Six months after Almaz moved in, she finally spoke to me. “How long have you been in Germany?” she asked as I walked up the front path to our shared front door. A refugee from Eritrea, Almaz and her eight-year-old daughter live in the ground floor studio, her rent paid by the city so her daughter can finish elementary school nearby. I had been trying to get to know Almaz, inviting her for coffee, saying hello in the hallway, but I never knew if she could speak German or understand me. I don't know how she knew I wasn't a German native. Could Almaz, with her broken, beginner German, already recognize my accent?
“Ten years?” Almaz replied with raised eyebrows. “Maybe in ten years I'll be like you, finally speak German. I'll fit in here.”
I smiled, willing away a smirk. Maybe that was what gave my foreignness away. Germans never smile.
“Maybe,” I sighed.
Just a few hours earlier, I had been sitting in a meeting trying to sell an editor on a story applying Hannah Arendt's theories on the rise of totalitarianism to the US election. I would be writing in English but had to pitch the idea in German. Mid-way through my pitch, my editor cut me off. She had put her head in her hands and began to massage her temples, as she often did when I spoke. “It might be a good idea,” she finally said. “But I don't understand why you'd be the one to do it. Or maybe I just don't understand you.”
When I arrived in Germany on a Fulbright grant in 2005, I had to prove I spoke German well enough to read train timetables and buy groceries on my own. A new law had been implemented requiring newcomers to attend integration classes in order to get a work permit. For five hours a day, three days a week, newly-arrived foreigners are subjected to lessons on the ins and outs of life in Germany. The classes are held only in German—“If you would like to live in Germany, you should learn German,” the website of the migration office reads— but they are not solely language classes. There are lectures on German politics and society, and classes in which the rules for how the community and culture here works are explained. Rules that you, the foreigner, are expected to adhere to as you “integrate.”
Because of my basic German skills and my Fulbright, the foreigner's office waived the class for me. Instead, I learned about life here by trial and error. When I got the keys to my first apartment, I realized that rentals do not come with light fixtures and spent my first week there in darkness. On my birthday that year, friends took me to a sauna to celebrate. Five minutes in, I was met by a stern look and a finger-wagging. “Bathing suits are not allowed,” an elderly woman told me and I was forced to strip naked in front of complete strangers if I wanted to stay.
In the time that I spent in classrooms as part of the Fulbright program, I learned that there are words that have been verboten since 1945. Germans are taught in schools that the economic issues of the Weimar Republic brought on the later crisis. That although anti-Semitism is deplorable, it was, in the 1930s, neither limited to Germany nor the sole reason for the war. Yet the subsequent belief in free speech is so liberally interpreted that the name National Democrats had replaced National Socialists and their party members, who would not like to see people like me here, are still standing for election throughout the country.
The first time I heard the word integration I found it odd—another of those Anglicisms incorrectly adapted by German speakers. When I thought of integration, I thought of those pictures in my history textbook of Black schoolgirls being led through white mobs, frightened teenagers clutching their schoolbooks as they made their way into an Arkansan classroom. Integration struck me as something forced, unwelcomed by the masses. Then the pictures began rolling through last August. Exhausted refugees being led through white mobs. Only this time the crowds they pushed through were cheering, holding signs that read, “Refugees welcome.”
Even before the arrival of these people from not-so-distant lands, the subject of political discussion had been integration. On the radio and television, in newspapers and around water coolers, people were saying they wished that newcomers would integrate better. They have railed against the hijab, against the numbers of children these families have, of a lack, to put it politely, of common decency. “They are not working,” one woman complains to me and I remind her that half of the women in our neighborhood—those with small children—do not work either.
“They do not speak German,” another laments. A politician who fancied herself the next Angela Merkel called for immigrants to speak only German at home; afterwards a friend jokingly gifted me the book, “Dirty German,” so I could brush up on my bedroom speak. A stranger compliments me on my fluency, tells me I am a good immigrant, not like the others, and I grow angry. I studied Germany at university, planning to come here to study the intricacies of genocide and post-war transitional justice. Almaz and others like her had not. How can you prepare yourself for life after fleeing a dictatorship or a war that destroys everything you have once known?
These state-funded integration classes have been underfunded from the start and are now fully booked out; some cities have begun hiring people without teaching qualifications. Waiting lists for these classes have grown but to even be added to that list, you have to have been granted asylum or at least, for now, residency. Welcome to Germany. Take a number. Have a seat. It is as if they are testing your patience, your desire to stay. Asylum applications as endurance tests.
It strikes me during some conversations that assimilation might be a better word choice for what is being requested. This is the unspoken sentiment: We welcome people who are like us, people who adopt our values, people who shed their beliefs like a snake sheds skin, leaving behind their homeland customs as they grow into their new identity as Germans. To integrate in Germany means to speak German, to attend celebrations with copious amounts of alcohol, to eat sausages made of pork, to intermingle with the locals, have Germans as your friends. To never speak a word of your native tongue again.
I am sober. A vegetarian. I speak English at home and at work. I say shit instead of scheisse . Yet no one asks why I don't eat schnitzel. No one asks why I am opposed to religion classes in public schools. No one wonders about my hesitance to disrobe in public.
I'm told that I've integrated well. That I'm not one of the foreigners being cursed at political rallies or discussed at the beerfest or shouted at to go home. I do not worry that a Molotov cocktail will be thrown through my front window. I am also blonde-haired and blue-eyed. I am white, my skin a light beige, a color referred to in German unironically and unquestioned as Hautfarbe . Skin color.
And yet, when I open my mouth to speak, people ask where I am from. They say, “You don't look German. You don't sound German.”
In a restaurant, I overhear an elderly woman ask her waiter where he is from. “My parents immigrated from Vietnam before I was born,” he explains in flawless German.
Imagine: Every day for years, you are asked to confess your origin story to a complete stranger. Every day for years, for what feels like your whole life sometimes, a complete stranger tells you that he's noticed you are different, that you speak funny, wants to know private details about you. Imagine that the second question a stranger asks you is, “Why are you here?” Would you feel as though you had integrated? Assimilated? After ten, twenty, thirty years, our whole lives here, we are reminded, no matter what we do, even if we feel we are not foreigners, we do not fit in.
I don't dare tell Almaz that.
When her key clicked in the tumbler and she pushed the heavy wooden door open, holding it ajar just long enough for her daughter and I to pass through, I turned to her and smiled. “Keep studying,” I said. “Some day it will all work.”
Names have been changed