Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Letter to My Friend to Jin

I am horrible at keeping in touch with my friends. Months will go by with at least five or six e-mails from my dearest friends waiting in my inbox for my reply. During the lag period, however, my friends are always with me in my mind, as I beset myself with guilt, which in the grand scheme of things is a net positive because I am always thinking about my friends. Right? Whether I fully subscribe to my own crazy logic or not, the lag time permits me to assemble a bundle of experiences that I report to my friends exhaustively. They tend to forgive me for droning on, and they often perpetuate the cycle themselves by waiting until they have the time to sit down and write me a corresponding tome in reply.

Below is an excerpt of one such lengthy e-mail I sent to my friend Jin who lives in Manhattan.

My dear Jin,

Sorry I haven't replied in such a long time. I've been in an exhausting six-month "German for professionals" language course, compliments of the European Union. I don't spend a dime on the course, but once you land a spot (there's a waiting list), you're obligated to spend five hours a day, five days a week for sixth months in a classroom. They take attendance. Gah. I have an exam in two weeks, and it's going to be a monster. Besides the fact if I don't pass the exam, the last  six months of my life will be completely invalidated, the other annoying thing about the course is that this week and last week, we have spent grueling hours "learning" Microsoft Office in German. Really people? Isn't making footnotes the same process in German as in English? I'm actually skipping class today because the temperature outside is 93 degrees F. We do have the unexpected luxury of air conditioning in the instruction room (probably because the computers can make the room pretty warm even without the extreme heat outside), but not on the public transit that would take me there. Hey, I was looking for a reason to skip class, and I found one. End of story.

My teacher these two weeks of computer instruction hails from the former East Germany, from East Berlin no less. The cultural divide between East and West Germans is very real. The East Germans were not exposed much to foreign cultures beyond Soviet culture, except for maybe Vietnamese immigrants who emigrated to East Germany, and I'm guessing mostly East Berlin. As such, my teacher can't help but look at me any time he has a reason to discuss Africa. Like, one day a classmate (who happens to be from Egypt, so yes, he is technically an African) came to class late.  So the teacher goes off on an endless ramble about how Germans are punctual, unlike other cultures, taking Africa as an example. I happen to be the only remaining black person in my class (earlier there were two African women who no longer come). So the teacher usually looks at me, at times he has actually pointed at me even, when he has found a reason to discuss Africa. Being of African ancestry, I am naturally delighted to be associated with Africa under a whole range of circumstances. But since I am not African, this particular association is clearly misplaced.

Indeed, living in Germany is strange experience for a person of color. In one sense, people of color are occasionally regarded as minor celebrities. For example, I hear that in the hip circles, it is considered very cool to be from a Spanish-speaking country, especially from Latin America. And I have managed to find some very dynamic places where Africans and other people of color congregate socially and culturally. But there is no denying that I'm living in a troubled land where matters involving race are concerned.

The other day, I was on a tram that runs past my house. I take the tram every weekday around 1:00 in the afternoon to get to my class. I got on one Friday afternoon, and sat down near three guys dressed in workmen's clothing and drinking beer. As an aside, in Berlin, it's legal to drink in public. Though eating and drinking on public transit is verboten, people do it all the time. Just like in New York. Probably just like anywhere. Anyway, I didn't think anything of these guys sitting on a Friday afternoon in a half-empty tram drinking beers to celebrate the start of the weekend. Absolutely normal activity in Berlin. As I was situating myself in the seat, I heard them say something loudly and boisterously about bananas. My racism radar was triggered, but since they weren't looking at me, I didn't think much of it. I was only riding two stops, and my stop came up quickly after that. I stood up and crowded by the door just like the others who were getting off. That's when I heard them say really loudly in German and laughing, "WHERE IS THE APE?" I didn't do anything, in part because I had to get off right away, and in part because as a foreigner I wasn't sure what would be prudent to do.

Those sorts of things don't happen often here, but often enough. One day in my language class we were discussing prejudice. (The discussion was led by the primary teacher of the course, not the computer teacher, just to be clear.)  My class is populated with immigrants, at the time, from Thailand, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Columbia, Kenya, Uganda, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Latvia, along with me from the USA. During the discussion, every single one of the class members of darker complexions, excluding the students from Central and Eastern Europe, said they had encountered some form of hostility or hatred in Berlin. One of the African women told me that she doesn't take her half-German/half-Ugandan toddler to certain playgrounds because she can feel when something isn't right and in some places it's just not safe. I agree with her 100 percent. When you're around racists (also known here as "right-wing extremists"), the hatred is palpable. No one should be exposed to that, especially not a child.

Nevertheless, Germany is full of Germans of color as well as immigrants of color. So it's all really confusing for me. I have a white German friend who lives in my neighborhood (in the former East  Berlin, but over-gentrified and so yuppie that it's decidedly unhip to live here) who told me that her friends of color refuse to visit her apartment because they don't want to come to the former East. Eastern Germany, which surrounds Berlin, is where most of the right-wing extremist activity is located. Berlin is something of a safe haven, but not entirely, especially with respect to the working-class white neighborhoods of the former East Berlin.

Anyway, Germany is a place that is constantly contradicting itself. When I first arrived here, I would walk into a restaurant I'd never been in before and I would suddenly be aware that it had become so silent that I could hear a pin drop. It seemed as though everyone stopped eating and talking so that they could gawk at me. I don't notice it anymore, and it turns out that the silence and gawking is usually, in fact, positive feedback. Most Germans are quite welcoming of people of color. I would go so far as to say that the majority of romantic relationships of people of African ancestry, myself included, are with white Germans. African Americans, Africans, and many Asians -- our spouses and partners tend overwhelmingly to be white Germans.

But the country was shaken last fall, when it was discovered that a series of unsolved murders of mostly Turkish men all over the country over the last 10 years, were committed by a neo-Nazi terrorist cell embedded in the eastern German city of Zwickau. Since then, it has been further revealed that the German domestic intelligence service (counterpart to the FBI), the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, may have played a role in the murders. I heard that one of the murders was caught on surveillance video in an Internet cafe. In the video, a BND agent can be seen sitting at a computer, then after the victim is shot in the head, the BND agent gets up and calmly walks out of the establishment.

Several heads have rolled, including top officials of the BND. But parliamentary hearings are ongoing. A good friend of mine who is of Turkish ancestry has invited me to sit in on some of the hearings with her as part of a group of activists and academics who are observing. It seems that I am about to finally find my footing in the ranks of anti-racism movement in Berlin.

So it's pretty exciting and disturbing here in modern-day Germany. I'd say the difference between racism here and racism in the US is that, for the most part, society and media are outraged and embarrassed by instances of racism. The racists seem to be on the fringe of society, excepting the few that have been elected to state and local government offices in eastern Germany. The Constitutional Court is right now considering whether it can formally ban the neo-Nazi political party.

Of course, I say that racists are on the fringe not knowing what other atrocities are being sanctioned in secret by the government. Alright, if you follow any of the links I've provided, it will appear that I'm using the word "fringe" very loosely. Reports of racially-motivated assaults and other major crime in Europe are popping up in the media more frequently it seems to me. And it's not unique to Germany. Even countries that are perceived to be more politically progressive (let's not talk about whaling) are home to racists and xenophobes --  take Norway for example where a right-wing extremist shot up a children's camp last year killing 77 people.

By way of comparison, in my opinion the racists in the US are as much part of the mainstream as they are a part of the fringe. They are educated, they have money, and they vote. I wonder who's funding the effort to expand a memorial celebrating a founder of the Ku Klux Klan in historic Selma, Alabama. (By the way, the KKK is now here in Germany, a tragic cultural export of the US.)

Admittedly, in the US the language is my mother tongue, the culture is mine, and I know my rights. I don't know that these factors make living in the U.S. any easier than living in Germany, but I do feel a sense of security in the US in ways that I may never feel secure in Germany. In the US, I  know where to go for support against racism, I know how to object and be outraged, and I know where to find like-minded people.  On the other hand, living here and seeing first hand how a country atones, heals, and redefines itself after [insert your preferred euphemism for the Holocaust here, as words cannot adequately express the depth of the evil and grief begat in the name of this country]  and how two countries, East and West Germany, become one gives me lessons in history, culture, war, survival, and human nature every day. In Berlin, I accidentally trip across powerful historical places on my way to the grocery store down the street. Through the most mundane and unexpected circumstances, I'm intellectually stimulated in ways I could never experience in the US. Life here sometimes is like watching social change in over-drive. It's vibrant and amazing. And yes, sometimes life here is also a bit scary.

Jin, I hope all is going well. I miss hanging out and kibitzing with you. I hope we get a chance to do that in the not-too-distant future.

Lots of love,