‘I’ve never been able to shake off the feeling of being a foreigner’: How tolerant is Germany?

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei sparked a debate when he said he plans to leave Germany because he believes it is an intolerant society. Here's what you had to say.

'I've never been able to shake off the feeling of being a foreigner': How tolerant is Germany?
A balllon with the words: 'No place for racism' at a diversity event in Berlin. Photo: DPA

In an interview with the German daily Welt published Friday, Ai, who moved to Berlin in 2015 after spending four years under house arrest in his native China, said: “Germany is not an open society. It is a society that wants to be open, but above all it protects itself.

“German culture is so strong that it doesn't really accept other ideas and arguments.”

Ai said he has faced incidents of discrimination while living in Berlin and he also slammed authorities for not speaking out over Chinese human rights violations. 

READ MORE: 'Germany is not an open society': Ai Weiwei on leaving Berlin

The Local readers, many of them foreigners living in Germany, reacted strongly to the comments. Some posted on our social media pages to share their own stories of integrating. 

Many readers said they related to what Ai said, while others said they disagreed with him.

On Facebook, Muhammad Ali Zia, who studied for his Masters in Germany and now works full time in the IT sector, said he has had “good and bad experiences”.

He said he had met “kind open hearted people” but also “racist” people who have spat at him in the street and called him a foreigner. 

“Germany for me has been a good place,” he said. “I've made friends and I've spent many good times exploring nature (lakes, woods) with them.

“But I have never been able to shake off the feeling of being a foreigner so I will not spend the rest of my life here. But I don't know where I'll end up because after five years in Germany I can't shake of the feeling of being a foreigner in Pakistan either.”

Richard Still, who is from South Africa, said he understood Ai’s sentiment. 

“It’s not about what you see or hear daily,” he said. “It’s about the subtle nuances and the general undertone that is not visible or tangible. It’s more about a feeling of acceptance or rejection. 

“It’s not easy to break through those barriers. I have yet to get invited to a German home for a meal yet foreigners in Germany welcome me with open arms.”

Ricardo Saltz Gulko said there was “some small truth” in what Ai said, adding that Germans “do their best to be open at least”.

Another reader, Yiannis Eipame, suggested that Berlin is more tolerant than other parts of the country. Eipame said: “I've been around Germany, but I have only lived in Berlin and I feel I would only live in Berlin.”

A woman carrying a sign that reads: 'Open to diversity' at an anti-racism march held in Wächtersbach after the shooting of an Eritrean man last month. Photo: DPA

Another reader, Thanaseelan Pushpanathan said Ai is “probably right”. He added that he has sensed a “superiority and smugness” from some Germans at times.

However, he said: “I do not feel unwelcome though. Never did. Quite the opposite. And I never felt more safe anywhere. And I have lived in a few places around the world.”

Another Local reader Kaitlin Mattes said she “completely agrees” with Ai, but feels that the problem is worse in the more conservative southern part of Germany. 

'You find xenophobia everywhere'

Lots of readers said discrimination exists everywhere – not just Germany. 

As Catherine Gosling put it, “No country is without prejudice and racism. Germany has a well-deserved reputation for being an open and tolerant society. That doesn’t mean there isn’t racism or prejudice, which threatens many countries around the world.”

READ ALSO: Children who don't speak German 'shouldn't be allowed to start school'

Another reader Sabine Geithner said it can depend on the location in Germany. “I think it’s Berlin,” she said. “I‘m a German who‘s been living in Berlin for more than 10 years now and even I am sometimes surprised and hurt by how rude and unwelcoming Berliners can be (not everyone, but some).

“However, everywhere you go you will find people who are xenophobic and unfortunately it’s a global trend that come with the newly rediscovered protectionism. Don’t blame German culture, blame wars, social inequities, power hungry nations.”

Johanna Wise felt that Germany has grown into “a cosmopolitan society” but that “most Germans do not want their culture taken away from them.”

Weng Kong Lee, who has lived in Germany for 40 years, said he believes internationals who come to Germany are treated in a more favourable way if they learn the language. “I think it is the language problem that he (Ai Weiwei) was treated that way,” he said.

Member comments

  1. Yes they have a very strong culture. One of the values of their culture is to guard their private lives, and respect that of others. This helps to keep the culture strong.

  2. As everything in Life, have a mindset of “Augenhöhe”.
    And understand the difference between:
    KNOW ME -> TRUST ME and
    Give time & Enjoy your day.

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Three women win Hamburg scholarship awarded to those who plan to ‘do nothing’

The winners of a Hamburg scholarship awarded to people who plan to “do nothing” as a demonstration against the pressures of modern society have been announced, after applications came in from across the globe.

Three women win Hamburg scholarship awarded to those who plan to 'do nothing'
Is doing nothing virtuous? Photo: DPA/Roland Holschneider

A Brazilian activist who planned to collect plastic waste in her village, a television reporter who wanted to stop announcing negative news for four weeks, and an American pastor who wants to stop hating were among the applicants for the award. 

The worldwide response to the scholarship for doing nothing set up by the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg (HFBK), and endowed with a one-time payment of €1,600, came as a surprise to initiator Friedrich von Borries. 

“I’m really happy,” Borries said on Thursday. “The scholarship is aimed at questioning the mechanisms of achievement-based thinking and invites people to think about how their own reality connects with climate change and social and political structures.” 

From some 2,900 applicants from 70 countries, the jury selected three winners – all women, and all from Germany. 

Their projects and all other submissions can be seen until July 18th at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg as part of the exhibition “School of no consequences. Exercises for a different life”.

For the three winners, “doing nothing” meant doing without something that would have social or financial consequences for them.

One of the winners, Muslim feminist Hilistina Banze, said that: “I won’t wear my headscarf for a week.”

An integration counsellor from Hamburg, she wants to show her hair, which is three millimetres long, and thus counteract several clichés simultaneously. In doing so, the 31-year-old – like many other applicants – wants to confront the expectations that are placed on women by modern society. 

The jury said it was impressed by “the radicality and the complexity of the experiment and is curious to see what Hilistina Banze experiences as a woman, a Muslim, and a feminist.”

The second winner, Mia Hofner, a student from Cologne, plans not to generate any usable, personal data about herself for a fortnight.

In practice this means no smartphone use, no checking emails, no online shopping – all activities that many other applicants wanted to do without because they consume too much energy, put a strain on social relationships, and tempt them to consume.

Lastly, Kimberley Vehoff, a food technology specialist from Bad Fallingbostel in Lower Saxony, is going to give up her job because her social relationships are suffering under the rotating early, late and night shifts she is required to work. 

“Kimberley Vehoff speaks for many of us when she expresses a fundamental dissatisfaction with the economic constraints and pressure to achieve placed on us by contemporary society,” said Tulga Beyerle, jury member and director of the MK&G.

“We live in a time in which we are trained to succeed. Everything we do should be as consequential as possible,” says Borries. “But this way of thinking has led to the ecological and social crisis in which we live today, and due to which a great many people are suffering.” 

“That’s why I think it’s important to at least critically question this path, and to ask ourselves what a life would look like that doesn’t have negative consequences for others.”

SEE ALSO: 10 German words you need to know to engage in the climate debate