The Singaporeans look down on their neighbors
"You foreigner don't tell me what to do!"
The refugees in Germany should integrate, learn the language, take off their headscarves and put on German customs. I try the other way around. For the past 25 years I have mostly lived abroad. Not being a foreign body as a stranger is not always easy - and it is spiced with different challenges all over the world. You are instructed and groped, treated from above and cursed, cheated and exploited. A few key moments follow - a kind of personal map of my integration experiences.
March 2014, late afternoon, shortly before the evening rush hour and after the daily downpour at a small intersection in Singapore: The gentleman in the stiffly ironed shirt walks slowly over to me and knocks on my car window. When I lower the pane, he sticks his index finger through the opening and wiggles it back and forth in front of my nose, like a schoolmaster's caricature. “You drove through a green pedestrian light without braking!” He admonishes me in a menacingly soft voice. He sternly brushes aside my objection that the crossing was deserted and that my traffic lights were green: "Our law requires you to stop."
As a foreigner in Singapore, where we have been living since 2003, you are taught a lot. The good citizen took the trouble to cross three lanes to warn me that I was missing. I feel like a scolded child. An unpleasant role, even if I know I am right, and a daily phenomenon. You will not be integrated, you will be tolerated. Sometimes more sometimes less.
Rather less that morning when a Ferrari driver stepped on the gas and headed for me and my children, who had dared to cross the road when it was far away. When I shouted "Stop!" And threw myself in fear of death in front of my offspring, he yelled: "You foreigner don't tell me what to do!"
In Chinese-influenced societies like Singapore, the hierarchy of money and power rules. The man in the Ferrari is clearly above me in his eyes: He is richer and he is at home here. So he can run around the foreigner with her children who is rushing to the bus.
Singapore needs the "expats". The small city-state without its own resources would not thrive without the over two million foreigners (over a third of the total population). Maybe that's why we're not really popular. You may be fluent in the lingua franca of Chinese and Malay, or you may be able to fish slippery fish balls out of soup bowls with flying chopsticks. And yet you will always remain a newcomer. Tourists are great, domestic helpers, construction workers and other workers from neighboring Asian countries do the dirty work and openly have hardly any rights or privileges. The usual traffic rules do not even apply to them: While everyone else in the car is obliged to wear seat belts and is charged with expensive fines, the Indians and Bangladeshis crouch unprotected on the loading areas of the small trucks that they cart to the construction sites in the city. If the car brakes, they bowl together indefinitely. We “Westerners” are generally more respected because we spend more money here. But the more pressing Singapore's own economic and social problems become, the thinner the varnish of the warm welcome becomes. And the cheeky “Go home!” Outbursts are increasing.
In China, where I studied in the 1990s and later worked, every foreigner in a hierarchy of world regions is stamped and treated accordingly. If you come from a wealthy homeland with influence, you will be courted, the Chinese feel superior, your dealings will be extremely derogatory. At that time there were hardly any foreigners living deep in the northeast, in Shenyang. There were a few Russians who bought household items and carried them in huge blue-white-red plastic bags onto the trains to Vladivostok. And there were a handful of Americans, most of them officially English teachers, unofficially missionary. At the time, Russia was regarded by the Chinese as a country of beggars, the USA as a stinking-rich superpower. And so most of them appealed to the Americans, but the Russians were despised. And depending on which genre the passers-by thought I was, they were courteous or rough and distant. I can't count how often they grabbed my red hair out of massive curiosity and a lack of respect. The worst hit was the Africans. Chinese people can be extremely racist. They sniffed around in disgust in the air or rubbed the dark-skinned exchange student's skin with pointed fingers to check whether the "dirt" rubbed off. Only the young people specifically sought contact. “Can I learn English from you?” They whispered to us in the cafeteria, or - even more risky shortly after the Tian'an Men massacre: “Can you explain to me what democracy is?” Most of the others eyed us suspiciously, but never missed an opportunity to drag us across the board.
All of that has changed. Today, China is open to the world and much more self-confident. This is also evident in his dealings with us foreigners. There is no longer any trace of submission, on the contrary: Today most Chinese live true to the ancient legend of the creation of mankind, which a professor once told me only half-ironically: The gods formed the first people out of dough and pushed them into the oven. But they took it out too soon. So the figures remained pale and raw: the Caucasians. On the second try, they left the dough molds in the heat for too long, so they burned - that was the Africans. Finally, on the third try, the people got it perfectly: golden yellow and just right, the Chinese.
When you live as a stranger in a foreign country, you try to adapt. Just like the Germans expect the refugees to do. In Afghanistan, where I was a reporter several times after September 11, 2001 and the start of the Bundeswehr mission, I always hid my hair under a scarf.
Often I had to deliberately unlearn my acquired habits and politeness and do the opposite of what my mother once taught me: In Asia, it is rude to look elderly in the eyes. In West Africa as well. In China you leave something at the table, otherwise you give the hosts the feeling that they haven't served enough.
You adapt and play along. You want to go with the flow as best you can, not snub anyone. And you teach your own children to do the same. My daughter and son, who were born in Asia, should still know their German homeland. And so I sing German children's songs with them, maintain the good old Christmas customs and put the shoes in front of the door of Nikolaus - even if two months later I drape the pussy willow in the vase at the Chinese New Year. True to the motto: Do it in Rome like the Romans.
After decades around the world, we are moving to Hanover this summer - it will be interesting to see whether the integration will succeed there.
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