‚Why are people who live, work, love, play, learn, laugh and reside here described as ‚foreigners‘?
This is a billboard that I’ve been passing on the subway to work every day for the last few weeks. And every time, it makes me stop and think. I don’t know who the quote is from or what the advert is for, but it’s a thought all Germans need to be reminded of if they are to truly function as a multi-cultural society. Or a ‚multi-culti‘ society as the Germans ever so slightly cringe-worthily like to put it.
The Pegida movement showed a sudden and rash development to reach the spotlight just before Christmas with their demonstrations and statements bringing world-wide attention to Germany. Although the focus is on the supposed ‚islamisation‘ of Germany, the general discussion encompasses ‚Fremdfeindlichkeit‘ (xenophobia), asylum-seekers, integration; just about anything to do with out-siders. As a dark-skinned foreigner living in Germany, it’s hard not to feel slightly uncomfortable by some of the comments.
I’m put at ease by the 12,000 residents of Munich who chose to spend the day before Christmas eve attending a demonstration against Pegida, and all the other demonstrations which have taken place in all major cities in Germany.
I’m put at ease by the fact that the movement arises from Dresden, where only 4.1% of the population are foreigners and an even smaller percentage of these muslim. That the outcry is based on a fear that comes more from a lack of contact and therefore understanding with people of other race, culture and religion than a true distrust.
I’m mostly put to ease by the fact that I have never had an uncomfortable racial encounter with a German – on the streets, in the shops, at the hospital or wherever – in my 5 years of life and travel here. As yet.
I’m put at ease by the fact that the Germans themselves underrate how tolerant they are as a folk. A not infrequent comment from my good German friends from Düsseldorf as I announced my move to Munich was that they were worried for me about racism in Munich. Until now, their fears have been completely unfounded.
I’m not a muslim. But I’m presuming no one would rule it out just by looking at me.
The ethnicity of my home university town of Birmingham is made up by more than 40% of non-Brits. If you take into account the number of second generations immigrants, that’s a large number of people who look different. Anyone who arrives at Birmingham airport or at the main train station in Birmingham will see this straight away.
To a Brit, it’s completely normal. I’m proud of the cultural diversity of the city. Just as I am thankful for the opportunity to have studied with a mixed bag of students at the University of Birmingham. The different faiths, foods, music and humour did nothing but enrich my student days.
But the numbers can be manipulated and grossly misunderstood: a Fox News commentator recently led viewers to believe that Birmingham is in fact ‚a muslim-only city‘ where non-muslims and whites don’t feel comfortable anymore. The percentage of muslims in fact lies at just over 20%.
Yes, there are pockets of the city where muslim communities are densely populated. Not that different from a China town, a little Italy or a Portuguese quarter: people from all sorts of cultures build up communities. And indeed, for the best balti house in town, I suggest you head there.
Mainly, Birmingham is a city where people of all sorts live side by side. I’ve worked with colleagues who wear headscarves, and seen no evidence that patients have been intimidated by them. As long as the doctor was communicative, approachable, competent and empathetic, a headscarf does not make one bit of difference to a sick patient.
Although I have never had a mean thing said to me regarding my race in my time in Germany, I am frequently – often shyly sometimes blatantly – approached with questions about my background.
The Germans are much less interested in my British nationality and my British accent and much more in my native country of India. This irritated me a little at first, but now I realise that to many older Germans, I am a sort of curiosity and the encounters mostly leave me with a smile.
So many wish to tell me stories of their travel to India or their much longed for but never made trip to the land. Some are curious about my not so very Indian surname and are openly perplexed by this. Some compliment me excessively on my excellent German language skills after we have barely exchanged 2 words with each other. Some simply wish to tell me where their favourite Indian restaurant is.
Germany has a way to go before a ‚multi-culti‘ side-by-side living is taken as a given, but I don’t believe it to be impossible. Which is why I sometimes can’t help thinking: pull yourself together! Show the world what a big nation you are! Be open, ask your questions, learn from your fellow citizens whatever their skin colour or religion and appreciate the positive things from these foreigners instead of simply noting the differences. And in turn, show them all the things that make Germany into the great place that it is and help them on their way to building a life here.
I have worked, lived, danced, laughed and played with enough people of different races to know that underneath it all we are all basically made of the same stuff. I would hope that the average German, once his or her curiosities and questions are answered, comes to the same conclusion.