I love stereotypes though as a foreigner, I really ought to hate them. One of the most enduring realities of living in a foreign land is that you will constantly be bathed, scrubbed and wrapped with stereotypes. I suspect that this is especially so if you are African. Some who have watched that crazy film with Eddy Murphy will assume that you are a Zamunda citizen waiting to pull some crazy stunt on them. They will mostly ignore you but if they have a minute to spare, they will look at you with wry amusement laced with unhinged curiosity.
Then there are those random strangers who will ask you what the best shoes for running a marathon are. You will stare at them carefully wondering what the hell they are talking about and then you will remember that Kenyans, Ethiopians, Ugandans and so many of your fellow Africans have been dominating marathons for ages. You will feel your heart expanding and a warm powerful energy embracing your body.
“Blue Adidas shoes!” you will retort despite never ever running a marathon and having completely no idea that there are special shoes for running. This group will make you thank God for stereotypes.
But that is as far as the fun goes.
Most people will assume that you are lacking in some way.
They will tell you about their neighborhood project to feed starving children in Ghana. And about their kids’ school project to raise money for street children in Eritrea. And about their cousin’s visit to a Nigerian village where there was completely no water or electricity. And about their employer’s project to stop young girls being married off in Kenya. And they will round it off with their yearly contribution to an organization fighting HIV transmission in South Africa. At first, you will not mind listening to them. You will secretly wonder if this is what they tell everyone they talk to. If you are like me, you will realize that listening to them crashes your soul and makes your blood boil.
And so you will start explaining yourself.
‘There are a lot of good things in Africa!’ You will say in your small defeated voice.
They will look at you thoughtfully as if absorbing this new revelation.
You can’t ignore this group because they constitute the majority.
They will drive you up the wall but you will never miss the kindness in their eyes or the sincerity in their voices.
So how do you deal with this lot?
The most effective tactic against stereotypes
The only thing that works is to do unto to them what they do to unto you. Compile your own databank of stereotypes and they will save you a lot of grief not to mention give you lots to laugh about. I have found out that stereotypes lose their edge when you have a bagful of your own. If you live in Germany, you could always innocently ask your German friends what they think of their fellow Germans. You will be surprised how much you will find out.
And so instead of pointing out to Germans that they don't need to speak slowly and loudly because I'm neither deaf nor dumb, I just smile and nod and try to figure out what part of Germany they come from. Almost always, I know some stereotype about that part of Germany or the people who live there. If they are from Bavaria, they are likely loud and brash. If they are from Swabia, the region around Stuttgart, they likely wouldn't spend a coin to save their lives. If they are from the North, Hamburg et al, they probably wouldn’t recognize a joke if it hit them.
In the beginning it will feel strange, unfair and a tad too stupid to walk around pretending that you know a whole group of people based on some random hearsay but with time you will notice that life becomes much easier. You will no longer waste time trying to understand why the couple in the train was talking and laughing so loudly. You will just assume that they are from Bavaria and people from there are loud and wild.
You will no longer wonder why your local Burgeramt (citizen services) office only opens a few hours of the week. You will just conclude that those who work there are Beamte (civil servants) who would rather relax than work.
You will increasingly have a sense that you know your way around and the people you meet. You might even start feeling smart. You will also find to your utter delight that there are gazillions of stereotypes in all possible directions:
- People who read Bild-Zeitung or watch RTL TV are not likely to win an academic Nobel Prize
- People who read “Der Spiegel” are likely aspiring smarty-pants.
- People who love Schlager music are not cool. Not at all.
- People who speak high or standard German are snobby and stuck up.
The last one will confuse you a bit because you will realize that all your German friends fall in this category.
In a weird way however, a lot of things will begin to make sense. You will suddenly have a way to explain the things you don’t understand. You will find yourself gnashing your teeth less and chuckling through your days. And most importantly, you will no longer feel mad when someone unleashes their stereotypes on you because you will know that you can give them a dose of their own medicine.