“Where are you from?”
This is usually the first question I’m asked when I’m introduced to someone. Not because people see me and instantly know I’m not German, but because Germany is full of people from everywhere. Particularly in German universities, not everybody is from the city where they study.
“Mexico,” I always answer.
From here, there are usually three ways the conversation goes:
- Oh, wow! And what’s your major? Why did you choose Germany?
- Oh, wow! And what’s your major? Is it true that Mexico is dangerous?
- Oh, wow! What part of Mexico? I’ve been to there and there. And what’s your major?
And then they ask me what I think of Donald Trump. You know, with the border wall and everything.
However, from time to time (although not very often), I find myself in a conversation that takes a different route. A route that is not surprising, yet entirely uncomfortable, not to mention somewhat disappointing.
The last conversation like that, I had with the man who was fixing my toilet. He asked me where I was from, what my field of studies was, what I thought of Donald Trump. He thinks Trump’s crazy and doesn’t know a thing about government. But then he said something else, something I wasn’t expecting to hear on a Tuesday morning while my toilet was being repaired: “But he has a point, you know? Like all of us, Germans, he’s afraid that too many foreigners will enter the country.”
It was an unfortunate generalization, as I know several Germans who would get very angry with those words, but I said nothing. What do I say, as a foreigner, to a man who’s telling me that he’s afraid that too many foreigners will come into the country? For a second there I thought about yelling something like, BOOH! Just to see if I could scare him, but I thought it probably wasn’t such a good idea.
“It’s like those Indians who come to us and don’t even want to learn German,” he went on. He gave me several examples and always made sure to say things like “I have nothing against Muslims, you know.” As if saying that made up for all the racism and absurdity of his examples. “When you’re in a public restroom and a Muslim woman comes in, you can’t be sure she’s a woman because you can’t see anything except her eyes.” Yeah…
“But you’re German,” he said.
“No, I’m Mexican,” I said for the second time.
“Yes, yes. But you hold dual citizenship. Turkish people can do that.”
“No, I’m Mexican.”
“What? You’re only Mexican? But why don’t you have an accent?”
I thought it funny how he kept using the German formal form of “you”, “Sie”. Nothing like keeping it formal when you’re telling the foreigner that you don’t want to believe that she’s foreigner because she doesn’t fit your distorted and prejudiced idea of what a foreigner should be like.
The man told me that he was interested in my opinion as a young person but as soon as he realized that my opinion was the opposite of his, he went back to fixing the toilet and didn’t speak to me again until he was done. He only spoke to me to explain to me how the new flushing system worked and to say goodbye.
He assumed that, since I’m “half-German” I don’t encounter a lot of racism here in Germany and, although he was wrong in thinking that I hold the German citizenship, he was right in one aspect: I don’t encounter a lot of racism here in Germany. Almost all of my friends are German, and they are open, kind, respectful, and they enjoy getting to know other cultures. Most importantly, my nationality, skin color or gender do not influence the way they treat me. The fees I pay for university are the same that my German fellow students pay. At church, I’m just one more churchgoer, and on the streets, nobody questions why I’m here.
But just because I don’t encounter racism every day doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The plumber who fixed my toilet is not the only one afraid that an outrageous amount of foreigners will enter the country and what is good and German will be lost to the claws of this new, globalized, multicultural world. The popularity of the far-right German party and the seats it’s getting in Parliament as a result of the last elections prove it. Germany is not the only country with people who fear this either. Donald Trump’s presidency, Great Britain leaving the European Union, and Marine Le Pen’s popularity during the French elections are but a few examples of what this fear can do.
About a month ago I was about to go up the stairs of the train station carrying a suitcase when a man offered to help me. His skin was darker than mine, and he had a thick accent. He smiled, introduced himself, and then he said: “I’m from Syria, I’m an engineer.”
His comment made me smile, but it made me sad at the same time. I smiled because that’s the way my great-grandma used to introduce my dad: “this is my grandson, he has a masters degree.” What I found sad was that this man who comes from a country destroyed by war has to tell people that he’s an engineer so people see that he’s educated, as if trying to justify his presence.
I can think of two reasons why this man has to justify his presence and I don’t (besides the fact that a lot of people aren’t happy that almost a million Syrian refugees came to Germany in 2015):
- His skin is darker than mine. Like a lot of equality-related problems, this has to do with Imperialism. It doesn’t matter the country, it’s more likely that people with darker skin have more problems than people with lighter skin. My skin isn’t the lightest, but it’s light enough for me not to draw attention to myself when in a room full of white people. Sadly, we still live in a world where something as random as the level of melanin that we’re born with dictates how we’re perceived.
- His accent is thicker than mine. I generally speak German without a recognizable accent. I make grammar mistakes, but most of the time you can’t tell where I’m from just by listening to me speak. The plumber that wanted me to agree with his theories about how dangerous we foreigners can be, didn’t want to see me as a foreigner because of my accent. I remembered Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, when he says that “language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”
It also probably helps that I’m relatively short, which means that tall racists of the world can’t see me if they don’t look down.
Why there are still people afraid of foreigners influencing their culture, I don’t know. The only ones who can justifiably be afraid, in my opinion, are those whose cultures were partially or completely destroyed in the name of modernity and civilization. But in this century, in this globalized world, where we can communicate with people from other continents in a matter of seconds, one would think that sharing our culture with others represents an advantage, not a problem. After all, it is because of those influences that we are what we are, that we live like we live, and that we speak like we speak.
Before I go, I want to share with you a quote by the Spiegel Online (online version of the German magazine, Der Spiegel) editor-in-chief, Barbara Hans:
“Diversity is the opposite of assimilation. If I am like everyone else, then it doesn’t matter that I’m also sitting at the table.”*
* The translation is mine. The original quote is:
“Vielfalt ist das Gegenteil von Assimilation. Wenn ich so bin wie alle anderen, dann ist es egal, dass ich mit am Tisch sitze.”