Welcome to the West

9 November 2009

I was in a bar a few weeks back, drunk, talking to some people and listening to this girl tell us about growing up in East Germany. Just to paint a picture: she was very attractive, blond, very lively and also a bit drunk. She mentioned the dolls that they used to have, an Eastern German version of the Barbie Doll and I accidentally joked something like "were the dolls named Helga ?" — she slapped me. Lightly, but to the point. Then she complained bitterly that people just didn't understand what its like to have grown up in the east.

I think I do understand, and I'll get to that in a moment. But first let me say that often we think we understand something but we don't unless we've really been through it. Deep seated things get into your body, your emotions, your language and your way of being. Its about Identity. I didn't understand the terrors of immigration until I went through it (and mine was mild and my chances very good). Getting a taste of it I could say that I can imagine. But I can't imagine really what its like to be African and trying to stay in Europe and really having no idea what to do if I got denied. You have no idea the panic that brings a man.

I want to take a stab at this: the DDR was pronounced dead, it was declared unfashionable, its furnishings ugly and laughable, its people (many of my current friends) were poorer and behind the times. And the Western world, still to this day—in particular on this day November 9th 2009 (Mauerfall Tag) says how wonderful it is that these poor bastards got their freedom to be like us, to shop at Karstadt and eat bananas. The relics of the East are diminished by calling it Ostalgie and shoved into a box marked "The Past".

So its read as something like "you can be like us now" ... but you AREN'T us. You are still "them", and we've declared your culture as dead so now you really have no country. You can't change who you are (the way you grew up, your memories, the way you talk), but we've declared your whole Ossi culture to be over with.

Welcome to the West.

The only thing you can do now is give up and gradually assimilate into the western capitalist culture. As new identities come forth, people take those up and eventually it changes. Perhaps try Football or Rave.

Its like the well dressed older brother came back from college and now teases his little brother constantly.

That is the message that is being read.

I don't think like that, mostly I'm not even that aware of the cultural war, or I don't realize its that important. Hence me not realizing that the Helga joke was really insensitive. (I know it wasn't funny. I was drunk, it was an offhand comment, OK ?) My American method is to use humor to dissolve things.

Can't wait for a unified Korea, eh ?

  1. 1 Sean Smuda says...

    When I was in Rostock in the former East in 2001 it was amazing to me that young and old male and female were using the same cheap red hair dye. Is this Ostalgie pride? There were also many skinhead attacks in the news. My German girlfriend informed me that History as taught in was differently slanted than the West and the gaps somehow resulted in violent prejudices.

  2. 2 Andrez Bergen says...

    Interesting food for thought, Chris, from the outsider's perspective – and you're right; we can't really understand it unless we're in that situation ourselves. But having lived in Tokyo these past 8 years, I've got an inkling… ;)

  3. 3 Romy says...

    I just wish that any mention of East Germany could expand beyond the red hair dye, unemployment, banana jokes and skinheads. There are skinheads in the U.S., west germany ( perhaps even more dangerous racists who aren't skinheads working as executives in Germany, governmental officials etc.).

    It's very limiting and pretty boring. If I want that picture of East Germany I can just watch mainstream German T.V. I'm sure West Germans don't appreciate all the hitler jokes whenever they hang out in England or the US and the complete ignorance of the 1968ers, the antifa, the different regional cultures of Germany, etc.

    But it's true about immigration—i really had no idea until I experienced my own very lightweight version of it. Suddenly a lot of issues like retaining your native language, wanting your children to underestand your culture, feeling terror at not being able to answer simple bureacratic questions made more sense.

  4. 4 lisa says...

    i grew up in east germany and i honestly have to say that the girl totally over-reacted.
    but there' s a huge gap in american + german culture. a lot of times germans sound really mean when they talk because of their intonation .. and americans sound kinda fake, arrogant and even stupid. and don't get me wrong.. i love americans.

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