Two hats

New Braunfels, Texas

As the world health authorities issue propaganda comparing sausages to tobacco, the people of New Braunfels have seemingly missed the memo. Each year since 1963 the inhabitants of this rural community in Texas’s central Hill Country have gathered to celebrate their German heritage in the only appropriate fashion – over-consumption of beer and processed meats.

Wurstfest, as it is known, is a big deal ‘round these parts. The organising committee meets year round and is a who’s who of local community leaders while the beer halls and dance floors are permanent structures, the walls adorned with generations of moustachioed revellers, and award-winning festival fare – such as the especially delicious ‘pork chop on a stick’, a casual snack that in some parts of the world would be sufficient to feed a family of five.

But while it not uncommon elsewhere for ethnic communities to congregate and celebrate their culture, what is interesting about this particular celebration is that Germans first began settling the region in the early 19th century and many of the locals are sixth or seventh generation.

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Despite being decked out in full garb, lederhosen and all, most locals have never set foot in the motherland nor do they speak the language anymore. My lame attempts at ‘dankeschon’ and ‘gutentag’ were met more often with suspicion or dumbfoundery than fluent response. Many surnames have been Anglicised, although a notable exception was a Mr Goebell, who anxiously (and understandably) informed me it is pronounced ‘Gable’. And yet, many know the words belted out by the polka and oom-pa-pa bands, and are expert in the various strands of wurst. 

This is a very American multiculturalism. The people of central Texas are among the nation’s most patriotic and yet they have little trouble embracing the culture of their forebears, despite hundreds of years of assimilation.

The phenomenon is not endemic to Texas. In New York City and Boston, four leaf clovers are proudly displayed by those whose Irish heritage is a distant memory, while in much of the northern Midwest, Scandinavian flags and names are ubiquitous in the most American of small towns.

When I lived in London I remember locals arrogantly ridiculing this penchant to embrace distant ties, as if it smacked of some sort of desperation to be connected to something older and more sophisticated.

But more accurately I think this ease of many American migrants (both old and new) to wear two hats is an example of multiculturalism done right.

In Europe by contrast – and to a lesser extent, Australia – there has been a tendency to allow or encourage migrants to practice their homeland culture uninterrupted, fearful that forced assimilation may be an imperialist identity theft.

Hence, we see Sydney’s Lakemba and the outskirts of Paris, for example, where many migrants feel disenfranchised or even openly hostile towards their new home and what they see as an inferior culture of moral ambiguity.

Conversely, some migrants may feel compelled to abandon their past and embrace solely the tenets and symbols of their adoptive locale, as we see with a large percentage of Anglo-Australians who could not tell you which part of the British Isles their name and family comes from, and frankly, could not care less.

For me personally I have often felt growing up in Australia that there is an implicit pressure to choose. As a teenager, critical of the Establishment and nursing a still-forming identity, this often meant embracing the culture of my grandparents at the expense of the culture of my birth. In more recent years, and as the result of extensive (and expensive) travel, I have found more comfort in an Australian patriotism that – while subtle compared to others – is real and valid.

Becoming an Australian or American or Frenchman should not mean divorcing yourself from the heritage of your past. It is natural and genuine that people find solace in the history that has impacted their present, even implicitly.

But at the same time it should require some form of adherence to the norms and cultures of the adoptive home. Multiculturalism devoid of any assimilation or integration does not breed harmony at all, but disenfranchisement, identity crisis and, all too often, violence.

We only need to take a cursory look at European news headlines to know that.

America is no paradise when it comes to social and cultural cohesion, and immigration presents challenges everywhere, but its attempts at multiculturalism – even here in the most nationalistic enclaves – has proven more harmonious than others.

It ain’t perfect, but it’s worthy of drinking to. Prost!

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Published on 16 November

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