“Rebellieren heißt lieben”
Each year, many migrants, whether dissidents, refugees or entrepreneurs, relocate to Germany, particularly Berlin. The statistics from 2019 show that 26% of German citizens have a migrant background. The ubiquitous usage of English, the kebabs on the street, and the foreign workers at the manicure salons of Berlin are a constant reminder of living in a migrant society.
Having moved to Europe now, I started questioning myself: what does migration actually mean? What exactly do the lives of migrants look like in Europe? Is the term more about the search for better economic opportunities, a pursuit for a better life, or a loftier quest to discover our identity?
Then, I met 60-year-old Deon Maas at a party in Berlin, to which I had been invited by a friend after complaining to him about how lonely I was in this city nine times bigger than Paris.
In 2017, Deon moved from Johannesburg to Berlin with his wife, Veda. In South Africa, he was a journalist, documentary producer, and award-winning writer. With these accomplishments, he never thought about moving out of South Africa. The universe gave them an opportunity for change when Veda was offered a relatively high-end job in Berlin.
Upon arrival, Deon was in constant discomfort over holding an African passport. “I felt if I do something wrong, it would be easy for them to kick me out.” He revealed to The Paris Globalist that it is difficult for a holder of an African passport to go anywhere. Even for a tourist VISA, Deon has to prepare a bank statement, a medical certificate to prove that he is in good condition, and a letter from the employer stating that he is just taking a trip instead of planning to stay illegally in Germany.
By then, the couple had already been to Berlin. Fond of the prominent music scene of the city, they always thought that it would be their destination of choice if they ever moved to Europe. Now that Veda’s income was sufficient to keep the household afloat, Deon finally had the opportunity to write full-time, something he considered a luxury back in South Africa.
For a long time now, the media has been projecting migrants as passive job seekers. In reality, in Germany, one in five businesses were established by entrepreneurs of migrant backgrounds. While on one hand, these foreign talents profit from the stronger economic environment of host countries, they also provide employment opportunities to the locals.
When asked what his expectations for his life in Germany were, Deon imagined that the people and the systems here would be a lot more advanced than Africa would ever be. Yet, this idealistic conception of the West fell apart after they found out, for example, how impractical the banking system in Germany is, and how inconvenient other aspects of daily life are. “The way the doctors work here, you know, you expect first world treatment,” said Deon. “But (in reality) everybody is too scared to commit since you might sue them.” He pointed out that the friends that he has made in Berlin are mainly from third-world countries. “I have no idea why. Maybe they are just as lonely as I am; maybe they are just as confused as I am, or, hopefully, we have something in common,” he said. “The whole thing is that I think all of us are always surprised by how Europeans do things actually, as opposed to what our perception was before we came to Europe of how things get done.”
For a lot of migrants, identity is often a major mental conflict, and Deon is no exception. As an African, the fact that he is also white makes his existence paradoxical. “In South Africa, I cannot fit in because I am white, and here I cannot fit in because I am an African who does not think like a European.” To Deon, his identity has always been a very grey area. These inner conflicts essentially gave birth to many of his works. “There has always been a discrepancy between my skin color, how I am perceived, and certainly how I act. This is not something that I think Berlin will change.”
Like many, Deon told The Paris Globalist that the language is a big problem for him as a migrant in Germany. “One day, I went out, and it was just one of those days when everything went wrong.” He reckoned that most things that went wrong were due to his inability to speak German. “I eventually just went to sit on the pavement with my shopping trolley, and I cried. I was like ‘you know what, I do not know a single soul in this city. I am not going to be embarrassed by this. I now need to cry to get rid of this frustration to tackle it again, and then I did.’”
Ranked 11th in the world for English proficiency of its population, it is understandable that one tends to assume that English is not essential to migrate to Germany. Deon then recalled his encounters where people told him to speak in German instead of other languages since he is in Germany. He pointed out that learning German buys you freedom, and it is crucial to decide between how much effort it takes to speak German, and how much liberty it will buy you. Reckoning that Germans are specific about their language, Deon told The Paris Globalist that, no matter how hard you try to learn it, if you do not speak it perfectly, they will always either correct you or pretend that they do not understand you. “That sometimes is even more frustrating.”
When people ask me why I am not learning German, my standard answer is that ‘I am too busy stealing your job to learn the language.’
Believing that the Germans are very afraid of making mistakes when using a foreign language, Deon also shed light upon the insularity of German society — one that looks inward on itself, rather than outwards. He took the culture as an example, pointing out that many movies, music, and theatre from Germany are of brilliant quality. “But since it is in German, it is not exported.” Indeed, if you go on Netflix in Germany, you can barely watch a German movie with English subtitles. In this case, it is very difficult for anybody that has not mastered the language to truly understand the way this country thinks. “I think a lot of Germans, such as the 10,3% that vote for the AFD among others, would prefer keeping on doing things this way over actually incorporating Germany into a bigger world.”
Issues with the use of language further extend to bureaucratic barriers in Germany. According to Deon, a lot of institutions do not have services in languages other than German, which essentially builds up extremely high thresholds for migrants without enough proficiency in the language to integrate into society. Using Finanzamt, the governmental sector in charge of taxation and accounting, as an example, he pointed out how such bureaucratic processes were the cause for his sleepless nights, often spent thinking about how he would deal with the people the next day.
With the trials and the fines from the international community following the defeat, Deon speculated that German society has felt very exposed to the world since the Second World War. He then believes that this feeling of being exposed has further led to the insularity of the German society, and this insularity has made them more nationalistic and language-conscious than other countries in Europe. If a German idea is exportable, that idea has been examined within Germany to such an extent that it is flawless. Then, the “flawless” German products that get exported create the impression that Germany is a flawless country because the rest of the world is not exposed to the developments occurring within the country.
Yet, despite the language barriers and the bureaucratic maze he has to deal with in Germany, Deon reckons that heading back to South Africa is not a practical idea. “From the employment point of view, the official unemployment rate is around 30%,” he told The Paris Globalist. Deon further added that, for people under 30, the data shows that 75% of them are unemployed. He continued to explain that, in this situation, even if you find a job, the employer tends to exploit you. If you do not want to fulfill the tasks, many more people out there are in dire thirst for your position. “My life here is so much more comfortable and easy and convenient than it ever was in South Africa.”
After four years in Berlin, Deon came to become aware of the changes in his writing style. He went on by explaining that, in South Africa, his approach was angry, satirical, and very ironic. It was Berlin that helped him become a complete writer. “It somehow feels for me that, in South Africa, I was what was expected of me, whereas, since I came here, I have been allowed to become who I am.”
Spending at least one day a week wandering around the city on bus or on tram, Deon thinks that the whole spectrum of his life has broadened with all the new knowledge he has acquired through his life in Berlin.
“Do you still practice this ritual now that it is your fourth year in the city?”
“Of course,” said Deon, suggesting that we end the interview and go get a drink.