Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Can the foreigner speak?

Some of the most vexing moments of my life in Germany are the situations which plainly reveal how much the fact of being a non-German affects the interaction with natives and the treatment one gets from some of them. Typically, the native interlocutor (sure, not all, but many) starts off on the wrong foot, i.e. a set of assumptions about who you are and what you want from them (no matter the legitimacy of the request, foreigners are generally treated as if they were trying to obtain something they are likely not to be entitled to). With such a beginning, productive interaction is often irremediably hampered. Even more so if the interlocutor is not prepared nor willing to revise their assumptions, which would merely require on their part the willingness to listen.

This morning I accompanied my husband to an orthopedical clinic. He had made an appointment and was there to see the doctor. The secretary at the desk asked for his insurance card and on seeing it blatantly declared this was no insurance card and he would have to pay cash on the spot. He tried to explain that his card was from a private insurance company operating internationally, but the lady did not let him speak, waved the card in the air, repeatedly saying this was no card, and insisted on cash. Since I am more fluent in German than my husband is, I tried to intervene on his behalf, but, again, the lady would not listen nor was she willing to check for further information. We left angry and dismayed and headed off to another doctor.
If such occurrences were sporadic and with little consequence on our life, we would not pay too much attention and would simply be annoyed at the absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, however, it happens all too often to foreigners to be arrogantly dismissed without being given the chance to speak. And, all too often, this does have consequences beyond mere annoyance.
When, some months ago, I called the Jugendamt (youth welfare office) of a neighbouring city to inquire about the possibility of taking a child in foster care, I certainly did not expect that not being native German speakers would be decisive for my husband and I to be rejected a priori. I had decided to call this particular office because they were massively advertising their search for loving and responsible families with whom to place children from various backgrounds (including children from non-German families). The social worker I talked to had a reputation of being especially friendly and open-minded (this I knew from friends who were going through the accreditation process to become a foster family), but, with me, this proved not to be the case. The call was short and, for me, very frustrating, because the lady made a decision without even asking who I was, what I did for a living or what my motivation for fostering was. All the conversation revolved around was fluency in German. Of course, in spite of my southern-European accent, the fact that I speak German quite well was obvious, but I made the mistake of openly declaring that my husband is not very fluent. That alone was enough for the lady to put an end to our talk. She politely informed me that they were not interested in families where German was not spoken fluently. When I tried to protest on the ground that we speak six other languages and that our international experience and personal involvement in intercultural matters might be an advantage to children from non-German families (I was not given the chance, however, to explain the details of our social commitment), she interrupted me, told me not to take this personally and added that they wanted children to be placed in a German context (Umfeld was the word she used) because foster children already were in a difficult enough situation for a start. Then, she briskly wished me a nice day and hung up.
Three simple and absurd assumptions lie at the basis of such arguments. Assumption number 1: Not speaking fluent German translates into not being able to provide a loving and supporting family context for children growing up in Germany. Assumption number 2: Foreigners who reside in Germany do not live in a German context. Assumption number 3: Non-German parents are an added problem for children (with or without difficult situations). Of course, as the lady said, I should not take this ‘personally’, and in fact I don’t. This is no personal matter, rather an institutional one, and one which should require me to file a complaint for institutional discrimination. The reason why I did not have the nerve to do it back then is beyond the scope of this reflection. Personal circumstances make it sometime far too difficult to fight back institutionally, as ‘fighting back’ already absorbs much of one’s energy at a personal level, and, after all, one is not here to fight a war on an everyday basis.
The disturbing truth is that many natives (not only in Germany, I assume) tend to dismiss foreigners without making the effort to listen to what they have to say. Therefore I ask: Can the foreigner speak? But maybe we should rather ask: Can the native listen?

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