The New Germans Immigrant Children's Complicated Search for Identity
Part 2: 'We Weren't Trying To Write another Book about Racism'
SPIEGEL ONLINE: We also just commemorated the 20th anniversary of the attacks on an asylum-seeker hostel in Rostock where many Vietnamese families lived. Ms. Pham, can you still recall those attacks?
Pham: I was too young to remember them. In the years before, we used to celebrate Christmas in eastern Berlin with our Vietnamese friends. We always went to a large campground where each family had their own small wooden huts and the women cooked together. That all ended abruptly. When we asked our parents why, they said we might get attacked by neo-Nazis. In the end, it weakened the sense of cohesion I had with the Vietnamese community as a young person.
Topçu: After Rostock, a number of demonstrations took part in my home town, and some high school students went along. Suddenly they realized that some of their classmates were immigrants, Turks. They felt compassionate toward us. Back then, you could see skinheads on the streets of Flensburg.
Pham: Xenophobia in Germany was much more pronounced during the 1990s. One friend of mine, whose father is from Guinea and whose mother is German, even received death threats while riding on a commuter train near Berlin. Back then, we had the feeling we had to watch our back. We had a feeling we didn't belong and that some people hated us.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you still carry that with you today?
Pham: Not really. There are some parts of Germany I would avoid, but if you live in Hamburg, Berlin or one of the big cities, it's generally not a problem.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Although your book addresses feelings of alienation that many children of immigrants in Germany experience, it doesn't go deeply into the issue of racism.
Bota: We didn't avoid the subject. But we weren't trying to write another book about racism. We wanted to depict the worlds in which we live and portray the lives our parents have given us. Our personal stories are stronger than a discourse on racism could ever be.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have stated that the 2010 publication of Thilo Sarrazin's anti-Muslim, immigrant-critical book "Germany Does Itself In" proved to be a catalyzing moment for immigrants in Germany.
Topçu: We partly wrote this book as an antidote to Sarrazin, who is a politician. His book showed that there is a silent majority in Germany that harbors hostile feelings towards Muslims and feels very threatened by them. Sarrazin has given that majority a voice.
Bota: After the book came out, many immigrants, and especially their children said they had had enough -- enough of the contemptuous and hostile attitudes towards them. They started to speak for themselves in order to define their place in society.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are other Germans conscious enough of how diverse the country has become?
Topçu: Most people don't know how to deal with multiculturalism. Many know that a lot of Muslims or Turks live here, but there is no real awareness of how large the entire immigrant population actually is or what it means for Germany's future.
Pham: If you look at Germany's political parties, the media or even the German national football team, you can see that things are slowly changing. It became apparent at the 2006 World Cup that there are many New Germans on the national team. You also see them on casting shows like German Idol. Things are also changing in more elite parts of society. Cem Özdemir (Turkish descent) and Philip Rösler (born in Vietnam) both lead national political parties. And Fatih Akin ("Head On") is a Turkish-German filmmaker who has been fêted at Cannes. I believe this will become normal in Germany, but first there needs to be an awareness that the country is far more multicultural than most believe.
Topçu: Every few years some politician claims that multiculturalism has failed. people burst into applause in certain political circles. But in our book, we tried to say that multiculturalism is neither a goal nor a strategy -- it is simply a reality, which is neither pretty nor ugly.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You all work as political reporters for one of Germany's top newspapers and spend a lot of time thinking about politics each day. Is it your opinion that Chancellor Merkel and other politicians should be doing more to push forward acceptance of immigrants and their German children?
Pham: Our goal with this book is not to push through a particular law -- like a legal rejection to calls to ban headscarves or a demand that German introduce dual citizenship. What we want to achieve is a political consciousness. We are writers and we want to explain to people what being the children of immigrants means for us. We want to influence the way people think about other people.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have also written positively about Berlin in your book as a possible cosmopolitan model for the rest of Germany.
Bota: Just look at the government in Berlin. It is a conservative and yet it includes an economics minister born in Vietnam, a wheelchair-bound finance minister, a gay foreign minister and a female chancellor from the former East Germany.
Pham: Some parts of Berlin have become very cosmopolitan -- and I'm not just talking about the Turkish populations in the Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts. In Prenzlauer Berg you have many Americans, Israelis and people from European countries. Berlin has opened itself up to the world. The Wall fell over 20 years ago, but the city still isn't complete. It has one foot in the past and one in the future.
Topçu: Some people there complain about hearing more Spanish or French on the streets than German.
SPIEGEL: Even though you have suggested that Berlin is a vibrant, diverse city, it is also a place people like Sarrazin look to for examples to cite of failed integration. Some speak of "parallel societies."
Pham: Of course there are also so-called parallel societies. In the Lichtenberg district, for example, there is a large Vietnamese center where people sell their products, operate restaurants and hair salons and where Vietnamese is spoken. But the US also has countless Chinatowns and Little Saigons and no one there speaks of parallel societies. As long as the people who live in these communities are given a chance to study, rise and leave them, they aren't necessarily bad.
Bota: When we came to Germany, we arrived in a village where we were the only Polish people. There was another larger town nearby that had public housing that was filled with Poles. That was a difficult area. It showed that the question of a few kilometers could dictate how people's lives in Germany would play out. Some families chose to go there because other Polish people lived there, but it was also related to social policies determining which housing was made available.
Topçu: Of course there are historical reasons for the existence of large Turkish pockets in Berlin. Still, these ethnic communities aren't necessarily bad. The dirty secret about Neukölln's newfound hipness is the fact that the people living there make it a little more chaotic and interesting than other parts of the city.
Pham: I would point out that we, as New Germans, choose not to differentiate between so-called "good foreigners" and "bad foreigners." Those who grow up in Germany are Germans. Their problems are our problems. They belong to this society, too.
- Part 1: Immigrant Children's Complicated Search for Identity
- Part 2: 'We Weren't Trying To Write another Book about Racism'