Photo: Maryline Waldy – Unsplash
„Where are you really from?“
„What does dog meat taste like?“
„Would you bring me some tea?“
In Germany, I am constantly reminded of how people see me as an Asian stereotype. I’m frequently asked where I’m „really from“ after telling a German person that I’m American. When I met my German mother-in-law for the first time, she did not ask me about my interests, my upbringing, or whether I wanted a glass of water. The first question she asked me was how I liked the taste of dog meat. At spas and restaurants, people often assume that I am an employee. On one of my first nights out in Berlin, a group of guys repeatedly shouted „konichiwa“ at me and mockingly made kung-fu poses as I walked past.
When I tell German friends about these encounters, the reaction I get is usually one of dismissive surprise. „Oh, those guys were just drunk,“ I’m told. Or, „she’s from a small village.“ „Germans wouldn’t say that to you, I bet they were Arab.“ These responses imply that racism isn’t a structural issue in Germany, but rather just the problem of “a few bad apples.” They also make clear the real problem: there is little interest among certain Germans in understanding how someone who looks Asian may experience Germany differently than someone who looks white.
„Germans simply have many rules,“ is another common response I hear when I bring up my experiences of racial micro-aggressions in Germany. But there is a difference between enforcing rules and racial profiling. At a grocery store during my first week living in Berlin, a fellow customer helped me bag my groceries. He said I was too slow and was holding up the line. I respect this kind of cultural enforcement — it’s based on outcomes, and it applies to everyone.
Racial profiling, on the other hand, looks and feels very different. When I am alone at a German grocery store, I no longer bother trying to buy fresh fish because I’ve had so many experiences of being ignored or skipped in line. „But, I doubt that’s because you look Asian. Did you stand in the right place? Did you say something to upset the employee?“ I walk home from the grocery replaying the scene over and over again, wondering what I did wrong. I leave without fresh fish, full of self-doubt. These kinds of experiences don’t happen to me when I am with a white friend, even if that friend doesn’t speak German.
After one relaxing afternoon at Vabali Spa, I was sitting in the lounge at the entrance quietly waiting for my friend. There were 3 white customers waiting as well. A security guard came over to me – just me – and told me to go wait outside. Later that evening, I wrote an e‑mail to Vabali sharing my discomfort with this experience. They e‑mailed me back asking, „Could it be that you came by with a bigger group of people and not just only you personally?“
There is an eagerness to find alternative explanations, to dodge the possibility that racism continues to affect how people treat one another in Germany. There is an eagerness to believe that Germans have conquered the plight of racism. After all, German police do not commit daily, violent murders against black people and other racialized minorities in the way we see in the US. After all, Germans have taken responsibility for the atrocities of National Socialism and begun discussions with Namibia regarding colonial crimes.
„OK fine, you’ve been racially profiled in Germany, but this isn’t as bad as American police officers violently killing black people.“ This response deflects responsibility, demonstrating an unwillingness to acknowledge how white Germans are still complicit in other forms of racial oppression. „Others are worse,“ is a different response from „I see where we could be better.“
This is why I felt so uncomfortable with the ways in which my German friends responded to recent protests in the US following the murder of George Floyd. „Time to come back to Germany, don’t you think?“, one friend texted. „Maybe you shouldn’t have left Germany.“ These responses reveal how little some of my German friends understand the ongoing racism experienced by people of color in Germany.
Though prevalent in the daily experiences of people who look Asian in Germany, anti-Asian racism continues to hide behind a myriad of alternative excuses.
Allister Chang was a Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellow 2019–2020. He was born and raised in the US, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.