Being accepted in a foreign land.
“Hey, give me some ideas! What should I write about next on the DAAD blog?” “… maybe about your experience with the German locals?”
Let’s accept it, integrating into a different culture might be a little daunting if not very difficult. While Germans might not have the best reputation for being friendly, there is a notorious idea that Magdeburg or perhaps the east of Germany might be full of very conservative and unwelcoming people. This is my fourth year in Magdeburg and now, I am writing my thesis. There are aspirants who ask me if I faced any racism. Well, the queries and my experiences here deserve this blog post! So, where do I start?
When people from two different cultural upbringings meet for the first time, there is an element of apprehension. That arises due to the visible differences between the two and that is normal. At times, the person in front of you breaks the ice and if they do not, you try it. It is essentially two human beings trying to communicate with each other on common topics of discussion.
Also, at what point in time would I know that I am accepted among the locals? Trust me, this isn’t a stupid question. It is an important one and needs to be answered! When I walk by the side of the street, do random people stop, smile at me, or break into dance sequences as they show in Bollywood movies? No. When I needed a German native to assist me when the health insurance company took out a lot of money from my bank account, did any German student respond? Yes, not one, but three. Do we talk regularly like school best friends? No. If my photographs are good, does the tourism office of the state, or a popular media house feature me on Instagram? Yes and Yes, multiple times. If there is any meet-up for Instagrammers in Magdeburg, should I expect special privileges and every communication in English? No. So where do we draw the line?
I will tell you a couple of my experiences!
a. I photographed for a small indoor event and the organizer liked it. He searched for me and then gave me photography credits on Facebook. His name is Alex. He later included me in his events, social parties in his garden, and also in TEDx Magdeburg, of which he is one of the heads. I regard him as a friend now. When I felt lonely during Christmas and missed Calcutta, he invited me to his home with his close friends and parents. Little gestures, but very important ones.
b. Magdeburg was in the race to become the European capital of culture in 2025. I shared an idea with the team, Magdeburg 2025 (currently, it is Magdeburg 2030). I am an Indian with very little voice and they could have ignored me completely. They didn’t. They worked on the idea and when the opportunity was there, they made an event out of it and invited me as a speaker there. Which language did I speak in? English. Would I have made more friends if I spoke in German? Maybe, yes.
c. When I made my first podcast series, the work is a little amateur because it is my first time. Did people around me come forward and support me? The student council shared it and brought it to the notice of more people. Different offices at the University were made aware of the podcasts, and today, the podcasts were written about in the local newspaper with my photograph on the paper.
“But Anirban, you’re only talking about work. Life is more than just work …” “True! Let me tell you something more then,”
I am into watching birds and bird photography. One morning while trying to see a bird I did not realize I was sitting on a person’s tomb. I got a tap on my shoulder and I turned around. It was an old man. He was pretty amused with a brown-skinned boy wearing half pants, carrying a long lens, on the top of a tomb. He pulled me down and talked a lot. It took him moments to understand that I do not understand German, but nevertheless, he spoke and laughed and spoke again. I was a little confused. He took me to the other part of the park in front of an old tree. After a lot of time, I realized he was trying to tell me that he found an interesting bird on that tree and he suspects that there is a nest. Later, he gave me a small book on birds with all the German names on it. And this was not a one-off incident, when playing with snow, an old lady started making snowballs and threw them at us! Today is a holiday and my article about the podcasts came out. I feared that I would not find a copy of the newspaper for myself, so I went to places to get a copy. I met an old man reading about me on the paper. I asked him where I could buy the paper and he told me a lot of things in German. I just understood that I should go to the train station. I thanked him, turned, and ran. What I did not understand is that he had to tell me more. Somehow he knew that I might need his help and when I did, he appeared again and pretty literally took me to a shop, holding my left hand. This time, I wanted to photograph him and write about him and I did on social media. My time in Magdeburg is replete with such good experiences.
But does that mean I did not have bad experiences? Well, a singular bad experience. While my friends and I were coming back after photographing the stars (well, yes, not just birds, my newest interest is watching stars), we met a drunk person who was abusing Indians for not being good at maths and trying to take away their jobs. He was half a meter away from my friend and spoke in English, abused so that we feel bad. My friend, Aman, offered the man his bottle of remaining wine. He drank the wine and said that Indians are really great at programming. The drunk man’s hatred confused us. But that was a drunk man, what should we expect? A couple of my friends faced similar incidences but they were mostly restricted to Friday nights, drunk people, or dark narrow pathways. But for that one bad experience, there is a lot, which compensates: all the encouragement by my faculty, friends, colleagues at work, fantastic work opportunities despite not-great grades, I do not think I have a space to complain.
Would I have done better for myself if I had known German? Maybe, yes. In any place you go, learning their language always helps and that is only normal. An IT professional might be comfortable in English but a person into the conservation of birds might not be. A not-very-great experience with a non-German might cloud someone’s judgement but do not make them blind. That’s all folks on this topic. Please feel free to derive any conclusion from my set of experiences.