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Mastering German Bureaucracy 101.3: The Fault in Our Stereotypes

During our first English lesson in college last week, we started talking about national identities. Starting with characteristics of a certain nation, having many to choose from considering the variety of nationalities one can find in my group only, going over to stereotypes  we have about a country and its people.

One of the most common stereotypes I am confronted with as an ‘almost German’ when meeting people from abroad, is the idea of fascism and if it is not fascism, it is the whole issue of Germans being rude to non Germans simply because they are non- Germans.

This country has a harsh past and most people prefer backing up their facts, if they ever do, by having a quick look back into the history but only little do they know that being rude to others nowadays has way less to do with difference of nationality than it may have in the past, where all of these stereotypes came from.

One very hot day in August I approached the building of one of Berlin’s governmental agencies. Governmental agencies here are places where you can find dozens, and I actually mean even more than dozens, of people of different heritage who need some sort of support from the German state.

As a very soon to be college student I asked the security guard at the entrance where I could find the office for housing allowances. He looked down at me, in my floor long skirt, loose shirt and shoulder bag and after a moment mumbled something about the third floor.

Most agencies in this country have huge waiting rooms with hard metal chairs to sit on and big flat screens displaying the call numbers of the waiting people. This one only had a couple of the hard metal chairs. The rest of it was just a long, narrow hallway with a single window at the very end of it that was probably open a bit or maybe not. To be frank, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

More and more people squeezed themselves into the narrow space, taking their place in a line that was starting on the right or left side of each door that led into some office. There was a mother with a stroller that made it impossible to move past her, young men and women and elderly women in long, black coats and bright hijabs.

I looked at the name tag on the wall as I came closer to the door to one of the offices. The name of the lady that would take care of my business in a few minutes, sounded very Polish.

“Take a seat. You can’ just keep standing here”, she told me as I entered the room and placed my folders on the wooden office table. The woman sounded bored. Really bored. Maybe even a mixture of bored and upset.

“So you want a housing allowance?”, she asked and looked at me almost in disgust. I smiled and even though I told myself that I would talk like a ‘strong and independent woman’, my voice came out soft and quiet as I affirmed the question.

She looked at my Belarusian passport, spotted my residency permit and asked if I had any income. I said I did not. I was a student, my parents working abroad and that I myself just returned from studying abroad. She looked at me and said with the most enthusiastic disbelief that I ever came across, “is that so? Very interesting…very interesting. So how come you are allowed to stay here? How did you get the residency permit?”

Now, I know that all these people who work in such positions for the government are stressed out. They are stressed out, some hate their jobs and almost all of them have to deal with the weirdest people. I understand all of that. But I also think that when you choose this type of job you should be able to control yourself. The woman talked to me as if every single thing I said was a lie. Starting with my name and ending with the reason why I came here. I felt like simply getting up and leaving, telling her to forget the whole thing but I stayed calm and continued talking friendly and with a smile on my face.

There I was, a Belarusian girl sitting across a Polish woman, my German being much better than hers. I was a foreigner in search for material help from the German government, which in the end I thankfully received. But while I was sitting there, trying to get things going, it was not a German who was being rude to me, making me feel like I was not worthy of breathing the same air as her, but it was a foreigner just like me.

Some stereotypes are true but for this particular one I think it is time that some of you get to know the other version of the story and while I know that maybe the woman did not mean it that way and was probably just tired and sick of this job, I must yet admit that the issue is not about ‘native vs. foreigner’ but more and more has it become ‘foreigner vs. foreigner’ nowadays.



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