her own country, but she was used to California, and even though she was in her own country, she was in a totally different place. First of all, people were much more reserved, maybe, than they were on the coast, but after a while, after she got to know them, they became much more open and friendly, and so she was able to form very deep relationships. At first she was very disappointed coming back to her own country but after about two or three years she really started liking it. You a lot of things that would happen on the east coast, like hour long traffic jams, and the benefits of the Midwest like great public schools, and safe caring neighborhoods.
M: I was always glad that I grew up in the Midwest and not in a big city
J: Yeah I think the quality of life that you and Tatia would have had growing up in a city would have been, in many ways, much lower.