An Indian in Germany

[Part 2 of the Interpretations series, which began here.]

In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”

An awkward pause followed, before someone changed the subject; no one referred again to the incident, but the old man’s words remained with me.

The first few months in Germany flew by, as we adjusted to our surroundings and evolved a routine. We found an apartment to rent, opened bank accounts, registered with the local authorities, took driving lessons, joined the local library, bought brands we hadn’t heard of. The language, though foreign, was never an obstacle; we coped well, helped by strangers who translated into English when we claimed ignorance of German, or by a curious mix of words — both English and German — and signs that bridged the gap between the locals and us. Sometimes, stuck under a heap of bureaucratic complications typical of interactions with the German state, my colleagues offered assistance, apologizing for the state’s inflexibility and annoyed at its obsession with rules. Our neighbours, curious about this Indian couple who had added colour to their locality, often stopped for a chat; most of them spoke only German, but they seemed satisfied with our “Ja”s and nods, and went on about the unusually long winter that year (a remark as regular as the weather was fickle), or the new supermarket nearby that was too expensive, or the roadworks in the village that made driving difficult. One of them, a retired journalist who lived on the top floor, invited us to identify our hometowns in his atlas, a large, thickly bound artifact that showed familiar geographies annotated with unfamiliar names, all in German, and when I pointed to the Indian peninsula he grew excited and produced a flurry of questions about the region and its history.

Our first experiences, then, were unlike anything the old man had predicted; Hitler and his National Socialists appeared now and then in the papers, but world associated with those words had nothing in common with the society around us.

“The politics of a country” writes V.S. Naipaul, “can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships.” In our case, the politics of Germany was at variance with what we encountered in our relationships. We arrived at a time when Germany was opening its doors to well-educated immigrants, computer professionals who could fill the gap in its growing IT sector; the German “Green Card”, a five-year visa issued with few expectations and in less than a week, was aimed at foreign “computer specialists” from non-EU countries, especially India. It drew mixed reactions from the conservatives: a member of the opposition built his election campaign around the slogan “Kinder statt Inder” (Our children, instead of the Indian), and this brought the immigration topic, ever present beneath the surface, to the front page. The politicians and the public were divided (a poll in March 2000 reported that 56% of Germans opposed the green-card programme, while 37% were in favour), and the media concluded that the debate highlighted the “latent German fear of all things alien.” (In the end, the fear of Indians overrunning the country — there was even a cartoon depicting a steam engine train, bursting with Indians lodged on the roof and hanging on all sides, arriving at a German station — proved overblown: few Indians arrived here with the green-card; the programme was adopted mostly by specialists from Eastern Europe, citizens of Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Poland, and even Russia, while the Indians stopped at Frankfurt in transit across the Atlantic.)

Life in our village continued, oblivious of and indifferent to these public debates. This was possible in part because we lived in the west, far from the east or the north, two areas in Germany with a reputation of intolerance towards foreigners. The west had a high standard of living, very low unemployment, and a low immigrant population. (I hadn’t realized how successful Germany had been in limiting its immigrant population until we visited Paris in the spring of 2001: the African crowd there presented a sharp contrast to the homogeneity I had seen in Germany; it was like emerging from an all-white clinical lab into a middle-eastern bazaar); the east and north, with their share of economic and employment difficulties, were (reputedly) less open to foreigners. So there was no single story of Germany’s attitude towards foreigners: that was a stereotype created — and circulated — by the media or by those seeking simplistic answers.

On my trips home I was sometimes asked about life in Germany, in particular if I had been a victim of racist behaviour. It wasn’t, in some cases, even a question: the person had made up his mind, and was looking only for supporting evidence. My answer, always in the negative, surprised some, disappointed others. I made no attempts to explain that this isn’t a black or white question, that there are shades of grey, left, in the end, to our interpretations.

(To be continued)

14 thoughts on “An Indian in Germany

  1. back in 2001 when we were there on long term, i had already made up my mind that there was no other place for me other than home and i guess that made me interpret minor frustrations shown by people (I would use the term German nationals) as racist and that it was a personal attack. Come 2009 when I can call myself a more open mature person and when a lady at the supermarket in Germany waited impatiently for me to find exact change, I think that she has had a long day and her frustrations are understandable.
    Interpretation is an apt term – i’m sorry to say that i have been terribly wrong in many of mine.

  2. Such revisions do not happen often enough. It is rare for people to admit – even to themselves – that they were wrong in such matters. Thank you for sharing this, V.

  3. Thanks for writing this nuanced essay, which is far more true to what I’ve experienced in Quebec than what I was led to expect. How often our anxieties about how we will be stereotyped turn out to be stereotypes themselves…and I find the longer I live in a foreign culture, the more layers of such attitudes I discover, only to find out they, too, are far more grey than black or white.

  4. “[F]ew Indians arrived here with the green-card; the programme was adopted mostly by specialists from Eastern Europe, citizens of Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Poland, and even Russia, while the Indians stopped at Frankfurt in transit across the Atlantic.”

    – What a marvelously crafted sentence! The trajectory of the sentence sweeps through a 10-year history of the immigration program, and makes a clever sociological observation about the choice of Indians when it comes to migration. That the sentence occurs roughly mid-way in the essay is no accident (but the evidence of the author’s control over his craft) – it resonates the thought of the uncle mentioned at the beginning and paves the way for the observations on immigration at the end. My compliments!

  5. I live in germany since 2008..its the most racist country in the world..I have lived in many countries in europe,asia and USA

  6. I feel any advanced European nation is racist (France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, EU countries in particular). They professionally and personally do not interact very well with Asians. Even if Asia has shown a lot of growth and awareness in global co-existence in the last 25 years, EU citizens refuse to believe so.

    I understand their stand in terms of unexpected events taking place in France, Belgium nowadays, but it is not due to every Asian country. It is due to particular elements and EU citizens must be taught by their governments to specifically discriminate between every Asian and between good and the bad. Else this will continue for ever.

  7. If I plan to go Germany for pursiung MBA. Would that be right decision in every aspect from living to education to future prospects. Could anyone please advise

      1. Absolutely. I am vegetarian too 🙂 – and I’m German. In fact, especially amongst the younger generation, there is a big vegetarian and vegan commitment in Germany, so you will definitely survive here – even though the traditional local cuisine contains a lot of meat. But since almost no one cooks traditionally in Germany, you don’t need to worry about this at all.

  8. Wow, what a beautifully written article. I really enjoyed reading this, you have a great gift for words! As a German (currently writting my thesis about racism in Germany, which is how I ended up on this page 🙂 ), I am surprised to hear you had such a good experience, and that you didn’t experience any racist encounters.
    I do think there is a lot of racism still existing in Germany, but there is less of it in the bigger cities, and less of it in the West. Also, many people are not so open with their racism, and international people coming to Germany and sharing simply who they are with this country helps everyone to overcome this subtle racism in our heads.
    So personally, I am glad that you had a good experience in Germany, and that you have a positive image of the people here. Not every international person coming here can say that, but as I can see from your experience, things are slowly changing!

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