Growing Up as an Asian German, Part One

This is a guest post that I wrote for Juliet Shen's tumblr blog Fasciasians. She asked me if I could describe how it was to grow up as an Asian in Germany.

“Do some Kung Fu moves, like Jackie Chan! “ 

 It happened when I went to elementary school; I must have been about seven or eight years old. While I was standing on the playground in recess, some kids from my class started to gather around me. “Can you do some cool moves, like Jackie Chan?” I was intimidated by their request – I notoriously sucked in PE, and I had never tried any martial arts. But I knew why the other kids asked: because I was Asian. I was the only Asian kid in my year. I felt all kinds of awkward and alone.

 Growing up with Vietnamese parents in a German town with a population of 17,000 was not always easy. The feeling I recall from those times was loneliness. Given that I was a weird child who was not too good at socializing (I still am not) but being one of the few Asians in the whole town made things even worse. Of course, there were a handful of other Asian families: Chinese, Korean, Philippino, some even Vietnamese. But the difference between them and us couldn't have been greater. “Don’t play with those children”, my mom used to say, “They’re not refugees like us – they came as communist contract workers.” To my parents the Cold War had never ended, and there was a strong divide between the “good” Vietnamese and the “bad” ones. So I only had white middle-class friends.

 “You speak such a fine German!” 

The feeling of alienation stayed consistent during my whole school career: I was frequently questioned by teachers and other students how I could speak such good German. How I could ace in German because I was, you know, not German. The nationalistic view that you can only be German if your ancestors were German is still alive and kicking. Hence I was not German. In order to prepare me for the hardships of being a foreigner, my mom taught me: “We are outlanders, the Germans look down on us. So you have to prove them wrong, you need to do everything perfectly.”

I resented being different: Why couldn't I just be like all the others? My skin and my hair color felt like a constant source of embarrassment. The fact that my parents don’t speak German very well was even more painful. “I have a hard time getting everything your parents say,” one of my best friends once confessed. So as a way of compensating I did everything to perfect my German. I read canonical German literature, from Goethe to Heine to Jelinek. My sentences were filled with the rarest German words imaginable – words that the average German would have to look up in a dictionary.

Please click here for Part Two.

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2 Kommentar/e:

  1. Das mit der Sprache geht mir auch so. Da nutze ich ja viele Wörter, die sonst kaum verwendet werden. Gott sei Dank mag ich es, mit Sprache zu spielen, weshalb mir das nicht als Belastung vorkommt.

    "The nationalistic view that you can only be German if your ancestors were German is still alive and kicking."

    Zumindest hätte ich hier eine kleine Korrektur: Nach meiner Erfahrung gilt man schon dann nicht als "wirklich" deutsch, wenn man schlicht nicht weiß ist. Egal, wie viele weiße Vorfahren man schon hatte.

  2. As an American of Japanese ancestry growing up during the 60s and 70s, living in a predominantly white city, I can relate to your experiences and the resulting feelings. I felt uncomfortable with others like me, but as a teenager I realized that I needed to come to grips with it for the sake of my mental health.

    As a young adult I came to see that identity as a Japanese American or Asian American was not an individual attribute as many of the majority people assume it is. In that construction, it implicitly means that one's being is "exotic" or "unusual" or ugly for being outside the norm. Identity as a Japanese American and Asian American only has meaning in the context of one's community and in social/political terms. The most obvious conclusion, in my mind, is that the imperative is to find one's people and join them in the struggle for equality. It's the only way to become truly whole and human, in my opinion.