Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Being Chinese in Germany

Today's episode of "posts I should have written months ago..."

I have definitely written about my experience of race in Germany before, but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to continue the scintillating series of Being Chinese in [Insert Country]. So here goes.


Race and ethnicity in Europe are very different from race and ethnicity in the US. Ethnicity matters a whole lot more and the demographic history is less marked by immigration than in the US. What that means is that the idea that your ethnicity and nationality should "match" is much more prevalent (and legally encoded), which naturally causes a lot of discomfort for someone for whom that does not hold true, by which I mean me.

My host parents encapsulate this viewpoint fairly well for me--luckily, because I really like them and so we could talk about it. They asked me if I felt more Chinese or more American, if I could ever see myself living in China; talked more about their travels to China than about their travels to California. In my German class we had a unit on immigration to Germany and talked about the situation of immigrants from different regions, and I talked about that with my host parents and their experiences of teaching immigrant children and children of immigrants. They apologized for any discomfort they may have caused me by treating me as Chinese instead of American--but they are also old, and grew up in a much more homogeneous Germany than the one of today.

When walking with a friend of mine who is also Chinese-American, we were ambushed by a guy on the street who shouted "konnichiwa" at us. When we were talking at a mixer event for students and host families at the beginning of the quarter, one of the host moms saw us and remarked, "Multi-kulti."

At two in the morning in the Cologne train station, two fellow travelers--an Iraqi man and a Kurdish man--struck up a conversation in Arabic, then started talking to me in English. I explained that I was a student from America; when I saw the Kurdish man later he waved and said, "ni hao." Somehow this offended me less than if a white guy had done it.

On my second trip to Hamburg, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Two Chinese guys, also studying abroad, sat at the table next to me. Upon hearing Mandarin, I said hello to them and we ended up having a nice conversation and becoming Facebook friends.

While in Berlin I went to two different Chinese restaurants, ordered in Mandarin, and on all occasions received free dessert, un-asked for (although I insisted on paying both times and passed it off as a really big tip).

In Hamburg I shopped at an Asian market two minutes farther away and slightly more expensive than another one because the proprietor spoke Mandarin to me and we had a long conversation about the difficulty of learning German and about her struggles with raising her kids with their culture--a struggle she said my parents must surely understand.

A Vietnamese immigrant, a student working part-time at a bakery, held up the line chatting with me after I'd ordered my sandwich. We complimented one another on our German, and she guessed right away that I was Chinese.

My last weekend in Berlin, I noticed two Chinese girls taking selfies and offered to take a picture of them together. They guessed right away that I was American-born Chinese, each insisted on taking a picture with me, and exchanged email addresses.

What do all these anecdotes mean? In Germany I was way more minority than I have ever been in America (granted, I live in the Bay Area). I felt much more instant solidarity with other Asians than I do at home, and they felt the same way about me. The summer I was in Indonesia, my boss told me that I was lucky to be Chinese because wherever I go in the world I'll have people who are willing to help me. I laughed at the time, but it kind of ended up being true? Hearing Mandarin made me instantly want to help someone if it looked like they needed help, and I certainly felt well taken care of by those restaurant owners who chatted with me and then gave me fruit plates.

I don't actually know how race relations among minority groups works in Germany, mostly because I didn't see many such interactions, certainly not enough to notice a pattern. Going by my own experiences is probably misleading because I come to the situation as an American, and as someone who had spent much of the previous quarter talking and thinking a lot about race. Was the sense of solidarity I got from my conversation with my fellow travelers in Köln one-sided or did they choose to talk to me because I was also not white?

My perception is that some of the same "model minority" bullshit is going on. When talking to my host parents about immigrants they singled out Korean immigrants for praise, but also said that these immigrants tended to come as students or professionals, so it was probably a class/education difference rather than anything racial. My flatmate from the summer asked me if I was quiet because I was Asian, because most other Americans she'd met were loud.

I talked to some other students about their experiences and some had worse experiences than I did--host parents who assumed ethnicity==nationality and were not willing to talk about it, for example. Did I get lucky or did they get unlucky?


Bonus: Being Chinese in Rome

As I buy tomatoes, an employee on break who had previously been chatting with the cashier bowed to me with his hands together and said, "Domo arigato." I replied, "Non sono giapponese." He said: "Ah, mi scusi."

Not five minutes later, as I walked along the train platform to find a bench (three days in Rome is hard on the feet), someone shouted behind me, "Konnichiwa! Sei giapponese?"

...means that people will assume that you're Japanese.


Being Chinese in China
Being Chinese in Indonesia

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