Kristin has been in Berlin for a while now, and her path towards “integration” is so different from mine. The day after I arrived I was taken by a hired specialist to the “green room after party” version of the Ausländerbehörde. It felt like I was attending a shareholders meeting or something. Kristin’s first visit to the “greyhound bus station” version of the Ausländerbehörde saw her waking up at 4:30am to get a spot in line for the 7am gate opening. Syrians this way into this fenced pen. Turks over there… The sign saying where to go for the US only used the German name without other clarification: “Vereinigte Staaten von Amerika”. Oh sure, you can totally translate that. But can you find it in a list of hundreds of countries, alphabetized, while scanning for “U”? But hey, who can complain, at least I read left to right in my native language. If you are looking right to left for سوريا, will you ever find “Syrien”?
On Kristin’s second visit to the Ausländerbehörde (we forgot to bring proof that I could afford her) the lady behind the desk didn’t much like Kristin, and made her VISA contingent on completing a 6 month “integration course”. This is explicitly not required for people in her situation, but the lady behind the desk has absolute authority.
Germans like to think they have an organized system, and they have the paperwork to prove it. But coming from Amman I see more in common between Berlin and Amman than you’d expect. Rules are enforced unequally. Sometimes rules are completely ignored. Rules that are enforced and are meant to be exhaustive are missing entire categories. “There is no rule for you, how can you exist?”. In Amman people put their trust in Allah and expect the real problems of the world to just solve themselves. In Berlin people put their trust in papers with stamps on them and expect the real problems of the world to just solve themselves. “I am the lord thy paperwork, thou shalt have thy paperwork in order”.
There is a running gag in Dr. Who where he uses “psychic paper” which shows the reader what they need to see in order to let Dr. Who do what he wants to do. This would so work on Germans.
But Kristin’s integration course is going well. I started with a huge language head-start and she has already passed me. And she just changed from the bourgeois English speaking German class to the general immigrant one. Taught only in German! I guess that’s obvious, what is the point in teaching a language in just one other language when the course is for all immigrants? Who says they all speak English? At my workplace we all speak English and the language lessons I take there are at least half spent talking in English. We progress about 1/10th as fast as Kristin. And we don’t take it all that seriously. After all, we already know how to order a beer in German, and our work day is spent talking in English.
Kristin can’t practice medicine until she has reached a certain language level. And then she will need so much paper. And stamps! And she will still just end up treating people in English with skills she already has, skills that exceed what the German paper will suggest that she has. “There is no rule for you, how can you exist?”
The funny thing is, a Berliner has more reason to learn English than an English speaker has to learn German. It’s a race to fluency and the expats are losing. The world is mixing at a furious pace in Berlin, and though Germans have every right to grumble about the new folk’s language skills, they will have to learn English if the new folks are to understand the grumbling…
I wrote about not knowing my place, of loving Berlin but feeling quite extra. That feeling has resolved. I’ve begun to feel comfortable in the great mix of people, and I think it would be hard, boring or worse, to go back to a cultural backwater like the US. I’m going to learn German. I don’t plan to remain forever oil in water, but I’m always going to be a little unmixed. And that is my place, being from somewhere else, being so different. Bringing first hand accounts of the Black Bears of Vancouver Island, the Traffic Jams of Los Angeles, and the fact that some people call alcoholic Slurpees Daiquiris. Oh, and I guess also what Slurpees even are?
A friend from Nigeria has not experienced the same warm welcome in Berlin as I have. She is very talented and every country would want her, but it was Germany that got lucky. The US wasn’t even on the list. I’d like to argue she was wrong not to consider the US, but since then Nigeria has been added to the ban. So she wasn’t wrong. Shame on the US. But in Germany people are sometimes grumpy to her and she flatly states racism is the reason. As a result she has considered a move to Amsterdam. I found her complaint so refreshing. Not that there was racism to suffer, of course, but that her complaint was a simple “something is wrong and I need to fix it”. The people of the world have lots of options these days. But while Germany still has her she is teaching Germany a lesson. And she takes home stories of the good and the bad so Nigeria is learning about Germany as well.
There is a lot to love about the US. I think among the highest of our virtues is our lack of concern for what has come before: that the “psychic paper” might not work on us. If a problem is solved by doing something bizarre we will just do that bizarre thing. If the rules aren’t written to cover our case, then there are no rules! Yippee-ki-yay mother fucker!
But what good is this virtue if we don’t share it? Perhaps 300 million have it, but do they ever leave home? If they don’t ever leave, do the other 7.7 billion people much care about them? If there is some utopia where every human problem is solved perfectly but the society is completely hidden in the remote wilds of the Amazon, then so what? We the people of the US don’t get out much, but until recently at least the other 7.7 billion wanted to come to us. Now? We make rules keeping them out and they aren’t so sure they want to come in anyway. Xenophobia and racism will make us irrelevant.
As I’m writing this we are in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak. I don’t know what the next year holds, but less travel for everyone seems likely. More xenophobia and racism too, no doubt. If you are in a place that already has infections, good for you, you live in a place of cultural exchange. If you aren’t worried ("ain’t no one here ever gone to China"), then maybe consider going to China sometime soon? Or if the time and cost are too dear, the nearest equivalent “other”… Perhaps Juarez? I’m not saying go get sick. Wait for the all clear, take precautions. But what exactly is the point of living your whole life in the safety of your own hive? If you can get out and see your hive from the outside, really see it for the first time, but then that experience tragically kills you… well at least your life had some narrative arc.
When the Native Americans met Columbus and all the others for the first time, it was also a meeting of the germs. For some reason, our germs were worse for them than theirs were for us. What followed was probably the worst pandemic in history. Was this the fault of the meeting, or was the problem that the meeting was so long in coming?