This week, U.S. Ambassador Philip Murphy warned Berliners against racism, after an African-American U.S. Embassy employee was harassed by racist hooligans at a Hertha soccer match. Read his speech here.
This brings us back to the question of what is German, who is German, and how can these definitions be expanded to incorporate a wider range of citizens, background and experiences, so that more people feel at home in this country. The inspired and inspiring DFB ad, above, shows all the (real) parents of the players on the German national soccer team having a BBQ together before a game.
What has it been like for you to be a foreigner in Germany?
American novelist Anna Winger wrote a personal account of the limitations faced by immigrants trying to integrate here in Berlin for the German magazine Cicero, where it was published in translation. Below, the English original.
All Together, Now
Last summer, when I was visiting my family on the East Coast of the United States, the fast rise of the self-named “Tea Party” was the subject of almost every dinner conversation. Appealing to the base instincts of an increasingly threatened white majority, an extreme right wing faction of the Republicans has been using cloaked racism to garner a political following, a tactic that has proven more successful than any of us imagined possible in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic election. As an American Democrat who has been living in Berlin since 2002, I must admit that I felt quite superior, during these conversations, to have relocated to a country where the kind of rhetoric that made the Tea Party popular would never be tolerated in this day and age.
Imagine my disappointment then, upon returning to Germany this fall, when various politicians on both sides of the political spectrum here started peppering their speeches with just enough ethno-focal language to reassure the native voters that, despite efforts to loosen up immigration policy here and an acknowledged need for foreign workers, Germany will remain the country they knew as children. In my eight years in Berlin I have noticed that American trends—from vampire movies to Silly Bandz—usually take about a year to make their way across the Atlantic. So I could only despair: clearly some German politicians had been watching the quick rise of the Tea Party too, and taking notes.
It is already a fact that Germany will become a very different country than it was when current voters were children. In Berlin, for example, more than half of all babies born next year will have at least one non-German parent. So when Frau Merkel says that Germany isn’t a country of immigrants, she’s just politicking. This is cynical and counter-productive. The issue at hand isn’t whether Germany is an immigrant country, but how ethnic Germans are going to deal with a future that will most certainly involve people from many different backgrounds. Politicians tend to focus on what foreigners are doing wrong, as if integration were a one-way street. But Germans are not exactly handing out bouquets of flowers to their new neighbors. There is something missing here. Speaking recently at a conference about electric cars, IHK Berlin boss Jan Eder spoke of the need for a Wilkommenkultur to attract the educated immigrants the country needs to expand its economy; I was relieved to hear someone finally give a name to it. Much has already been said about what immigrants aren’t doing to integrate; I’d like to start a dialogue about what Germans can do to help. Let’s start with a little empathy.
Since I am exactly the kind of educated immigrant the country supposedly needs, I expected the Finanzamt to pat me on the back for joining the work force. Instead, after the first two years I filed my income tax in Germany I was forced to suffer through a humiliating Umsatzsteursonderprüfung at the hands of a bureaucrat who claimed she was just teaching me the system. But if she wanted to teach me the system, why not invite me to take a class at the Finanzamt the day I was issued an Umsatzsteuernummer? Why wait two years, let me make mistakes, then penalize me for them? And why is the tax system so complicated for the self-employed? Many foreigners have no choice, since their training is not recognized in Germany and there are many other barriers to entry. Particularly shocking, to me, is the fact that job applicants are required not only to write down their age on their curriculum vitae, but also to include a photograph when they apply for employment. This might seem innocuous in an ethnic monoculture, but it has no place in Germany’s integrated future.
In the novel Brooklyn, the novelist Colm Tóibín writes of the double exile of the immigrant, who will never truly belong to her new country, but can no longer return to the one she left behind. When I visit the United States these days, I am keenly aware that my time in Germany has made me see my native country as an outsider. Arguments with old friends about national healthcare, say, or even parenting styles, leave me feeling bewildered at best and totally alienated at worst. But while I love Berlin, and am settled in this city, it’s not like I am an insider here. I am routinely reminded, even by people close to me, that my German is imperfect, that my personality is unusual, that the food I cook for my family is exotic, or just plain strange.
I use my own experience as an example not because I want your to feel sorry for me, but because I want to make a point: I am the most privileged of immigrants to this country. I am white, educated, American by birth but also entitled to a British passport, with which I can work in any E.U. country. I blend. I am married to a German man and my German is now good enough to navigate the bureaucratic challenges of self-employment, the school and Kita system, and even, yes, the tax system–not to mention the insurance web of healthcare, home ownership, personal liability, professional liability and dog ownership. It should be easy for me to be integrated here, to feel “normal.” But it is not. And if it isn’t easy for me, just imagine how much more difficult it is for everyone else.
As I see it, the barriers to integration fall into two catagories: the technical and the emotional. They are intrinsically related, of course, because without the legal right to live in this country no person can feel completely at home. But residency papers alone do not automatically provide newcomers to this society with warm, fuzzy feelings of inclusion. The question of how to integrate new Germans is a complex one that can only be answered by bringing together seemingly contradictory solutions from opposite sides of the political divide: on the one hand, the definition of “What is German” must expand to include a rainbow of influences. On the other hand, a consensus must be reached about what the common culture is, and then the public infrastructure must insist that new immigrants, and particularly their children, hew to it.
My father was born in New York in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. His first grade class was full of Jewish refugees and the New York school system felt a responsibility to help them become Americans. Not only were they required to stay at school all day, eat lunch there and speak English, but dress “properly” and come to school clean. There was no bending over backwards to accommodate their home culture, their native language, or their religion. Regardless of background, they came out of their education with the same frame of reference and a sense of belonging to the mainstream: Americans, all.
I believe that any child who grows up in Germany, learns the language and attends German schools, feels German. But because it is so difficult to actually be German, the children of immigrants here are often forced into a kind of identity limbo. How often do I meet people who act and speak like Germans but refer to themselves as Greek or Turkish or Italian, because they have no German passport, although they have been living in Germany all their lives? It took me a while to understand that Germans think of culture as something passed down through the generations, by blood, and of citizenship as something cultural. If foreigners are to be welcome here, this needs to change.
To qualify for German citizenship your parents must have been here legally for eight years at the time of your birth. I know one young woman who was born here to illegal Filipino parents. We’ll call her Maria. Since only a birth certificate is required to start school, she was educated for eleven years until her last year of Gymnasium, when one day a teacher asked that all students bring in their identification cards. Maria walked away from school that day terrified, never to return, because there is no safe way to resolve her situation without risking deportation, “back” to the Philippines.
“Sometimes I fantasize about walking into the Härtekommission and dropping to my knees,” she says. “I’d tell them: I want to learn and I want to work. I want to pay my taxes. But if you don’t want to let me do that then send me home. I’ve never been there.”
Germany needs people. What about the people who are already here?
A contractor I know from Bosnia, call him Costas, has been living here for almost twenty years. He is married to a German woman, the father of three Berlin-born children, and knows the German building code like the back of his hand. But because he looks and sounds foreign, he feels people chronically treat him with distrust. And so he is angry all the time. And being angry all the time is exhausting.
“Sasa Stanisic is a great writer,” says Costas, referring to the Bosnian-born novelist. “So now he is a German writer. Just as I am a German Handwerker, because I am good at what I do. But on the weekends? I am just another foreigner. You know what I mean.”
I do know. And sometimes it gets under my skin, too. One Saturday in early spring I went to a playground in my Berlin neighborhood with my children and some friends. The kids were making a lot of noise and they happened to be making it in English. The playground backs up against an apartment house and soon enough a couple of guys came out on a balcony and, after taking a few long drags on the cigarettes they were smoking up there on the balcony, screamed down at the children, in English: “Go Home!” Now, people tell noisy children to go home all the time. But I was exhausted and so I lost my cool. My children were born only a few blocks away from where we were, in Berlin-Charlottenburg. And sure, they speak English with me and even with each other, and we often socialize with other mixed families, but my children are Berliner. The implication that “home” for these kids, for my kids and my friends’ kids, was anywhere other than right here where they were–this playground, this neighborhood, this city, this country—made me furious. I yelled back at those two guys smoking on the balcony.
“My children are going to pay your goddamn pension, assholes! Show some respect!” I yelled till I was hoarse. My friends had to drag me away.
I come from a country whose self-image relies heavily on a creation myth about a “Melting Pot.” It is a myth fraught with plenty of fallacy, of course. The United States was born of ethnic violence and built on the backs of African slaves. But the stories that we tell ourselves as a country are what bring us through the difficult times and so I hold our Melting Pot dear. In my recent disgust about the fractured atmosphere leading up to the American midterm elections, a friend posted a video to facebook, a chorus of gay men singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” together in a Los Angeles church. I watched it three times and cried each time: it was very corny, but it gave me hope. I am not so naïve as to wonder why Germans shrink from the suggestion of national mythology, but it’s important to have a few essential ideas hold on to. It worries me to think that of all the political trends that might travel across the Atlantic in this direction, the Tea Party would have a stronger pull on the collective imagination than the Melting Pot.
Recently, a Latin American woman I know decided to become a German citizen. She had already been living in Berlin for almost a decade as a permanent resident. Having easily passed the integration exam and filled out the citizenship application, she mentioned to a group of German women friends that she was planning to “become German.” They laughed.
What was funny? Were they making fun because a person like her, who looks different and speaks with an accent, can never really “become” German? Or was it simply that the other women were themselves confused about what it means to be German, so the notion that someone else wanted to join their club voluntarily–especially someone from a sunnier, friendlier country–seemed absurd?
When I first moved here, I was asked to write something about myself for homework in my German class. I began with the basics: Ich bin Amerikanerin. Mein Mann ist Deutscher. Wir wohnen in Berlin. When I showed my husband, he stared at the piece of paper.
“I never thought about it like that,” he said. “I don’t think I have ever actually written the sentence Ich bin Deutscher down on paper.”
“It sounds proud. We aren’t supposed to be proud.”
Many Germans tell me that the reason they have trouble coming up with a prescription for integration is that as citizens you have little in common except the collective burden of the Holocaust. Of course, this strikes foreigners as ridiculous. To us, Germans appear to have everything in common: cake and coffee on Sunday afternoons, walking as an actual hobby, real candles on Christmas trees, a near-religious belief in vacation-time, Bach, Kant, and the rest of it. But it’s true that the negative parts of your history tend to be emphasized over the positive, which I suppose is why people retreat into the kind of regional provincialism that is at odds with hopes for a unified culture. My husband, who comes from Köln, has explained to me that the apparently minor differences between Düsseldorf and Köln, two cities less than half an hour apart, are for some people deep and immutable. For years I was offended by this kind of talk. If that’s your idea of different, I thought, then what the hell am I? And if these petty differences divide you from your neighbors then how will we ever achieve an integrated Germany?
I do not want my children to grow up feeling ashamed to write Ich bin Deutscher down on paper, so let’s turn this whole thing around. In fact, there is plenty to be proud of here: people who once believed they had nothing in common—Prussians and Bavarians, Rheinländer and Swabians—have shared a country, collaborating professionally and personally, since 1870. There have been dark periods in between, yes, but the impulse towards integration exists in German history. There is a blueprint, if you look for it. Christian Wulff said recently that Germans should be looking to the constitution for a defining sense of national identity, which I suppose is his way of saying the same thing. I say: you have opened your arms to one another before. Now open them wider.
By Anna Winger