A controversial address?

by Christina Geyer on November 17, 2007 · 31 comments

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So, it seems I’ve stirred things up a tiny bit in the expat blogger world (well, I caused two blog posts to be written, if that can be considered stirring things up).  I, mostly unknowingly, picked a controversial address for my blog, namely, AMIexpat.  Martina wonders why I would pick this as an address, while PapaScott questions whether the term Ami is an insult.  To be honest, I picked it because (1) it was less cumbersome that AmericanExpatinDeutschland.com, (2) I thought it concisely, at least to those in the know, made clear that I was an American in Germany, and (3) it is a little bit of a play on language, with “Ami” meaning “friend” in French, making me, uh…. Christina the friendly expat?

After reading through PapaScott’s post, I was reminded by Cem of Sprechblase‘s comment that “Ami go home” was an anti-American slogan used by student protesters in the late 1960s (I vaguely remember reading about this in high school history class).  But both Wikipedia and Leo German-English dictionary define Ami as a slang term for an American, not a derogatory term.

In the comments to both posts, I mentioned that I’ve been much more irritated by having to say I was “US-Amerikanerin” because many Germans doubt my Americanness based, I suppose, on the fact that I am Asian-American (or half-Asian, however you want to define me).  I, personally, have never heard Ami used as an insult, but maybe that’s because I’m clearly foreign and Germans don’t use that kind of language in front of foreigners.  Although, several Germans I’ve met have gone on to thoroughly bash the Turkish after find out that I’m “one of the good foreigners.”

What did Rainer, as my live-in German, have to say?  I mentioned the hubbub to him and he said, “What’s wrong with Ami, it’s just short for American?”  I brought up the “Ami go home” slogan, and his response was, “Yeah, we can also say ‘American go home.'”

So what do you think?

  • http://rita.blogkade.de rita

    i guess it always depends on the context. you can practially twist anything into meaning something mean and nasty. there’s nothing wrong with Ami. it’s pretty cute, if you ask me. but then again, it’s only cute, if you don’t imply, ‘… go home!’

  • http://www.regensblog.com Cliff

    I too wondered about it a bit, but figured you live with a German guy who has lived at length in the U.S., so between the two of you, you’d know best…

    When preparing for my exchange year (’92-’93 — yeah, half my life ago!) part of the cultural briefing included a segment on the term “Ami.” They told us it was a derogatory term and to feel insulted when hearing it in use.

    I kind of wish they hadn’t done that. I bristle when I hear it, to this day, and I really don’t think I need to anymore. I don’t hear it from occupation-protesters, der Roten Armee Fraktion, Genossem Honecker, or anyone really but those too lazy to say the entire word.

    But mostly it’s the aspect of taking away my identity as a fellow human and dweller in Germany that I dislike(d) when I hear(d) the term. People who would address me as “Ami” or even “American” are judging and classifying me via my passport and almost nothing makes me madder than that. See this post for a description of a fairly recent episode: http://www.regensblog.com/2006/02/21/perception-is-reality/

    Rainer’s point, while valid today, probably wasn’t back then, and it’s the historical and prejudicial context that still get my dander up — even if I’d rather they didn’t.

  • Christina G

    @rita: Which I’m clearly not 😉

    @cliff:

    I too wondered about it a bit

    Dude, you picked AmiExpat out of my list of possibilities! Ya coulda said something then!

  • http://www.regensblog.com Cliff

    Well, it is easy to type!

    I wasn’t about to strike up a political discussion about it with you then; I figured I’d wait until you or someone else did.

    So, thanks. You can have the soapbox back now. :-)

  • http://ann-ona-moose.blogspot.com ann

    Hi Christina,

    It depends on context. I don’t see it being that different than “gringo/a”. It can mean “not one of us” and it can mean “arrogent &%$ idot.”

    At the office, the word is rarely found in the context of anything positive, but I don’t know if switching to Amerikaner would really change that.

    I have been stunned to recently discover that some Germans just don’t “get” the -Amercian. That it’s possible to be very in touch with your cultural heritage without being in any way less American. That half my class could have been in step dancing classes, or another girl taking Lithuanian lessons without being any less American than the kid on the bowling team. It’s just a foreign concept (to some).

    I do object to US-Amerikaner for reasons other than yours. It’s a response to pressure from Spanish/Portuguese native speakers. We have a right to decide what we are called in our own language (US-American : Eskimo, Negro, Anasazi). I cannot stand it when my good friends start lecturing the German prof. about the German word she “should” be using. It’s all doubly unfair because they rest easy in the knowledge that “Ami” with all its connotations never means them.

    Agreed it’s easier to type and with it’s potential for irony etc., it’s just fine for a blog!

  • Andrea W

    Being that I do speak a bit of French, I took it to mean friend or American nothing more.
    The weird about the web, people get out of shape over anything we say. My Chinese food comment on my blog certiantly ruffled feathers!

  • Tammy

    I had not idea about Ami! Your blog is so educational. It sounds like you are helping Cliff heal his negative affiliation with the word :-)

  • http://www.regensblog.com Cliff

    I’m not sure I’ll get over it all that quickly.

    I don’t refer to Benihana as a “jap steakhouse,” Nissans as “jap cars,” or this guy with awesome hair as the ex-jap prime minister. When members of my own family (not my immediate family! Mom would have killed us) do that sort of thing, it makes my skin crawl and I have to bite my tongue.

    Isn’t it kind of the same thing?

  • http://martinamr.blogspot.com/ Martina

    Even after sleeping over it, I still stand by my opinion. Of course we can say “Americans go home”, just like we could say “Susie go home”, but using the term Ami really is similar to using “Jap”, the “N” word, “wetback”, or whatever. At least from my point of view.

    And Ami-Schlitten doesn’t have a positive spin on it, either.

    I think you really have to be integrated into the culture to see the distinction, though.

  • http://www.regensblog.com Sarah

    Now see, I think Cliff’s most recent example doesn’t fit the discussion. Because we’re (mostly) a bunch of Americans having this discussion about what to call ourselves. It’s the difference between wielding a club to hurt someone and taking that club away from someone that wants to hurt YOU.

    Christina, I don’t know if this was your intent, but when I saw the name of your blog, I thought it was a bit of reappropriation of a term by the group it was intended to offend. Kind of like gay people referring to each other as ‘fag.’ And one thing Americans are especially good at is labelling – themselves and others. I’ve found that it’s really difficult to explain to Europeans the complex stratification of national identity that we have in the U.S. Because your nationality usually doesn’t match up with your cultural heritage.

    But Cliff is right about this: it is easy to type.

  • http://travelogue.ryanscottsalon.com Scott

    This is not that big of a deal, since everyone seems to be torn over whether this is offensive in the German context. Comparing “Ami” to “Jap” or other English derogatory words seems a bit silly since those words are derogatory in US English. Ami is not an established derogatory term in US English and can’t be compared that way. You woudn’t say “jap-essen” would you?

    I think the name is fine!

  • http://theviewfromher.blogspot.com rositta

    This is a tempest in a teapot in my opinion. I can’t even count the number of times I have been called a Kraut in my lifetime here in Canada, big deal. I remember the late 50’s and the American base in Wiesbaden. I don’t remember seeing the “ami go home” signs anywhere. Today in Wiesbaden there is an American housing development with not a spot of graffiti (I think I’ll write a post about that). Both my cousins married Ami’s and we appreciated their getting us groceries that were unavailable to us. Germans use the words Ami, Ossti, Westi in conversation but I don’t think it’s meant to offend, at least I hope not…

  • http://rita.blogkade.de rita

    @ rositta: originally, the terms “Ossi” and “Wessi” were very much intended to be derogatory. although both terms are in decline when you look at the number they are used, they still are very much negatively connotated.

  • Andrea

    @Rositta: When Germans say “Westi” they are generally referring to the West Highland Terrier. You mean “Wessi” which was indeed not meant in the positive sin. Nor is Ami or Kraut, even if you personally don’t feel insulted when somebody calls you a kraut.

    Consider the term “broad” meaning woman. That’s in the same league, imho.

    And the housing area in Wiesbaden is surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire on top and is patrolled by armed MPs. To get in you need an I.D. card or have to be signed on by somebody who lives there. That’s why there’s no graffiti there. Not a fair comparison if you ask me.

  • http://swenglishexpat.blogspot.com/ swenglishexpat

    What an interesting discussion. Language is absolutely fascinating, isn’t it? There is so much in a word, and yet there isn’t. The cultural references, the emotional connotations, the ethnic charge, the semantics etc of a word will change over time, even less controversial words. Historically words have changed meaning, been introduced into other languages, taken another path of development, so that what once was the same word has taken on very different meanings in different languages. Just go back to Shakespeare’s vocabulary and look for words of this kind.

    I, just like Rositta and perhaps most people, have had to endure, people’s choice of words. Even when people try to be friendly, they do not quite understand how their words will be received by somebody with another cultural, ethnic background. Being Swedish-born I have had many experiences of people’s ignorance or limited knowledge. People sometimes have prejudices and “limited horizons”, they simply do not know enough and consequently put their foot in it.

    Some Brits love to make jokes about Swedes and turnips, au-pairs, mixed saunas, Vikings, Erik, IKEA (OK, that is allowed) ….I could go on. Although it perhaps is not overtly racist or xenophobic, it gets a bit boring having to listen to it time after time.

    Then we have the issue of political correctness. When I was a little kid we did not play Native Americans and Farmhands. And just think of the different stages the “N-word” has gone through. Recently a black comedian was censored by his own community (mike turned off) for using it in his acceptance speech at an awards ceremony. A black American called Nelson Mandela Afro-American, and had to be corrected by Mandela saying his was in fact African. It gets a bit confusing sometimes!

    I say, respect people, be yourself, choose your words carefully and, live and let live. I will happily log onto amiexpat, so there!

  • Christina G

    I find this thread very interesting and enlightening. For now, I think I’m gonna let it run and see what else comes up before I weigh in some more. Rainer also had some very interesting comments and I’m trying to convince him to post them. We’ll see if that works out.

    Just a note: I would prefer if everyone could keep personal attacks out of this debate. Let’s remember that all the people participating have feelings and those feelings deserve respect. In the end, please don’t make me have to censor the debate. Thanks!

    PS: Please excuse any blog layout issues that may have appeared. I made some changes that fixed some of the problems, but have created a whole new set! I’m done for now, I can’t look at code anymore, and I need to sleep, so I hope you’ll just be patient with me.

  • http://theviewfromher.blogspot.com rositta

    Andrea, sorry to say, I was able to drive through the housing complex in Wiesbaden without showing any ID, there are no armed guards and no gate. I took extensive photos in September and no one stopped me or questioned me or my intent. Regarding Westie and Wessie, sorry my mistake.

  • silvia

    A lot of Germans refer to their spouses as “Amis”.
    But I doubt that they mean any harm by that.
    If anyone is insulted, let them be, so what.
    I like the name and the blog, period. Just stumbled upon it some days ago. I am glad you like my home country so much, I live in yours by the way!

  • Tammy

    I just asked my German mother-in-law for her two cents on this. When I mentioned the word, she said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s short of American.” I asked her if was an insult, and she said that she thinks it is more impolite/low class than an actual insult. She compared it to referring to a woman as a “Weib” rather than a “Frau.” However she agreed that she might not like it if a German referred to me as an “Ami.”

    After we talked about “Ami”, I continued to share with her some new German insults I learned recently – she is so proud of my progress with the language!

    I, personally, am just glad to know the slang, if not slightly derogatory, name for Americans in Germany. I was never very good with all of the American names for various ethnic/foreign groups. What, for example, is a “wetback”? Maybe it’s better that I don’t know these things. If someone were to call me a wetback, for example, I am certain I would feel no offense, but if someone tells me what is meant by the name, it might make me angry.

  • http://martinamr.blogspot.com/ Martina

    Tammy,

    as the person who sparked this topic, let me say that I never said Ami was an “insult”, if you read my post you will see that I wrote that it is used “in a derogatory sense”, i.e. exactly what your mother-in-law said. Maybe that came across wrong in my post, or maybe PapaScott’s phrasing (“Is Ami an insult?”) caused it to come across that way.

    This seems to be a very touchy subject, based on all the comments.

  • silvia

    In the US, people refer to illegal Mexicans as the “wetbacks”, because they would swim trough the Rio Grande to get to the states, and by doing so sustainded “wet backs”.

  • Silke

    Ami might not be insulting nowadays, but at one point it was. So if somebody uses it you can never be sure how they mean it.

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  • http://dixiepeach.blogspot.com Dixie

    I’ve never been called an Ami – I’ve actually very seldom heard the term in the ten years I’ve lived in Germany. But then again I live in the former East and people here didn’t have a lot of contact with Americans until the Wall came down.

    It’s funny to me how the terms Ossi and Wessi are seen by y’all living in the west. I know my husband calls himself an Ossi all the time. It’s almost as if it’s a badge of pride for him for having survived living in the DDR.

    As for the US-Amerikaner thing – I’ve never had someone insist that I do it but I’ve heard the term used on TV. I’ve always assumed that it was to identify someone as being specifically from the US as opposed to being from any other of the many countries in the Americas.

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  • Christina G

    @dixie: I agree that it doesn’t seem to be an insult in the East (although I haven’t heard it used negatively in the year I’ve been living in the West either…)

  • http://www.regensblog.com cliff1976

    Thanks to this discussion, I noticed about a day or two after it really started getting going that the nicest person in Germany (that we’ve met) uses the term “Ami” to refer to all kinds of American stuff (people, products, politics, etc.).

    This is just more evidence for me that it’s not in the same league as other racial slurs as I know them from my USA background and losing the negative-only connotation I’d been warned about 15 years ago. I mean, if the nicest person ever uses it — and she really is; that picture was her doing her meanest face possible — it can’t be as bad as I’d imagined (anymore).

  • http://sequinsandglitter.blogspot.com sequined

    I commented on one of the other posts in this discussion, but I agree with you (and your live-in German). Ami could be derogatory, but you can also say American in a derogatory way. No one is ever insulting to me (where I live in Bayern), so it’s not a topic that even comes up for me, generally speaking.

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  • Gerhard

    Don’t worry about it. I lived over a decade as a german expate in the states. Now allready six years back, they still call me “Captain America” or “der Ami”. It’s not the person they address, it’s the unfamiliar culture. Don’t forget, in the states a lot of people call germans still “dutch”.

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