There’s no doubt about it: although some Germans like to make fun of American culture and our supposed lack thereof in comparison to their “European cultured-ness”, the Germans (according to their media) still consider Americans members of the vaguely defined club known as “Western Civilization”.
Americans are foreigners here, but not that foreign.
In comes the Chinese-American exchange student, me, who seems to arouse a bit of confusion in some people here.
When I thought of culture shock, and when I was briefed on culture shock by my advisor at Cornell and later by my study abroad program, racism never came up as a topic. It was about differences in American and German table manners, attitudes about privacy, and small talk. And if one is an American with white skin and Caucasian facial features, the information touches most of the important things one needs to know. But when you are Chinese American? Not so much. A good addition to any handbook would be the following sentence: “If you are a minority student, be aware that some people may question if you are really an American. Try not to get too upset about it. ”
Here are the micro-aggressions I can still remember from the past 6 months I’ve spent in Berlin
- The various “ni-haos” and “konichiwas” that non-Asian people “greet” me with as I walk down the street or some other public space
- This exchange with my host father:
“So…where are you really from?”
“Oh. Well, I was born in China, but I moved to the US when I was 6, and I’m American”
“But you’re actually still loyal to China right?”
“It’s complicated. First, let’s talk about what you mean by ‘loyalty’”
- This exchange with a friend of my host-family:
“You’re name is Lena? That doesn’t sound Chinese.”
“Lena is what I call myself; I do have a Chinese name –it’s my legal name.”
“What is it?”
“Cool, I’m going to call you that.”
“I’d prefer if you stick to Lena”
- Another question from my host-father: “As a Chinese-American (he emphasized the Chinese part), why are you interested in learning German?” After I explained that I am interested in German literature and philosophy, he commented “that’s unusual for a Chinese person”. I proceeded to remind him that his national literature and philosophy form a cornerstone of the western intellectual tradition, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that an American humanities student is interested in the German intellectual tradition.
- My land-lady: “You look like my Vietnamese neighbor”.
- A man on the subway asked me, unprompted: “Where are you from?”
I replied “It’s not polite to just walk up to me and ask me where I’m from, you know”
He seemed to not have understood me, so he asked “Do you speak English?”
“I’m speaking it to you right now”, I replied.
“Yes or no?” he asked.
“Well, clearly you don’t understand English”, I said.
“You don’t speak English”, he concluded.
People on the train began to laugh. I said, “Alright, you’re embarrassing yourself with this conversation”, and walked to the opposite end of the compartment.
- At a concert, someone interrupted my enjoyment of live music to ask me a very pressing question: “Vietnam or Bangkok?” I told him it’s none of his business. He persisted: “Japan? China? Korea?” I told him I’m American.
“Your face isn’t American”, he retorted.
- My exchange program organized a tour of the Bundestag (the German Parliament). At the end of the tour, our guide asked another Chinese American girl in our group why she goes by a Western sounding name instead of the name on her passport. He then proceeded to explain that Turkish and Arab minorities in Germany are proud of their ethnic heritages.
- My host-family often travels abroad and regularly hosts international students. I was therefore surprised when my host mother told me she is against letting more refugees into Germany, because “people should remain where they were born”.
In comparison Berlin, I experience less racism and fewer micro-aggressions in America, and I know it’s because I have the privilege of living in very racially diverse upper middle class neighborhoods with strong Asian communities. Around 18 percent of my high school was Asian, and Asians make up a significant part of the Cornell population. People around me back home are used to Asian Americans who were born in Asian countries, Asian Americans born in America, Asian Americans who go by a name different from the one on their birth certificate, Asian Americans who identify strongly with their ethnic heritage, Asian Americans who don’t, Asian Americans who study science, and Asian Americans who study literature and other cultures. Sometimes I forget that the rest of America and the rest of the world aren’t necessarily like that. I became so used to being just “me”, that I didn’t realize that I’m not just to “me” to other people. Whether intentionally or not, some people project their imagination of an Asian person or a Chinese person on me. Some people see me as not only foreign to Germany (undisputed fact), but also foreign to Western Civilization and its cultural heritage (false assumption).
The question of who “belongs” to Western civilization also lies at the center of the “multiculturalism” debate in Germany and Europe.
When I criticize German society and media for still not being able to separate ethnic and cultural heritage from nationality, the most common retort I get from even many pro-cultural-diversity Germans is usually something along the lines of: “The US has had a long history of having minorities, while Germany has only had minority groups in the past few decades. German society needs time to adjust.”
That German society needs time to adjust to newcomers is probably true.
But Germany only has had a few decades of experience with minority groups?
So the Jewish people and the Roma weren’t minority groups?
Didn’t some of them try to assimilate into German society pre-1933?
The truth is, Germany, and much of Europe, have a long history of non-Christian cultural-ethnic minority groups, and that coexistence ended in catastrophe for these communities when the Nazis came to power. To claim that Germany was ethnically homogeneous before the arrival of recent immigrants would be conceding victory to the Nazis and their abettors who destroyed Jewish and Roma lives and tried to erase their cultural impact and histories of coexistence from official public memory.
Studying abroad in Germany has also awakened me to the need for Asian-American representation in American media. Many of the Germans here get their image of America from Hollywood and TV shows. Asian-Americans are underrepresented in these mediums. How can I expect Germans to know that Americans come in all different ethnicities when most of the actors in our movies and TV series are white?