Ceven Knowles

Image for Ceven Knowles
Photo by Maia Schoenfelder

Place of birth: Florida, USA

Nationality at birth: American

Date of birth: May 4, 1974

Eye colour: Grey

Hair colour: Brown

Height: 1.70m

German citizen since: Februar y 2010

Background: 9/11 led to a massive disillusion about the US for me. I was working in a mid-sized clothing and costume shop in Chicago at the time, and within hours of the towers collapsing, my boss proposed a 30 percent increase on all red, white and blue products. It was a gross abuse: capitalising on nationalism during such a catastrophic time. I quit my job there within weeks.

I was working two jobs and getting nowhere with my life. There’s too much focus on high achievers there, and if you’re not earning $100,000 a year, you’re a failure. There’s no freedom to be creative there, unlike here in Berlin.

Why did you come to Berlin?

I arrived, and stayed, in Europe very much by accident. It was back in 2004. My first stop was London, then Amsterdam and while I was on my way to Krakow, I decided to ‘take a rest’ in Berlin. I had an epiphany when I arrived. I felt totally at home in Germany.

What made you stay?

I first realised I wanted to stay when my three-month visa was coming close to expiring; there was something inside me telling me not to go back so I extended it. When I eventually went back nine months later, I felt totally out of place, and this confirmed to me that I no longer belonged in the US. I couldn’t wait to get back to Berlin.

On my first night back here, I was jetlagged and tired, but all I wanted to do was to get to SO36 and party! I now live in Neukölln and am an equal partner in, a collaborative project for audio-visual works, created earlier this year with my boyfriend.

Why become German?

Germany is a great country; it has a good political system, it’s fair and it takes care of its citizens, so there are plenty of reasons. Essentially, it was a political decision in that I wanted to be able to participate politically here and influence society. Before I became a fully-fledged German citizen, I participated in protests and demos, but I feel it’s more important to be able to vote. I was excited about voting for the first time here in Berlin last month!

What was it like to renounce your citizenship?

Like many living here, I could have retained my US citizenship and simply opted for permanent residency, but to me that only feels like a halfway job… As though I’m not stepping all the way through the door.

I physically gave up my citizenship at the US embassy in Berlin and was then ‘stateless’ for a month before I officially acquired my German  citizenship. That month was the most significant time period for me throughout the whole process. I was floating; I realised I didn’t exist in official terms. Who was going to look for me if I got kidnapped?

But what I learned was that I was still totally capable of living a normal life under these circumstances. I didn’t need a piece of paper to confirm my identity for me.

What was the day like?

I went to the US embassy and was made to sign pages and pages acknowledging that I was absolutely aware that I was fully renouncing my US citizenship and all the privileges that come with it. I was asked if I was sure I wanted to do it, if I appreciated that my children would be German, etc. I had to hand over all my US forms of identification: my passport, driver’s license and so forth.

How difficult was the process?

I became a German citizen within six months of registering my desire to do so. The woman I was dealing with at the registration office seemed astonished by my decision; I guess she was assuming that, like everyone else after 9/11, I was trying to make some kind of deeply political statement. But really, it wasn’t about that. Only three things were required of me: permanent residency, to pass a language test and the Einbürgerungstest [citizenship test].

The Einbürgerungstest was very simple; I took it in a big classroom at the Volkshochschule [adult education centre] with about 30 other people, and I was the only American in there. In fact, when I handed my passport to the woman overseeing the examination, she told me she’d never seen an American passport before! The most amusing was the question, “What would you do if your daughter wanted to marry someone you didn’t like?”

How did your friends and family react?

My biological family all still live in the States but live in what I would call a ‘microcosm’. They’re fearful of anything non-American and are surprised I went ahead with the process, or surprised I’ve accomplished what I have.

“I would never give up my citizenship!” is probably the most common reaction I get. Saying that, a few Americans have even congratulated me. They’re open to the suggestion of doing the same at some point but that’s something they need to confront for themselves.

Generally, Germans are either very welcoming and inclusive or just very surprised, or both. Why would I renounce a citizenship as ‘prestigious’ or ‘precious’ as the American one, they wonder.

Do you feel integrated?

I feel very much at home in Berlin and have no desire to return to the States. Now I feel just as German as anyone else here in Berlin. I’ve got many friends here – a very mixed, multicultural spectrum of friends, but it’s 50/50 Germans and non-Germans.

Anything you miss from America?

The only things I really miss about the States are cheap electronics and the diversity of immigrants.

What does it mean to be German, in your eyes?

These kinds of questions are nationalistic, and I despise nationalism. The hardest part of the process was personally coming to terms with it; I had to continually ask myself what it meant to become German. You can’t just take a test and ‘become German’… which is why I would identify myself as European instead.

At the end of the day, is nationality a relevant concept or obsolete in today’s world?

It is important to know where one comes from, but in this day and age too many people wear that as a badge of worth. In the bigger picture, we are all here on the earth for not longer than a flash in time, and nationality means nothing. Borders, cultures, languages, religions and social views all change. What it meant to be German or American 200 or 20 years ago is totally different from what it means today. It’s time to end these definitions and just be human.