One foreigner is not like another – here’s why

Muslim American women

Read by Brenda

There are varying grades of foreigners in Germany, with subtle nuances between them. People instinctively treat them differently, too, even if they are not aware of it. Depending on your country of origin, you may get preferential treatment – or just the opposite.

As an American, I was blissfully unaware of this for many years because I have the good fortune to be a Grade A foreigner. This is not a claim to American superiority, but a reflection of geopolitical and economic realities. When I moved to Bavaria in the 1980s, there were still elderly folks around who had experienced WWII firsthand and how American troops liberated their country, distributed food rations, and helped Germany get back on its feet. It was quite a lucky break for me to come to a place where previous Americans had paved a path of goodwill.

The privileged status of Americans is also reflected in the German legal system. The first organization I worked for applied for a work permit on my behalf. It arrived after just six weeks. My Australian colleague’s work permit, by contrast, took several months. We could come up with no better explanation than our differing nationalities.

But it’s not just a question of nationality. A person’s status is flexible and situational. My Italian friend Pamela was offered a good job after arriving in Germany, mostly because her boss was a big fan of Italy and had a good Italian friend. Other friends of mine were awarded a prized apartment from amongst the usual crowd of prospective tenants. Why? They are from Nepal, and their landlord is a veteran Himalayan mountain climber. While other landlords might have discriminated against them precisely because they were from Nepal, in this case, it was an advantage.

The German language also differentiates subtly between different kinds of foreigners. As an American, I am often referred to as an “expat,” although this is technically incorrect, as this refers to someone who intends to return to their country of origin. Foreigners from poorer countries are called “migrants” which has a totally different flavor. Their children are called, in classic German bureaucratese, “Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund,” “people with a migration background.” This applies 100% to my kids, as I am the “migration background” in question, but neither I nor they are ever referred to that way.

Apart from being the victor in a world war, the economic strength of your country of origin greatly influences how people treat you. Everyone assumes that someone from Switzerland has not come to Germany to flee Swiss poverty – I even have a hard time typing those words next to each other. The same goes for Scandinavians. If you run into a Finn, he’s probably here working for Nokia, and a Swede is likely employed at a subsidiary of Volvo or Ericsson.

The farther south in Europe you go, the greater the disdain for – and usually ignorance of – your country. Most EU countries are seen favorably, but the Balkan and southern European countries are often looked down upon, as they are less economically successful than Germany.

Don’t even get me started on non-European countries.

As the status of countries changes, so does the perception of their citizens.

This holds true for many countries whose subjects came to Germany in previous decades. The 1960s saw a large influx of Spaniards, for example. Spain was considerably poorer in those days, chafing under the yoke of the dictator Francisco Franco who went to great pains to isolate Spain from the rest of Europe, with dire consequences for the country’s economy. But following his death in 1975, Spain reestablished itself as a full-fledged member of Europe, joining the EU and reopening culturally. The country is now a democracy and its economy has improved, so Spaniards are looked upon as fellow EU citizens.

I, on the other hand, have not been so fortunate.

Little did I know when I arrived in Germany, basking in the benevolence of my home country’s good deeds of yore, how the tide would turn.

In addition to economic aid, the U.S. began wielding considerable influence with its exports of pop culture following WWII. Hollywood movies enjoyed a near monopoly, contributing to an idealized version of America. American pop music flooded the airwaves, too, often via the Armed Forces Network or AFN. This was established across Europe by the U.S. government to provide unbiased news coverage to counterbalance the propaganda of the Soviet bloc.

The huge presence of American GIs, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands over decades, gave ordinary Germans the chance to interact with ordinary Americans, especially the many thousands of Germans who worked on the military bases. At a recent doctor’s visit, the nurse detected my accent and immediately switched to English, talking wistfully of how she used to work at a U.S. base in Regensburg. I run into such people regularly, just as I run into former GIs in the U.S. who reminisce fondly about their time in Germany.

The popular music played by AFN was immediately swallowed up by German radio stations. In the Schickeria TV series about the wild 1970s culture of Munich, a German DJ recalls how he listened to AFN, took notes, and went straight to the next record store to order the music. He tells how America was “the” source for music in those days. Another scene in a discotheque (yep, that’s what we used to call dance clubs, dear Gen Zs) shows black American GIs dancing their hearts out, nothing unusual. But what is very striking is the crowd of Germans standing at the edge of the dance floor, standing stock still, mesmerized, studying their every move.

American culture was king.

But then the Vietnam War put a serious dent in the likeability of the U.S. in the 1970s, and subsequent conflicts did not help its reputation. The U.S. invaded the Persian Gulf in 1990, Somalia in 1992, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003. Even leaving the wrongful invasion out of it, the general buffoonish nature of George W. Bush did not bolster the world’s perception of the country. Following 9/11, anti-foreigner sentiment skyrocketed. I have talked to German au pairs who were forced to leave the U.S. because of this.

Then of course came 2016 and a U.S. president whose values diametrically oppose those of Western Europeans. Like so many others, I misjudged the possible outcome of the election. At the office, I reassured colleagues that this candidate was just a media phenomenon, not to be taken seriously. The press were just having a good laugh; there was nothing to worry about.

Ha-ha, haha, hahaha, ahem.

Entering the office the day after the results were announced was an experience I’ll never forget. The office grew quiet and all eyes were on me, asking the unspoken (and later spoken) question: “Brenda, how could this happen?” Even my daughters were asked this at school, despite never even having lived in the U.S.

This was a far cry from an exchange I had held 20 years earlier with an older man at the Oktoberfest who was sitting at the table behind me in a beer tent. The beer tents are very crowded, which makes conversations between tables come easily. Despite his advanced state of inebriation, upon hearing my nationality this man suddenly became very serious. He implored me to thank my relatives back home for the American assistance to Germany after the war. I kept my promise, proclaiming Germany’s appreciation at a picnic in my brother’s backyard the following summer, much to the bewilderment of all present.

Living as an expat, or rather as an immigrant, while hailing from a country that has undergone such a drastic change in reputation has certainly been a varied experience. It has also served me well as a reminder not to attach too much importance to where people are from.

After all, they might be just as confused by their country as I am.

Brenda Arnold

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