In this column, we look at places which are "inside out" - where Europe suddenly pops up in a non-European country, or where we find ourselves in a corner of Europe which feels more like China or India. In the fourth instalment, Yumin Li brings us the poignant story of Asians in Germany.

Photo: Kien Hoang Le
A Vietnamese salon in Berlin

in search of lost identity

"But tell me, do you actually feel German or Chinese?" – I really don't know how many times I've been asked this question in my life, and how often I've had to disappoint those asking with an evasive reply. After all, what is that supposed to mean: feeling German, feeling Chinese? Still, the necessity of defining myself has accompanied me ever since I moved from China to Germany at the age of four.

These questions of "identity politics" were exactly what the festival "Dông Xuân – Vietnamese migrants in Berlin" dealt with. Organised by the theatre "Hebbel am Ufer," the event encouraged people to ask themselves: what is "specifically German"? What characterises "the Vietnamese"? Are we pan-Asian?

At 5pm it is pitch dark already. I have just taken the tram from hipster-Friedrichshain to Lichtenberg, passing rows of socialist prefab buildings and catching glimpses of the tristesse of precarious life. Finally, I arrive at a former industrial area, where big yellow neon letters indicate where I am: "Dông Xuân Center". Several groups of people are waiting just outside the entrance: we are participating in the guided theatre tour. Guides will take us from one stop to the next, where we will listen to the stories of people from Vietnam and people who have some relation to Vietnam or Vietnamese migrants.

According to our program, it is meant to be a journey that transcends borders in space and time: "Among the ruins of the largest GDR electrical carbon commutator, the market halls of Dông Xuân are now flourishing." Where Vietnamese immigrants used to work as guest workers, we are now looking at vast container buildings accommodating grocery warehouses, driving schools, food stalls, and hairdressers' shops that are run by men and women from Vietnam, China, and India. We, the tourists, are meant to get to know these Asian worlds: at different stops on the tour, artists with bi-national backgrounds and diaspora experience are supposed to help us to do so. I'm getting curious!

Have I betrayed my origins? Have I become too Western-European? Am I selling out my childhood in the snack wagon and my parents, who are getting by on social welfare?

First stop: my group consists of five people, all of us between 20 and 30 years old, "biologically German" except for me, and our academic background seems to be written on our faces with thick black paint, ready to jump out at anyone who wants to see it. We have to wait in a grocery store until we can finally meet "our" Vietnamese performers.

In the meantime, we're reading little slips of paper with the performers' biographies on them: former contract workers in the GDR, they now work as shop assistants or in nail studios. While we are waiting for the first conversation, the owner of the shop is standing right next to us. He is probably Vietnamese and, like us, he is quite undecided about what to do now – in his own shop. None of us is talking to him: this is an unprotected setting without a framework created by a specific program or schedule. What if we didn't even understand each other? The imaginary barrier between him and us is too large to be overcome. We are here in order to get to know "their" world, their realities of life, as if their world was distinct from ours, and the picture of something "foreign" has such a hold on us that the simple word "Hello" barely passes our lips. How insanely absurd!

Yet I'm also just standing there, looking at him out of the corner of my eye, and don't dare talk to him. I'm afraid of his judgment: how does he see me? From his point of view, have I betrayed my origins? Have I become too Western-European? With the academic attitude that I have adopted, am I selling out my childhood in the snack wagon and my parents, who are getting by on social welfare? Do I have to justify myself? But there's no room for these questions – not there, not here – ; we have to move on.

Photo: Kien Hoang Le
Visitors on the tour of the Dông Xuân Center

Two stops later: we are sitting opposite a man and a woman in a run-down little room. The walls are covered with black marker scribblings, and the room is dimly lit. The man starts telling his story in Vietnamese, and the woman interprets: he had been told that it was easy to earn money in Germany. His family had then borrowed money to pay for a gang of traffickers who brought him to Germany. Here, he started smuggling and selling cigarettes illegally, while his debt for the trafficking has constantly increased: it's now $ 30,000. Next week, he's going to be deported. He's already afraid of what the traffickers are going to do to him and his family once he's back in Vietnam and cannot pay back his debt. The uneasiness in the room is almost tangible. We get the opportunity to ask a few questions, for five minutes only, because the next group is waiting just outside the door. At the end, the man lets us know his philosophy of life: when times are hard, don't despair!

We get ready to leave, and I think about what to say for goodbyes. Some say: Good luck!, others say: Thanks. The word "thanks" hits me like sheer mockery and scorn: do they consider this to be a performance they'd have to thank somebody for? Is he, is his life just an entertaining story that we're going to tell our friends at the next house party, full of consternation and dismay? We have got to know this person at least a little bit, but who cares about those 100 Vietnamese who are also scheduled for deportation a week later?

Emotionally off balance, but without thinking about it any further, our group heads on to the next stop, to the next performance – well, it's a theatre tour after all! The barrier between the different worlds and realities – a barrier that seems to be insurmountable – makes me angry, makes me go crazy, and makes me cut this experience in Asian immigrant exotics short and leave.

And here, in the cosiness of the auditorium, us, those who have "made it", the model students of social integration. Able to speak: in German, English and the languages of our origins.

Next act. The tram M8 takes me back to the centre of Berlin. In the "Hebbel am Ufer 2", the biggest of three theatre auditoriums, speakers enter the stage while a well-dressed audience looks on – Germans or migrants belonging to the second or third generation. What a contrast: I try to imagine the workers from Dông Xuân Centre sitting here – and I realise that the border is quite clear and well-defined. On one side, on the margins of public perception, my parents, our parents: at home, in snack wagons and food stalls, in shops; with their poor language skills, but also for reasons lying beyond, way beyond language, lacking any opportunity or capability of making themselves heard and understood. And here, in the cosiness of the auditorium, us, those who have "made it", the model students of social integration. Able to speak: in German, English and the languages of our origins. It seems as if here, between Kreuzberg and central Berlin, a sort of cosmopolitan elite had gathered. And in one of the back rows, I myself am sitting.

"Vietnamese-German communities, second generation and differing migration experiences" – says the title of one of the panel discussions. Someone from within the audience asks: "How can it be that two white 'majority Germans' and one Vietnamese migrant from the first generation are lecturing on the experiences of the second generation?" A very legitimate question. And yet: could one member of the second generation, could three, could one thousand of them express and represent all those experiences? It seems to me that an area of conflict is constantly being spanned between those two poles of individual experiences on the one hand, and collective identification and solidarity on the other.

While the speakers are telling their stories about conflicts between migrant parents and children, about strict methods of upbringing, about discrimination and pressure to succeed, about freedoms to be won and to be fought for – while they are telling all these stories, a lot of things are passing through my mind.

Someone says: "My parents barely let me go out...they always wanted me to be better than the Germans."


This column is created in association with our  partner, the M.A. programme "Studies in European Culture" at the University of Constance, Germany.

To find out more, go to www.europa-studieren.de

One theme is repeatedly brought up, and many of the migrants in the room agree: they have often felt, and still feel, the pressure of having to be better, having to be more integrated than the Germans – whether this pressure was put on them by their parents or whether they developed it out of their own experience of discrimination. Someone says: "My parents barely let me go out, they were very strict, and they always wanted me to be better than the Germans, so that I'd one day have a better and easier life than the one they, my parents, used to have. That was very, very hard at times, and as much as I tried to get rid of that pressure, it's still part of me. Struggling and fighting all the time – but it also made me stronger, made my family stronger, in a certain way."

And while I'm listening to these sentences and many others, something inside my head is shouting: Yes, yeah, that's exactly it, yeah! You took the words right out of my mouth! Out of my heart! I spontaneously feel a connection with these people, I feel it although I'm reluctant to consider a bunch of individual experiences as something specifically collective. Are we representatives? I resist this feeling of being exploited, being sucked in, and still, from an outside perspective, I must appear as a figure of representation, as one of the model students. Other questions arise: Yes, who are we? Second, third, or 1.5th generation? Is there such a thing as a specifically Asian experience? Within the audience, the greatest consensus seems to be found in the experience of marginalisation. But wouldn't the sense of belonging to a group of "the marginalised" merely reproduce the exclusion? Yet how should we ever be able to reject this sense of belonging, given that throughout our lives we have been turned into what we are: Asians, migrants, foreigners?

And thus the question "Do you feel German or Chinese?" will remain unanswered for the time being. In the meantime, I am only hoping that there is no need for it to be answered, and that one day it won't even be asked anymore.

Yumin Li is a student at the University of Constance, Germany, taking part in the Masters programme "Studies in European Culture."

Dông Xuân Center
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