Whenever I think of racism, I am like, “whoo bro, are you sure you want to do this? You do know that this isn’t the easiest topic to write about, huh? Why can’t you keep to simple things like life, travel and sports?”
“Eeh…but racism touches on life, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah it does but how dare you talk about a city like that? How long have you been here? Two years? And you want to sit here and lecture people about their city? Your lane mate, stay on your lane!”
Many months ago, when fish used to swim in silver ponds (only those who read ‘Encounters from Africa’ will understand), I wrote En route to Chemnitz, heralding a new chapter in my life. I was, albeit for only 3 months, going to experience a new culture, a new language, a new continent and of course two new seasons, winter and spring. I was excited! Like most people encountering so many changes at once, I spent most of my time and energy discovering new things. Without the vibrance of the former activity, take it more like the initial stages of identifying a research topic. During literature review, you try to skim widely in order to establish a gap in knowledge but, due to time restrictions (like the 3 months in my case), you rarely go quite deep. Instead, you chose what is relevant and quickly neglect what isn’t. Time brevity also ensures that monotony doesn’t set in. It’s more like a honeymoon phase, although that’s a different topic altogether.
Needless to say therefore, during my initial contact, the optimism to learn as much from this new culture often ensured that I had no time to see those subtle racist undertones that are synonymous with many a people in Chemnitz. If I experienced indifference, if someone frowned in the bus or if the supermarket cashier suddenly forgot how to say Hello, I barely noticed. I was too indulged in things like the bus’s timeliness and people’s obsession with counting calories while buying processed food. I was excited at technology, travelling and seeing around. I had no time for racism.
It is therefore not a coincidence that when a chance to come back for a longer period presented itself, I had no qualms considering it and for me, there was no reason whatsoever as to why I couldn’t go back to Chemnitz. After all, I really enjoyed myself in my first spell, travelled loads and even made a few friends on the way.
First things first, I had to learn the language. I was told that it was really important for my integration and that people are more likely to warm up to someone who speaks their language, especially if they do not exactly look like them. “No problem!” I replied and proceeded to take a 4 months German course in Dresden, a city one hour away from Chemnitz. Every Monday, people, who I later came to learn belonged to a group named Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West gathered around Schloßplatz and shouted some anti-immigration chants. Apparently to them, these good for nothing immigrants not only take jobs from them, but also make Germany, less German, something that should not be entertained by any German of sound mind. Needless to say, I kept away from those guys.
While in Dresden, apart from a few incidences here and there, I largely enjoyed because there are nice anti-Nazi or anti-Pegida quarters like Neustadt where one can enjoy themselves and meet open-minded people. Some of these people even held demonstrations against Pegida. However, a five minutes out-of-town would quickly remind you how few foreigners have settled in this part of town. I remember once going to a friend’s house and while on the stair case, a child from a neighbouring apartment saw me, dashed in quickly to alert the others and soon, the whole family was peeping through the door.
Whenever I told my German acquaintances that I was going to live in Chemnitz after the language course, I was almost always met with a ‘Why there?’ answer, accompanied with a look of genuine bewilderment.
“Why did you choose that place?” they would ask.
“Because I liked it when I visited one year ago.”
“It’s not the most open-minded city you know? It has one of the oldest population in Germany and is not exactly beautiful. Most people leave at the least provocation and your will find that it’s very easy to find a cheap apartment. Many are empty anyway”
“Really, aren’t you being too harsh?”
We would then wander off to some more interesting topic. However, it is true that I used to often speak in support for this City based on my initial experience. Even after joining, I held my optimism for quite a long time, much to the dismay of many a few guys who engaged me on the topic. I remember one guy, born and raised in Chemnitz, who told me that he swore to move away after finishing his high school studies, a threat he followed through, choosing to go to the university in Dresden. His reasons? Chemnitz is very restrictive.
In general, Germans tend to mind their own business, choosing to keep a respectable social distance. From my experience, nowhere has this art been more perfected than in Chemnitz. Smiles are rarely in supply and please do not be quick to initiate small talk. That’s weird! The weather doesn’t help either. Consequently, verbal racial abuse is not common since largely, only drunk idiots will openly utter vulgar and racist slurs. Even then, most of these incidences will involve someone shouting from the comfort of a speeding vehicle or in groups especially while heading to the Chemnitzer FC games. It is hardly safe to go to the stadium in Chemnitz as a black man. Sad, but life is just better that way.
It is therefore in the hidden, subtle and subconscious people’s behaviour that you realise just how deep-rooted racism is in this part of East Germany. A careless statement here, an ignorant response there. I have been complemented to no end for knowing basic kindergarten stuff. I have also attended a few sessions where people who took trips to Africa explain about their experiences aided by photos and sometimes videos. It is hilariously sad to hear the kind of stories they bring back. Stories of hunger and want. The excitement tells me that the story tellers are not especially doing it out of malice, something which doesn’t make the situation better as it points to a situation that is systemic. “So you visited Kenya and all you brought back was stories of poverty? Really?” Do not get me wrong, there are places in abject poverty. These deserve to be highlighted, and pressure put on relevant authorities to exert changes. However, this should not be the only thing worth reporting. What about the good? How do you, for example, fail to notice how mobile banking is changing lives?
What is funny is that most of the racist people always announce themselves with the, “I am not racist tag.” They then proceed to say the most ridiculous stuff.
Adding that to the fact that there are very few black people in Chemnitz, it becomes clear why I used to get those disclaimers against this city that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt and now ironically, refers to herself as Stadt der Moderne (the modern city). Racism and standing out are definitely not a good combination and a lot needs to be done if this city will ever be truly international. Sadly, one sometimes gets the feeling that this is not something some would want to encourage.
What racism does is that it erodes the homely feeling that people try to cultivate while abroad. It keeps most open-minded people away and prevents the few who remain from expressing themselves. The end result? A boring city with hardly any tourists.
For many foreigners in Chemnitz, owing to many other reasons be it study or work, they choose to chin up, brush it off and mind their own business. A friend of mine recently told me that he would only be bothered if someone turned violent. Otherwise, they can say what they want and he couldn’t be in the least bothered.
However, deep down, many of them wish they would be somewhere far away soaking in the aroma of multiculturalism and thriving in the anonymity that is brought about by knowing there are many more out there who share your struggle.
Something needs to change in Chemnitz!
Till next time,