Important difference between East and West Germany that foreigners should always keep in mind
As a University student in Baden-Württemberg, I got to meet students from Eastern Germany. I initially had no idea that they were different in any way from their West German counterparts. To me, they were just Germans. I used to sit next to a tall girl with very black hair called Christiane. Because of her very black hair, I had the feeling that her skin was deathly white. Christiane hardly talked, but once in a while, she would burst into joyous uninhibited laughter. People always reacted surprised because of the spontaneity of her laughter and the fact that it somehow always sounded like it came from a wall.
They would look up with irritation and then slowly there would be the crinkle in their eyes and the upturn of the corners of their mouths and before you know it, full blown laughter. Most of the time, she would explain what had amused her so much, but it never seemed to matter. Her laughter was reason enough to laugh.
I once had lunch in the university Mensa when I was joined by Christiane. As so often happens to foreigners in Germany, the discussion turned to questions about how or whether I liked it in Germany. As I moaned about the horrors of not understanding the different dialects and the agony of managing the most mundane stuff, she nodded slowly and told me that that was exactly how she also felt. She came from a small village near Leipzig in East Germany and for her, West Germany was just as mysterious and challenging as it was for me.
“People here are very status focused and cold.” She started. “It’s impossible to be friends with them because they are very superficial.” she added pensively.
I was surprised to hear that. I had often heard German friends say that, but it was always in reference to Americans. And the thing about being cold, isn’t that what the whole world thought of Germans? But she wasn’t done.
She told me about people discriminating against her because of her Saxon dialect. And about her neighbors back in the East who all cared about their neighbors and went out of their way to help each other. And about Russia. She had never been there, but she spoke fluent Russian and so did everyone she went to school with. But she didn’t end there. She also told me about how fun loving people in the East were. “People actually dance at parties. They don’t just nod and hang around like what people do here!”
“And you know what else we have?” she asked with a wink.
“FKK!” I later learned that FKK was the practice of nudity where people swam or undertook different activities naked.
“We are both foreigners in this country!” she had said and burst into her thunderous laughter. The idea that a white girl, born and brought up by German parents speaking German in a part of Germany would feel foreign was both comforting and alarming.
Comforting because it validated my struggles. I wasn’t struggling because I was a loser, but because it was really a challenging country. Alarming because it in a way meant that however much I tried, it was never ever going to be enough. What chance did I as a black woman, not born in Germany, barely speaking German have when even some Germans felt so alienated?
This year is the 28th year since East and West Germany were reunified. It is over ten years since my conversation with Christiane.
I have learnt that Christiane was right. Despite the reunification, East and West Germany are really two different countries. Hostility towards foreigners is a big problem in East Germany. Asylum seekers’ homes have in the past been razed down. Neo-Nazi demos are the norm rather than the exception in big East German cities.
For foreigners or people of color like me, there can be no worse place to live in Germany than Eastern Germany.