Opening of the Annual Conference of the German Association for American Studies at Hanover University
U.S. Consul General Richard Yoneoka
June 8, 2017
As prepared for delivery
Dear Dr. Strutz, (Vice President of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz University at Hanover)
Dear Prof. Dr. Birkle, (American Studies Professor at Philipps University Marburg and President of the German Association for American Studies)
Dear Professor Dr. Mayer, (Chair of American Studies at Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz University at Hanover and local conference organizer)
Dear Members of the German American Studies Association,
Dankeschön for inviting me to be here with you at the opening of the annual conference of the German Association of American Studies. It’s a great honor -and it is quite humbling- to be in one room with Germany’s experts on my country and to consider the wealth of knowledge and the depth of insights that’s present here tonight with all of you.
And let me also start with the admission. I am not an academic – I am a practitioner. And even though I am apolitical – by law, I recognize that I am not objective. My understanding of the United States is subjective – conditioned by my upbringing, my experiences, and my beliefs. I hope to bridge that chasm in my remarks.
When I look at you I am thinking of all the book and journal pages that you have filled with your scholarship – and those that the graduate students among you will fill. But then again, reading the conference description and the panel and presentation titles, I am reminded that maybe I should think about knowledge transfer in terabytes instead of in paper.
But that gets into the theories of modernities that you will parse and debate, maybe even reconfigure over the next days, and as a diplomat, I better stay out of that scholarly discourse. That’s not what I came for from Hamburg. I came to Hannover to thank you for all that you do to promote both academic and cultural relations between Germany and the United States. And I hope that you focus on the promotion of cultural relations, because as a practitioner of diplomacy, this is where Average Joe will best realize the fruits of your work.
For more than sixty years, this association has – you have -contributed a unique and invaluable perspective to the study of American history, culture, and society: a look from the outside in.
Long before the German Association of American Studies was founded, in 1782, a fellow European left you with a question that has not lost its relevance, and that is lingering until this very day: “What then is the American, this new man?“ As a nation perpetually in flux and reinventing itself, not unlike the often contested and conflicting definitions of “modernities” that you will discuss over the next two days, we will continue to look to you, the American Studies scholars in Germany, so we can learn more about ourselves and about each other.
I grew up in a city in New York that was shaped by modernity. Not the city that comes to mind first, New York City, the epitome of urban modernity. I am from Rochester, a seven-hour car ride – on the highway, not the Autobahn – away from New York City. While it is fair to say that my hometown has never quite received the attention that the largest American city has, Rochester is an interesting place for American Studies scholars to study modernity and its aftermath – no matter if your field is social history, technology studies, visual culture studies, literary studies, or economics. It was the home of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, who shared the steadfast conviction that equality and freedom belong to all; and who shared the struggle to achieve freedom and equality for all in America. Rochester was a site of the Underground Railroad; the very term draws from terminology that gained significance and popularity with a 19th century transportation technology that would radically transform America and its self-definition as a modern nation. One of the libraries in my hometown is a converted church – and inside the children’s section of that renovated church, is a secret passage that was used in the Underground Railroad. When kids find it, they can take books inside and find an even quieter place to read.
Rochester is most famous for George Eastman and the creation of Eastman Kodak Company, and its role in photography and cinematography. When I was a kid, Kodak employed over 145,000 people around the world. Back then, everyone in Rochester either worked at Kodak, had family that worked at Kodak, or knew someone that worked at Kodak. In 1996, the Kodak brand was the fifth most valuable in the world. That was the peak year. Today Kodak is no longer listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, has been through bankruptcy, and has some 6,400 employees. Kodak’s decline and the loss of jobs has significantly and lastingly altered the social fabric of the city.
Rochester is also known as the home of Xerox and Bausch & Lomb. Rochester is also the home of several universities, including the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology. When I was a kid, there was a rumor around Rochester that the city was number 16 on a Soviet nuclear target list due to the high technology located there, the research labs, and the expertise in optics. Looking back – I can’t recall if that was comforting or terrifying. Returning briefly to Kodak, I find it very interesting that in the aftermath of Kodak’s decline, the company lost of over 130,000 workers, Rochester’s population did not decrease – that all of those unemployed engineers, factory workers, office staff, etc. found jobs – many in new high tech start-ups.
As a kid growing up in Rochester, Rochester’s business fortunes didn’t matter to me. My world revolved around my family, school, church, and sports — and on becoming an Eagle Scout. Rochester was home. As simple as that, according to a kid’s logic. But that notion of belonging that I assumed to be a given was not as simple and obvious to others, as I learned. The persistent question that I got, growing up, “Where are you from?” (“Rochester”) /”Where are you really from?” (“Rochester”) left me as confused as my straightforward answers did those who asked. I didn’t look to them as if could really be from Rochester. Back then I had an undefined inkling that who I was and where I fit in in American society was not entirely up to me and determined by my own perception of self.
My family history, like that of most Americans, is one enabled by modern (or not so modern) transportation technologies. And of, course, by the tremendous courage of people who left their homes to seek a better life in America. My roots go back to both the transpacific and transatlantic circuits that have made the United States what it is today. My grandfather, Shizue Yoneoka, on my father’s side left Japan for the Kingdom of Hawaii when he was 14 and worked on the docks so he could send money home to support his family. My father was born in the Territory of Hawaii – five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When my father was in high school, Hawaii became our 50th state. On my father’s side, I am the first person in the family born in a U.S. state. On the other side, my mother’s family goes back to several countries in Western Europe – we are the quintessential WASP family; for generations, her ancestors were small farmers in rural New York. My grandfather, Newton Hall, recounted a story that when he was young and visited an uncle’s home in central New York, German was the language spoken.
Mine is a typical American story, as you, as American Studies scholars, know. But the middle and high school students in Northern Germany who I frequently meet with to discuss the United States and German-American relations don’t recognize it as such. In my tenure in northern Germany I have made it a priority to meet regularly with high school students – I think I might be close to having met with over two thousand high schoolers in the last ten months. A few months ago, I met with one group of 11th graders at a Hamburg school. After a lively discussion, I asked the students: “OK, tell me, who did you expect when you heard that an American diplomat was going to visit your class?” After a moment of silence – a long moment – one brave kid said: “einen dicken weißen Mann.” I guess once more in my life, I defied assumptions about who Americans are.
I am sharing this story with you because it illustrates the need for strong cultural relations between our countries. Many of the students that I meet have never met an American before! Many young Germans only know American culture through the Internet, music, and TV.
Many of you have studied, taught or conducted research at U.S. universities. Many of you frequently attend conferences in the U.S. and participate in an invigorating intellectual exchange that enriches the field of American Studies here and stateside. You are part of a transatlantic community that is about much more than the production of scholarship: you have built friendships with colleagues in the U.S. and partnerships with institutions. You have experienced the power of personal connections and, as active contributors to the narratives about America yourselves, about the power of the stories that we share with and about each other.
To me as a diplomat, who spends most of his time talking with Germans and listening, this matters. A few months ago, I met with a different group of 11th graders. They were very shy, barely asking me a question. I think they, too, might have been, like the other students I told you about earlier, trying to reconcile their image of an American diplomat with that of an Asian-American with WASP roots walking into their classroom (and speaking enough German to confuse them). We had an interesting conversation about the diversity of American culture that delved into “flyover country” and what that means. In September, those shy students and I, will start a reading group and the first book on the list is: Hillbilly Elegy. Because we need to share more stories about and with each other in order to better understand each other.
Both the U.S. and Germany have been changing and continue to change. Change is constant. How we respond to change is up to us. We are different countries from those that entered the very robust transatlantic relationship after WWII. It has now been 70 years since the Marshall Plan was implemented and more than 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Both countries have also been changing politically, and what perhaps has been self-evident to one generation might not be obvious for the next.
Great relationships and friendships, like the one between Germany and the United States, require constant maintenance – time, energy, and investment. The bilateral relationship is no different and we should not take it for granted.
Thank you very much. I am wishing you a great, inspiring conference.