Last weekend, I planned a trip to Hamburg to hang out with some friends. At 6 o’clock on Saturday, I darted out of the apartment headed to Ostbahnhof Station, which is located in the Eastern Part of Berlin. With my rucksack on my back, and a tot bag on my shoulder, I hurried to get out of the door. On the way, while waiting for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green, I saw two men in their late 20s or early 30s on their bikes approach the zebra crossing. Three of us were to converge at the same crossing line. As soon as the light turned green, I headed toward the other side of the road. While trying to plug the earphones to Iphones, I heard: Ausländer Raus!,” which means “Foreigner Out!.” Puzzled, and shocked, I looked around, trying to figure out where the voice came from. There were only three people on the street: two German men on their bikes, and myself, an Asian woman walking across the street. I stared at them for a moment, puzzled, upset, and literally FURIOUS. Agitated, I held my hands up, gave each of them a middle finger. Then one of them said “not you” in English. I didn’t want to pick up a fight, and knew that if the fight had happened, I would not have been able to handle it. Instead I kept walking without looking back.
The entire interaction unfolded in less than 30 seconds, but it took me almost a week to digest, and come to terms with what happened. How did these men dare to shout such a xenophobic phrase at me? Who were they? What did they really mean? Why did they say “not you” at the end?
The Expression „Ausländer Raus!”
To me the expression represents the AfD’s position towards immigration. They basically do not want any person with an immigration background in Germany. I learned it in Dresden 4 years ago, when Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, was demonstrating frequently in Dresden to show that their Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics. Simply put, they don’t want any Muslim person in Germany. This sentiment has been going on in Germany for a long time, and those demonstrations took place even before the European refugee crisis, starting in 2015. Then every time I visited Dresden, what I didn’t receive any a direct anti-immigration utterance, but silent stare from Dresdeners. It was not comfortable, yet I didn’t feel that my existence was being attacked physically or psychologically. The harmless stare could mean many things. There was simply not enough evidence to come to any hasty conclusion.
This incidence was different. It challenged my physical appearance, and it left a permanent psychological disturbance. It took place in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain in East Berlin, where the majority voted for the Green Party, or the Linke in the last state election. I didn’t expect such a characteristically AfD behavior on the streets of the district. In the period of two years I had lived in Germany before, I never encountered such an incidence. Yet now as a tourist, the expression was directed to me, and it disturbed me tremendously. How daily civility has changed in this city!
Men in their late 20s, early 30s during day time brazenly showed their hostility toward me. What emboldened this behavior? Is that true that Germany can no longer contain, or manage xenophobic sentiments toward any person who doesn’t fit in the popular imagination of who a German should be? Why is it happening now?
What did “not you” mean at the end?
For a moment, I thought the phrase “Ausländer Raus” was a word play or a game between the two of them. Trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, I fancied that they maybe didn’t mean it. First of all, they were young men of the age of late 20s, or early 30s. They were out and about at a very early hour in the morning. Possibly, they were coming back from a party; hence they’re possibly drunk. Maybe they thought that I didn’t understand German, and wanted to test to see whether I was indeed a foreigner. But “Ausländer Raus” was not an expression to approach a stranger regardless of their nationality. It’s rude, and it’s hurtful. Assuming that I didn’t understand German, and I simply walked away without any reaction, what would they have talked among themselves after I had left? Would they triumphantly claim that I was indeed a foreigner, and I had no right to be in Berlin at any moment in time? Was the expression “Ausländer raus” a Freudian slip after an entire night of drinking?
The men didn’t look violent to me. They rather look like some of my Berliner friends whom I would hang out with whenever I were in Germany. They seemed to be like any young Berliner, who enjoyed techno music, good beer, and would cheer for their national team during the World Cup. They didn’t look like “Nipsters,” which refer to young neo-Nazis who embrace the hipster culture. In other words, they looked like any resident of Friedrichshain: maybe students, maybe working class men. They were on their bikes. That is to say, they possibly supported a pro-environment life style. But they expressed some of the most anti-foreigner utterances toward me. People can be leftist on one thing, and extreme-far-right on another. It’s politics: full of contradictions.
Why did they say “not you” in English to me at the end? Maybe they wanted to make up for their racist/xenophobic utterance. Now they assumed that I understood English. How many more assumptions did they have about me? How would those assumptions help or hurt our interactions? Did they really mean not me or just not people who look like me? At that traffic intersection, there were only three people: two of them, and myself. Who’s the foreigner here?, I asked myself. I was outraged. The damage was done on my psychological being, and no amendment could be made. If I could stand there, and call the police, I would. I would like to suit them for psychological damage if possible. I wonder how many therapy sections I would need to unpack the various layers of meaning of this very incidence. Over the weekend, friends freely gave me some quick kitchen therapy, so I could let my outrage out, and to come to terms with what happened.
My expectation was the word “sorry,” not the phrase “not you.” To me speaking English didn’t signify a level of cosmopolitanism that these men had cultivated. It just showed the most ignorant way of correcting a wrongdoing. Almost three decades ago, this very neighborhood was squarely located in one of the most closed-off country one earth – the GDR. As much as they tried to be cosmopolitan, this recent past could not be erased that fast. As much as they tried to show their understanding of the new global linguistic hierarchy, the bridge had been burnt. It often takes more time and effort to build a bridge than to destroy one. The bridge between me and them was not even been constructed yet, they already smashed it by a simple phrase.
“Politics of Silence”
What I am most uncomfortable with in Germany is not that there was no right to free speech, but the right to remain silent. There is no vocabulary to discuss about racism because the concept “race” has been artificially suppressed. Of course, the reason for the lack of the concept has to do with the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, this absence of a controversial topic has helped German society to move on from their past experience. Yet the lack of it made people of non-German background to be not able to express their lived experience. It is estimated that actually out of the 82 million people, 62 million are actually German. That leaves 20 million other people to be of immigration background. That is to say, almost a quarter of the population do not have the right vocabulary to describe their lived experience.
In the absence of the vocabulary one has to resort to the next best thing. Now one of the controversial discourses about integration in Germany has to do with cultural assimilation of Muslim immigrants, and refugees. The framing that immigrants are un-assimilable because they come from a different culture would not really result in any substantial change. Assuming that all Muslim persons in Germany gave up their religion, cultural practices, their lived experience would still be very different from an average German simply because of their physical appearance. Taking one’s ethnicity, and other factors into consideration, cultural assimilation does not lead to social, political, and labor market assimilation. Assimilating an immigrant culturally first does not guarantee other integration aspects. In many ways, cultural assimilation is something that one cares the least about when one’s being an immigrant. Who cares about giving up some bit of cultural practices, when you don’t know where to sleep tomorrow?
Regardless of how much I have been Germanized, I would still be a visible minority, if I were to settle in Germany. This would be a hard fact. In other words, the silence of a discourse results in the proliferation of another discourse that might not lead to any concrete result. The current cultural conflict discourse could be very much enter a vicious circle, which brings everyone back to the starting point, which is everybody who doesn’t look like an imaginary average German is deemed to be un-assimilable.
Collateral Damage of the “Not-you” Mentality
The two men assumed that by saying “not you,” I would be able to forgive their behavior. That’s wrong! In contemporary immigration history of reunified Germany, that mentality has had a serious consequence. People who looked like me: the Vietnamese, suffered from collateral damage because of a xenophobic attack against the Roma refugees in Rostock in 1992. Let me remind everyone of the Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots in 1992. Young neo-Nazis didn’t plan to attack the Vietnamese, those who came in the GDR as contract workers, who then remained living in Germany after the reunification. Their targets were the Roma asylum seekers. The young men and women of the town set a few residential buildings where immigrants, and refugees lived on fire, while the police were silently witnessing those houses burned down to the ground. In that situation, everyone was hurt. The politics of silence contributed to the violent act of young people. The Romas got hurt; the Vietnamese were terrorized, psychologically and physically damaged. The entire episode was documented well, and one could watch the movie “Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark” or “We are young. We are strong,” on Netflix to remind oneself of the violent recent past.
How many generations of immigrants have been psychologically terrorized by these seemingly harmless incidences on the streets? Have immigrants transmit that knowledge to their kids? The concept “Cultural Trauma” by Jeffrey Alexander might be helpful when thinking about this inter-generational phenomenon. One could predict that these interactions will have generational effect from one generation to another. Coupling with the politics of silence in Germany, one will have to deal with it throughout life. Instead of collectively mourning over these incidences, one is asked to privatized those feelings, and seek to fix those feelings oneself. Maybe God helps. Maybe a personal therapist.
I love Germany no doubt. But the more I love this country, its culture, and its people, I would hope it to be different when working with its refugees, immigrants, and minority groups. The people who are called “undeutsch” by Fatima El-Tayeb, or people of color in the American context, would keep their experience private, or suppress their feelings because they are not able to mourn about their existence. Besides, blaming all xenophobic acts to the neo-Nazi youngsters would never be sufficient. It’s a systematic failure to address the politics of silence that is at the heart of the problem. What if the youngster neo-Nazis don’t grow out of their teenager ideology; they simply grow old, and become gatekeepers of various institutions in Germany? What if one of them became a director of a social science research institute?
Clearly, more questions than answers have been raised in this blog post. Mostly likely I will talk to a therapist when I get back to New York to unpack the convoluted feelings evoked during this summer. In the future, I might forget that this encounter ever happened. Yet not all “undeutsch” people have the privilege to bring a complex social problem to solve in a private office of a well-trained psychologist. Not everyone has the option to leave Germany. Many people immigrate to this land, and are stuck in their situations for various reasons. At the end of the day, all visible minorities suffer regardless of which group is being targeted. Once populism is unleashed, harm is being done to everyone on a daily basis. This year Germany celebrates the 200th birthday of one of the most well-known, and well-celebrated German philosophers and social theorists: Karl Marx. Instead of writing more biographies about him, I would call for more reflection on his seminal essay: “On the Jewish Question.” It’s an attempt to deal with the question of race in Germany almost 2 centuries ago. It’s already the time to re-open the question.