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Integrating the Germans

Integrating the Germans

When you travel in expat circles, the topics of immigration and integration are never far from the surface. They are not the main topics, by any stretch, especially among my male friends. We would be more inclined to have a heated debate over merits of Messi’s left foot or discuss whether humanity would be better off if everyone could, once a month, punch whoever they wanted in the face with no legal ramifications. Once we move past the big topics, questions over learning the language or how to deal with the peculiarities of living in Germany often come to the fore. They are never labelled as “the integration topic” or “the immigration conversation”, but they do reflect the obvious tensions that underpin any immigrants experience in their adopted country.

So it was that I found myself discussing these topics at a barbeque recently, hosted by a friend who lives in a small village. We were discussing the issue of immigrants becoming part of village life and my friend mentioned that there had been some tensions between longstanding residents and these new arrivals. The former felt that the latter were ignoring the traditions of village life and the community activities that were so central to life in a German village. None of the immigrants had bothered to join any of the local clubs or take part in organising village events and it was felt that this was disrespectful. It was strongly felt that if people want to move somewhere, they should integrate and become part of the wider collective.

Of course, this kind of discourse can make people uncomfortable. It is a topic that carries a lot of emotive opinion in its wake, and not one that is so easy to discuss, even among friends. As the conversation continued, I began to worry that my friend and I were going to reach a point where are opinions soured the nice evening we had been enjoying. I wondered aloud if it was because the immigrants to the village did not understand the culture, had these expectations been fully explained to them? Had the local community simply expected people to adapt to a strange new environment without first trying to support their integration in some way. My friend looked at me quizzically. ‘Nic, these aren’t normal immigrants.’ I held my breath, we were reaching the point of no return. ‘They’re Germans, they all come from Nürnberg’.

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I don’t really remember what happened next, but I know there was collective laughter at my misunderstanding. It turned out that in this particular context, the immigrants who had so disturbed the local village population, who were causing so much conflict, actually came from 20 minutes down the road. They had moved to the village to buy houses and raise children, but still be close enough to commute to work. They were city dwellers, who had upped sticks and moved to the village. They wanted to enjoy the benefits of the annual Jazz Night or the Dorffest, but they had no interest in organising them.

This put in stark relief, in my mind at least, the problem of integration. How can anyone in Germany expect peoples from vastly different cultures to integrate into German life, if we still have problems integrating Germans into German life. It also made a mockery of the expectations that some people seem to have that immigrants from all over the world will suddenly become Germanised, when we can’t even define what that actually means. Politicians make bold statements about the need for a Leitkultur or a Guiding culture that defines for immigrants the way they should behave, but which culture? Is it the one from the North or the South, the East or the West?

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The issues faced by Southern Germans, who choose to move to Berlin, has been well documented. They have faced a weird form of internal xenophobia, espoused by local politicians and reinforced by demands that these “immigrants” stop using their Southern words and adhere to the Northern Leitkultur. I have lambasted students I teach for singling out classmates for ridicule, simply because they come from the East. I have been laughed at by other Bavarians because I prefer Nürnberger Rostbratwurst over their local preferences and have laughed with a colleague who continues to greet his southern co-workers with a cheery northern ‘Moin, Moin” every morning because he knows it annoys them.

Humans are comically odd animals. They rarely meet all our expectations, nor do they always fit in neat little boxes. That’s basically part of being human. It is ridiculous to expect people to be defined by a narrow interpretation, especially when I can find a different interpretation by simply crossing the street. You cannot force people to join the shooting club because you think that is part of being German, you cannot demand people help organise events because that’s what you feel is expected.

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I do agree that we can expect new arrivals to a country to respect the law of the land, to try and learn the language, but I think that is about it. There isn’t much else anyone can demand. The German Constitution states “Human dignity shall be inviolable”, it mandates freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the Inviolability of the home. If you are looking for Leitkultur, it is all there in black and white. We don’t suddenly need to change because someone didn’t help at the local bake sale.

Furthermore, the process of integration is non-linear and it doesn’t occur overnight. It can take decades, centuries even. It is this point that seems to be lost in the milieu. Will I as an immigrant, fully integrate to German culture? Possibly, over my entire life, I might. Yet, even if I do, I will still speak German with a Geordie accent, I will still prefer Yorkshire Tea over Kräuter Pur and I will aggressively defend Heinz Baked Beans to the death. Will this make me less German? Perhaps in some peoples eyes, but not in the eyes those who really matter. 

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