Viet German Life – Don’t call me a foreigner

The series “Vietdeutsche(s) Leben” (Viet German Life) aims to provide insight into the diversity of Viet German life realities. In this context, Birgitt Röttger-Rössler has already reported in an article of April 24, 2021 on the anthology “Ist Zuhause dort, wo die Sternfrüchte süß sind? “(2020), published by Vlab, a non-profit organization that promotes German-Vietnamese encounters and cultural exchange. The reader contains several biographical accounts by young Viet German authors. These highly readable essays, which provide insight into the multi-layered challenges faced by the children of Vietnamese immigrants, are complemented by other life story narratives that have been published on Vlab’s website in German as well as in Vietnamese translation. Following on the report on the anthology and as part of the sub-project work of A01, we are now publishing some of these texts here in English translation as a repost, in order to give them an even broader international readership.

On my laptop, I have saved a word-document containing my two non-German names. That way, I can look up their correct spelling at any time.

When my parents were looking for a name for me, it was clear there would be three: two with which they would call me in their respective mother tongues and one for my birth certificate and for the German majority society that could not memorize these names and pronounced them wrong using consonants that were far too hard. They wanted to spare me not only that specific experience, but also many of the small and large disparagements that often come in its wake in this country. Their decision was based on the hope that this concession would make their daughter’s future educators, teachers, and bosses accept and respect her more. By being accommodating, they wanted to spare me the ostracism that they themselves had faced so often: the lack of solidarity and yes, also racism.

My experience of racism has therefore revolved around names ever since my birth. Names shape identity. Mine has always been shaped by the struggle to find the right name.

Where do you really come from?

This question followed all the time after I started calling myself “German” as a teenager. It virtually haunted me. Strangers would insinuate that I had not understood their original question correctly, and they considered that they only had to repeat it again emphatically to make it clear that I could not be “properly German,” and that they, unlike me, were in the position to determine this. Often, they meant that I was being tolerated rather than respected as part of society. This lack of respect was evident in the thoughtless way they blotted out my self-designation. Under their exoticizing curiosity, my existence in my homeland was granted only conditionally and was constantly being threatened. Such actions confirmed the truth of a hope of my parents that I increasingly dreaded. In their eyes, I legitimized being allowed to stay in Germany through my academic achievement. This was part of a profound assimilation to which my mother tongues almost fell victim and that led to my being frightened as a child every time I looked in the mirror and did not see a blond girl. People often expressed this attitude in no uncertain terms by complaining about other ethnic groups in my presence and wishing they would go away. This was closely followed by a widening of the eyes and the affirmation, “But of course I don’t mean you! You speak German very well!” How could I respond to that other than with a weary smile, knowing that they were telling me that they already wanted to expel my parents from the country?

This perception of my foreignness was reflected in many well-intentioned compliments such as “you Asians are so hard-working” or “smart” or “didn’t cause any problems.” In the end, however, these revealed only a one-sided perception of the distinction between “us” and “you.” Am I really integrated when I fulfil all the ostensible conditions of a community, but then, time and again, only my otherness is emphasized—not as individuality, but as evidence for a stereotype of a foreign group?

Ching chang chong

This is the most common insult shouted at me. Openly racist jokes and comments were so normalized that hardly an eyebrow was raised. And this continues to this day. Over the years, I have learned that I can also expect little protection from those who have already marked me as foreign. Nowadays, I am less hurt by the curses of some strangers on the open street than by the lack of solidarity between different minorities and the tiring discussions with people from my milieu or even friends about whether or not racism even still exists. I constantly find myself in the situation of having to defend my position through precise personal anecdotes. Evidently, I have to give details about the frequency, the times of day, the tone, or the appearance of the perpetrators, only to have my experience relativized, my feelings devalued, or to be assigned a share of personal responsibility for such verbal assaults.

Asian academics like me abruptly lost our special contradictory position as a “model minority” during the coronavirus pandemic. From “foreign” to “alien and inferior” is, after all, only a short leap as my family and I painfully learned as infections spread. In addition to the staring, the switching to the other side of the street, and the rejected BlablaCar rides, there were media reports of actual physical attacks on people of Asian appearance. So, for the first time in my life, I would leave my home not with the fear of being insulted or disrespected, but of being physically attacked. In this situation, I also learned empathy with other groups who have long lived with the stigma of being a potential danger. I was appalled at my ignorance. While I grew up knowing that many people thought I was disgusting (what I eat) or ridiculous (the presentation of my ethnicity in the media), others were faced with the possibility that people were afraid of them. After all, if you are perceived only as a danger instead of a human being, you have to expect your rights to be violated. I therefore became truly aware for the first time of how important it is for the media to represent minorities as complex human beings and also to combat everyday racism. Not only does it deprive people like me of a sense of home, its toleration also tolerates our deindividuation.

Half-German, three-eighths Vietnamese, one-eighth Chinese

In my last summer of elementary school, we once went on a field trip to an excavation in the ruined castle that towered over our small town. To this day, I have a vivid memory of the archaeologist there asking me if I was Vietnamese. Although I could identify less and less with this classification through my socialization in Germany, I was pleased that someone knew that China was not the only country in East/Southeast Asia. With cheap long-haul flights and the increasing popularity of Asian music, television, and food culture, I also started to be regularly mistaken for a Thai, a Japanese, or a Korean. This made me feel more like a projection screen for the guessers’ interests (“I want to practice my Chinese,” “Are you also a great cook?” “The land of beautiful women”) rather than feeling that there was any honest interest in who I was.

When asked about my origins in my youth, I would evade the question of identity by reeling off my biography and the one of my parents. I would do that as objectively as possible, and then it would be up to the questioners to say which group I belonged to. Why? Having experienced so often that my hometown was not the answer they were looking for, I decided that by not wanting to “come clean,” I would protect myself from painful rejection and conflict. The truth is that these encounters rarely take place in a neutral social space in which there is an equal exchange of information. The questions were coming from people on whom I depended either directly or indirectly: teachers, supervisors in internships or part-time jobs, and managers in job interviews, or they emerged during contacts with patients. Of course, I could have engaged in conflict every time, but I had resigned myself. Whereas this was only an annoying situation for the questioner, for me it was a repeated reminder that there were a large number of people everywhere for whom I was not German enough. These people have ideas about what I should be like (“Funny that you can’t do that. You’re Chinese, aren’t you?”) or how I should relate to my parents’ country of origin (“You should know your roots!”). It took me a long time to recognize these microaggressions for the transgressions they are. I had gotten too used to them and to having these people judge and evaluate me. I was trying out the same strategy as my parents: Escape rejection by conforming.

Armed with my full family tree, I at least felt I could bring some individuality and truth into my stereotyping. So, dutifully, I conceded in order to avoid conflict – and also out of fear that my “rebelliousness” could have real consequences. The idea of completely rejecting such transgressive curiosity did not occur to me until I was in my early twenties.

I am German

Alongside my medical studies, I worked on the blood collection team at the university hospital. This job required contact with over twenty patients every two-hour shift. Every time, this meant almost twenty small talks.

More and more annoyed by the “Where are you really from?” questions, I increasingly played dumb to force people to rephrase their questions until they asked for the right concept. I often went from work to my lectures seething with anger, but at least I had the satisfaction of having annoyed my counterpart. At the very least, they had to figure out what exactly they wanted to know because I stopped accommodating them, denying my sense of belonging, and presenting what was apparently so important to them on a silver platter. I rebelled against their expectation that I should already know what to answer: Namely, that I am foreign.

However, I could not deny that the world in which I lived was different from that of those whose Germanness was not questioned so regularly: one with more belittling of my achievement, one with more transgressive advice or arrogant comments, and one with more disrespect. My rigid insistence on not being different left no room to learn how to cook the dishes I learned to love through my mother, no room to watch movies in a language I once knew, or no time to travel to my parents’ countries of origin. I refused to become more like the stereotype that dehumanized me so much.

At the same time, there was no escape. My partner wanted to eat food like my parents cooked, I was particularly interested in the storytelling traditions that took up motifs from my Hong Kong and Japanese childhood series, and, at some point, I hoped that if I was not accepted as a normal part of society here, there would at least be a place for me in Hong Kong – a city with a hybrid Chinese–British identity. The longing to belong was increasing and could not be fulfilled by my unilateral declaration alone – not as long as I was constantly marked as foreign.

Different, but not that different

The people of color I knew from my environment had mostly found a resigned way of relating to the comments and jokes. Many denied them or dismissed them with a shrug of the shoulders. Discussing my discomfort with them usually meant being considered oversensitive or naïve, as not having acquired enough experience to realize “that’s just the way it is.” Even among them, I was isolating myself by refusing to be “foreign in Germany.”

With the increased visibility of members of the second-generation Vietnamese diaspora in the media – from MaiLab, across Nhi Le, to Vanessa Vu – I started to feel as part of a larger group for the first time. Initially, I read their articles and watched their videos because of the topics they addressed. Sooner or later, I discovered their different positions on diaspora issues and read, as if spellbound, their accounts of what they had experienced and the positions they took on stereotypes, racism, or interculturality. Unlike their colleagues without a “visible” migrant background, they had a wealth of experience with everyday racism along with a strategy for dealing with it. I hoped to learn from them, because something similar had happened to me. I realized that I was not alone in these experiences, and that they were happening not just in my small town, but were a nationwide problem. Sharing these experiences made it possible to network and exchange information.

I only arrived at an identity, at a “label” with which I felt completely at ease, after I learned to name what had happened to me in a differentiated way. I was able to inwardly break out of the role of the tolerating, forgiving, understanding guest in Germany only after realizing that I did not have to interpret my discomfort as excessive sensitivity, but that it could also be caused by the microaggression of the person opposite me. Only after recognizing how the systematic discrimination against people of my appearance transcended my individual situation did I begin to understand that it was not necessarily the individual who had failed and had to live with the consequences of exclusion, but that we grow up in a racist culture that distributes privileges unfairly.

Being able to talk appropriately about the systematic inequality of power is a prerequisite for forming a political opinion and being able to act. When a commentator for Die Zeit criticized the coverage in the aftermath of the Chemnitz hounding of non-White passersby, the scales fell from my eyes. “Xenophobic” and “hostile to foreigners” is what the riots were called. Rhetorically, the author asked whether the attackers had asked for ID, school reports, or birth certificates before striking. Taking violence against anyone who can be seen to have a non-White ancestor, however remote, and calling it violence against foreigners and therefore strangers, puts the speaker unnecessarily in a position closer to the attacker than the victim. In the way used here, these terms suggest common membership in a group from which the person with the inappropriate external features is excluded. Even those who criticize the violence against the victim thus view her or him from the perspective of the aggressor; or, at least, they make no effort to stand alongside the victim in solidarity. This language correlates with the inaction of large sectors of society that, after the accumulating acts of racist violence in recent years, continues to ask whether there is still any racism at all in Germany. How are they supposed to recognize it if they constantly assume that this kind of violence affects only foreigners and not Germans? When it is foreigners who are affected, compassion is called for; when it is group members, action. This also explains why listening and conciliating are publicly demanded with great approval when right-wing Pegida and AfD supporters worry about foreign infiltration. But at the same time, when people of color in Berlin, Chemnitz, or Hanau say that they do not dare to go out on the streets, their comments – if they respond to this at all – condescendingly point to excessive sensitivity, or, after a short period of consternation, they just ignore them. Of course, there is also xenophobia and hostility to foreigners, but to use it synonymously with racism fails to recognize its core.

It was only after I understood that shouting after me that I should leave Germany is racist, just like insinuating that my genes will keep me slim, that I become able to research the historical contexts underlying the different treatment of Asian people that produced the stereotypes of today. Only then did I understand that it is not enough to privately develop strategies to deal with interpersonal racism, but that becoming an antiracist is a societal task. It does not just help those affected to exchange ideas and to learn how to deal with exclusion and belittlement. Indeed, it motivates me to see how many people, precisely in this year, are raising their voices to denounce the injustice of still discriminating against people because of their racial features. I am motivated by the fact that this means I have to justify myself less and less in conversations, that I can name a southern German city as my origin, that people learn to ask about my family, the origin of my name, or my ethnicity, or that individuals stand by me in solidarity when someone is transgressive. The new fundamental respect for my opinions and feelings is, on the one hand, due to the changed social climate that considers the ethnic minorities in this country to also be part of society and respects their self-identification along with their fears and hopes. On the other hand, recognizing my own identity has also helped. It is not identical to my roots, but it is based primarily on my life, my socialization, and my values. I now call myself a Cantonese-Vietnamese German. I am part of the Asian diaspora in Germany. I am a person of color.

My names are Christine Vo, Võ Tố Trinh, and 武 素 貞.

Translated by Jonathan Harrow.