Close to a year living as a foreign student is probably enough to observe a lot about a country, city, a region, its culture and people.
by Farooq Yousaf
Many would say – and many warned me as well before coming here – that Germany may not be a place for foreigners compared to UK, USA, Canada or Australia. And the image may have a dark history, with the international media also over-portraying few incidents, but on the contrary, my experience, coming from Pakistan, has been completely opposite.
What makes my experience more fascinating is that I am living and studying in the Eastern part of Germany, a part that is internationally considered not welcoming for the foreigners. I had my doubts, I had my fears, yet I am still waiting for any of such incidents to happen, for which I was prepared by my friends and peers.
Not knowing German, and coming to a relatively small German town, Erfurt, was a challenge in itself, considering a lower ratio of English speaking people in the region. Yet eleven months and counting, I survived, enjoyed and am still having a great time even with an extremely mediocre level of German.
It was just my second week, when I was introduced to a concept and project called Strangers Become Friends, where foreign students are placed in local German families. I was very excited to register for the initiative, and luckily became a host-son of an amazing German lady. Her hospitality and support played a major part in helping me adjust to the environment and the city. My interaction with her also helped me understand the German culture and traditions.
The story doesn’t end here. Be it my university, the supermarkets, the departments within the university, or even the restaurants, I was always fortunate to meet nice people, who even with their limited English speaking skills, tried their best to help me. With this point, one misconception that Germans hate the English language and don’t like speaking it, was completely removed from my thought process. Even if this notion is taken as true, what is bad in loving your own language more than other languages? It’s not Germans‘ fault that English became a modus operandi for foreigners because of the language’s international reach, but it does not make the German language less important to German nationals, contrary to many other nations that allowed English to dominate their native language.
Coming to discrimination, my limited observations made me learn that the foreigners, who come here for a short time, play a big part in taking the „discriminatory“ image of Germany internationally. Being a foreigner, it is of utmost importance to understand the local norms and culture. A foreigner, knowing English, expecting every German to interact in English would be an unfair expectation. When foreigners don’t get their desired expectations, they may tag the non-interaction as rudeness of the Germans, and thus putting it to the bracket of „discrimination of foreigners“. One act that always works, if you are foreigner, is by politely asking Germans in German if they could speak English (which goes in German as Sprechen Sie Englisch?). This may help the foreign tourists in surpassing the first cultural barrier as the locals would feel better considering that at least their language is given proper worth, rather than being directly inquired in English whether they could speak or not.
In short, discrimination is everywhere, in every society, every culture and every country, the difference is that it varies in form, act, or way of expression. Discrimination, or racism, is a disease which is independent of nationality, race, ethnicity or color. The only thing which gives way to such impressions regarding Germany internationally is that Germans by nature are slightly cautious in making friends, which makes sense. One cannot link cautiousness with prejudice. Germans are like almonds; an almond has a hard shell, but once you break it, its soft inside. Once you overcome the harder shell, the cautiousness and the time Germans take to judge friends, you are up of greatest friendships of your life, which I am already lucky to have.
Farooq Yousaf is journalist working as a research analyst, programme consultant and editor at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad along with pursuing his Masters Studies in Public Policy from Willy Brandt School at Erfurt University. He can be reached at farooq[at]crss.pk, or farukyusaf[at]gmail.com.