As a new arrival in Berlin and being of Asian extraction, I somehow expected ‘foreigner’ to be stamped on my forehead for all to read and react to.
Instead, no one stared. Everyone addressed me in German. If I didn’t have to open my mouth, I was just one of the madding crowd.
To be precise, the madding crowd comprising the 4% of Asians in Berlin who are officially German.
I quickly lowered my hyper-sensitive radar of self-consciousness.
Still, I initially found it particularly bizarre and rib-tickling when other Asians spoke to me in German. I kept feeling that there should have been some other common language that we should have been using. You know, to acknowledge our common Asian-ness.
Damn that colonial legacy.
In any case, I remember clearly our first Asian encounters:
The chirpy Korean owners of the Asiamarkt grocery store in Mitte where we did our first Asian shop. People who were shorter than me. With real black hair.
Thiruchelvam in Karl-Marx Allee who sold us our first mobile sim cards. Tamil Thiruchelvam. With a gold stud in one ear.
The server/chefs in the cupboard of a Japanese Imbiss. Taciturn, brusque and efficient. Boy, was their food good.
(The Japanese stereotype, it struck me, was not so different from the German stereotype.)
And how we roared with laughter the first time we heard well-known Asian TV and film actors ‘speak’ in German. Unlike in Malaysia, where foreign films are subtitled, everything on German TV and cinema is dubbed.
The first such actor to pop up on our Grundig TV screen was Malaysian veteran Patrick Teoh. A long-time radio DJ and a popular voice-over choice for ads, the timbre of his vocal chords is distinctive and unmistakable.
And there he was on German TV speaking in a Teutonic tone pitched an octave higher. He was playing a baddie in one of the popular made-for-TV feature soaps set in exotic countries. It was hilarious.
We were equally tickled the first time we experienced the dubbed Hong Kong martial arts legend Jackie Chan and Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan.
Amazing how the loss of their signature voices changed their personalities – it didn’t help that they were speaking in almost comically sped-up German.
Indeed, bigger Hollywood stars are voiced by Feststimme (regular voice) actors. Good voice acting is even recognised through the annual German Dubbing Awards.
Needless to say, being able to speak German was key to fitting into Berlin society. But several times in our years there, we found ourselves in situations resulting from stereotypical perceptions of Asians.
Once, we got onto an S-Bahn and made our way to seats which faced each other. An older gentleman was sitting on one side. I smiled and gestured to the seats opposite to mutely ask if they were free. He nodded genially, gesturing to the seats.
We sat down.
A young beggar came up, one of the lot of buskers and beggars who illegally ply their trade on trains. We shook our heads at him, but our fellow passenger gave him what can only be described as a venomous look.
After the beggar left, the older man turned indignantly to us and let fly a stream of complaints. As he got more and more worked up, he would gesture towards me and the seat, make repeated little bows and frequently use “höflich”.
The welfare benefit-drawing long-term unemployed whom many suspect earn undeclared incomes on the side, does not sit well with some of the older, hard-working Germans.
But I felt uncomfortably that I was being pigeonholed as the respectful Asian against whom these so-called “Harz IV society spongers” were coming up short.
Another time, as I joined a line at our local DM pharmacy, a man in front turned around. I smiled. He smiled back and started talking to me. After a few sentences, he switched to English. It’s obvious from my bad German that I’m a foreigner, right, I offered wryly.
But no, he said, it wasn’t my grammar. It was my friendliness. He then went on an invective against cold, unfeeling Germans and in praise of warm, smiley Asians – “You’re Filipino right?”
He had reached the cashier by then. Turning to her, he directed his comments to her, trying to get her to agree with him. The cashier, a gum-chewing pierced goth, just gave him a baleful stare. Triumphant, he turned to me, pointed at her and said, “See?”
When it came to my turn at the check-out, I gave her an apologetic shrug. She rolled her eyes in reply.
Living in a largely Turkish neighbourhood, we didn’t encounter Asians much, but I became more comfortable, though never totally settled, in using German as the lingua franca.
At our regular Vietnamese take-away, it was in German that I learned from gentle Anh of a loneliness that stemmed from her hailing originally from Ho Chi Minh City in the country’s south. North Vietnamese in the neighbourhood, she said, were cliquish and unfriendly.
It was also in German that we learned about the stoicism of the turbaned Bulbir, who was cheated by a partner and had to close his large chain of restaurants to focus on a single eatery, our go-to place for North Indian cuisine.
Interestingly, it was an Asian waitress in a German cafe who came closest to a rudeness bordering on discrimination when we tried to order a coffee there. We almost walked out but made ourselves stay on principle and ask another server to take our order.
But just because we were the only non-German Asians in that cafe, it was not clear cut that that was why the waitress was so offensive.
Was she having a bad day at work? Was it because the cafe was located by a tourist area, and she had had enough of dithering tourists, a growing number of whom were Asian?
Likewise, in another incident where a stall-owner got upset with me for taking photographs, it would have been too easy to label her discriminatory. There, the larger issue of how tough it is to earn a living in the face of globalisation definitely played a role.
Still, Asian stereotyping is not necessarily helped by celebrities like Ranga Yogeshwar. Arguably the most famous Asian on German TV, Yogeshwar is half Indian, half Luxemburgian (his middle name is Gregoire).
A trained physicist, he helms science programmes that are extremely popular and is decorated as one of Germany’s most effective science communicators.
I had to agree after catching one of his shows, ‘Quarks & Co’, that he broke down science not only entertainingly but impressively, using large scale scenarios to prove theories and serve as explanations. No wonder said show is Germany’s longest running science magazine series.
But Yogeshwar was not only suave, cool and intelligent, he was European in every sense. Except for falling into the ‘Asian’ trap of being a poster child for maths and science, a gift that he inherited (his father is an engineer and his grandfather was a mathematical giant who invented the library classification system).
One could however argue that there are worse traits for which to be stereotyped. ω
Information about Germans with migrant backgrounds is in this 2012 article by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Centre for Political Education).