Tuesday 20 July 2021

“Sprechen Sie doch Deutsch!”: The power of language

 It is a strange thing to come back to the place you used to call “home” and start entering conversations that were already happening way back when you left, but that have evolved (or not) in your absence. 

One such conversation I had with a friend sitting on a balcony last week when we were chewing the fat about how Germany is becoming more and more multicultural in a way that goes beyond the sort of immigration us Gen Xers experienced in the 70s and 80s. This is indisputably true following the influx of millions of refugees in 2015 and 2016. I cannot remember seeing that many non-white faces in public places when I lived here as a student. Which is encouraging. And yet, nothing much seems to have changed in terms of attitude of the “natives” of what is necessary to integrate old and new groups of German residents.


One attitude that still seems to prevail is about language. Talking to my friend she emphatically insisted that a condition of integration is that newcomers must learn to speak German. At least some of this attitude is borne from everyday frustration – she works in the medical arena and is at the sharp end of any barriers to communication when it comes to her patients. However, there seems to be some deeper issue there that speaks of power – specifically who has the power to determine which language is spoken in any given context.


Having lived in the UK for so long, this is a conversation that is not entirely unfamiliar. The British, too, have this expectation that everyone must speak English. Indeed, to this very day many British people do not just have this expectation in their own country but also in any other country they happen to visit. The joke that a “Brit abroad's” way of trying to be understood is to speak louder is as old as time and very much a reflection of reality, I fear. However, one thing that Britain did right for at least some of the time (much of this has changed in the last few years) is to acknowledge that there are in fact people speaking different languages living in the UK and that their needs should be catered for. In practice, this has meant that information published by public authorities or the NHS was often published in several languages including those of immigrant communities.


Nevertheless, most of that was an accommodation more than an actual acknowledgment of the fact that a country like the UK these days has more than one national language. And perish the thought that anyone should suggest such an official acknowledgement in today's super-sovereign, Rule Britannia, post-Brexit Britain. UK Twitter would probably collapse.

Similarly, my German friend, who is a good lefty liberal in almost all other ways, did not feel that her expectation was unreasonable. Of course, if you move to a different country, you should aim to learn the local language. And there is something seductive about that argument. Because it is an expectation that at least some of us also have of ourselves. If I, say, moved to Italy for retirement, the first thing I would do is, of course, a language course. But are all people, who insist that foreigners should speak the local language in their country, willing to return the favour when they themselves are the foreigners? The number of solely-English speaking retirees at the Spanish Costas suggests not. 


However, there is also a question even for those of us willing and able about where we put our efforts. Forget Italy! Which language would I aim to learn, if I moved, for example, to South Africa for retirement? The South African Constitution recognises 11 official languages: Sepedi (also known as Sesotho sa Leboa), Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. I already speak English, so would I actually bother to learn any of the others? And if so, which one would I choose?


The constitutional protection of these 11 languages is a direct reaction to the Apartheid regime, under which all of South Africa’s official languages were European – Dutch, English, Afrikaans. This was so, of course, because the Dutch and the British were the two main colonising groups that took control of parts of South Africa in 1652 and 1820 respectively before spending several decades fighting each other as well as the native population. So, if we all agree that those who move to another country should learn the local language, why did this not apply to those that colonised Southern Africa? Why was it indeed the native population that was expected to adapt instead? 


The answer surely is because language is an expression of power, in this case of white colonialist power in action, given how very few white South Africans, even today, speak any of the native languages. Which raises interesting questions about the current fear of Europe’s white population with regard to the languages recent immigrant arrivals brought with them. Is it “colonisation” we fear? How Jungian of us to project that kind of shadow…


It gets even more interesting, if I chose to retire in Namibia, which has a similarly checkered history of European "arrivals". While several Portuguese explorers stopped by the country’s West Coast in the 15th and 16thcentury, it was again the Dutch who took control of Walvis Bay in 1793. They were quickly ousted by British settlers in 1805, but neither of them took over much of the country, which is arid and largely consists of desert. It was left to the missionaries to advance real settlements, most prominently those from Britain as well as my own German ancestors who arrived in the country around 1840. The Germans became particularly interested in Namibia during the “Scramble for Africa” in the late 19th Century when seven Western European countries colonised most of Africa. Bismarck established “German South West Africa” as a colony in 1884 on land previously purchased by German merchant Alfred Lüderitz from the Nama chief Josef Frederiks II (which is an interesting observation of the power of language in itself, given that a local Nama chief was probably not born with a name like that. So the fact that it is that name that has survived and made it into a 2021 Wikipedia entry tells us something.


Although the German tenure of power in Namibia was short – neighbouring South Africa launched a military campaign and occupied the German colony in 1915 – the German settlers remained in several parts of Western Namibia, particularly in Lüderitz, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Which is where they still are today, more than 100 years later. And guess what language they all speak? That’s right: German! You walk into any shop in Swakopmund as a white person and the shop assistant will immediately speak to you in accent-free German. There are German-only clubs ("Vereine"), German dentists, German guesthouses and German schools specifically for the local German population. Nearly two hundred years after their ancestors first arrived in the country the greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgrandchildren of those original German settlers - African children all of them in outlook and identity - will speak German as their native language. And what's wrong with that?


Particularly since most of them will also speak at least one second language. But which second language? Again, judging by my own (anecdotal) experience, there is a dominance of other European languages including, in particular, English and Afrikaans. As far as I could tell, not many “SouthWesterners”, as they are still known, speak one of the native Namibian languages well enough to hold a conversation: Oshiwambo, Khoekhoe, Hereo, Kwangali or any of the many Bantu or Khoisan languages that are spoken by a smaller percentage of the population. 

Indeed, even Namibia’s “national language” is English, despite the fact that less than 1% of the population speak it as their native language. This, too, was a political decision taken after independence from South African rule was finally achieved in 1990. It is now the language of government and administration.


Interestingly, though, while South Westerners, maybe understandably, insist on protecting their own heritage through the protection of the German language, the black population is often truly polyglot. The same is true for South Africa. Whenever I travel in that region and speak to people, I try to find out just how many languages everyone speaks. And it never ceases to amaze me that black South Africans or Namibians rarely speak less than four “tribal” languages on top of their own and at least one, often two, colonialist languages. So if I retired down there, which language, if any, would I learn? 

And if I refused to learn any, what would that say about me? Would it be fair for people to claim that I was reluctant to integrate? Would a local doctor treating me for an injury in the Caprivi Strip be justified in her frustration about being unable to communicate with me? Would it be ok if people looked at me funny if I speak German on a bus in Durban because “Why can’t people, who come to live here, just learn Zulu?” Of course not, and we all know why. Because language is power and which language you are allowed or expected to speak in any context determines precisely where on the global food chain you are located. 

So now I am in Germany. And because I still work in English and therefore still think in English, every now and then it happens that I address a shop assistant in a supermarket in English. Often I don’t even notice that it happens. And I do get funny looks sometimes. But mostly, people just assume that I am a tourist and either politely explain that they don’t speak English or, more often, they actually answer me in English. 


On the basis of my conversation with my friend, I imagine that their reaction would likely be different, if I inadvertently defaulted to Turkish, or to Russian, or to Polish or to Zulu. Which tells you all you need to know. So whose responsibility is it to make sure that we can communicate with each other? And what does our answer to this question say about power, about us? 

Thursday 1 July 2021

Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish!

I moved to the UK for the first time in August 1993. I was fresh from law school in Germany, so fresh, in fact that I had interrupted my professional training ten months before I was due to take my “Second State Exam”, which was viewed through any lens an insane thing to do. My father never grew tired of telling me so. But a job had come up as a lecturer in German law at a UK university and if the people at the German Academic Exchange Services were crazy enough to appoint me, who was I to argue?  

I had always loved the UK – from watching UK TV programmes like “Upstairs, Downstairs” (“Das Haus am Eaton Place”) and “The Profilers” as a kid, to falling hook, line and sinker in love with London, when I visited it for the first time on a school trip at age 16. Like many a youthful obsession with a rather unstable partner, that one didn’t survive four years of “living together”, but my love for the UK remained. 


I loved - love - its crazy sense of humour, the ability of its people not to take themselves too seriously, the fact that you have to know someone quite well to address them by their surname, or that every talk or business meeting starts with a joke or an apology. 

I love that this is truly the only country in the world, where the Harry Potter books could have been written and I love that the audiobooks were read by a guy of Jewish heritage, who is nevertheless seen - in his own words - "as more British than Tweed".

In academia, I was bowled over by the autonomy I was given, even at a young age, to decide my own research agenda, that I was not expected to be beholden to a Professor, like I would have been in Germany, who would publish what I had written in their own name. That I was trusted to teach a bunch of undergraduates what I knew without anyone looking over my shoulder constantly.

 Of course, much of that has changed by now – there is almost no part in academia where it is still “1993” today – but I’m mentioning it to explain what lured me not just into coming here but staying here for all this time. I could have gone back to Germany several times, to pick up a “normal German life”. I would probably be a more well-placed, higher-ranked and better paid woman, if I had. But every time I tried - and there have been several attempts - I found that I had departed further and further from the way of life and mentality of my old country. I had gone native in the UK and I found it increasingly difficult to be German in Germany.

It's not you we want to get rid of

Having said that, I am not German. Through an accident of birth, I have the passport of another country that is now an EU member state but wasn’t when I first tried to cross the UK border. So when the border guard looked at me in my battered old Ford Estate that included all my worldly possessions and asked what my plans were for staying in the UK, and when I replied – proud as anything because this was my first grown-up job – that I was to be a University lecturer, he responded with, “Can I see your work permit, please, Miss”.


“Work permit”? What “work permit”? Nobody had told me I needed a “work permit”. I was in my mid-20s, I knew nothing about immigration control, and the German agency that sent me here knew nothing either, because Germany WAS an EU member state and they did not normally sponsor foreigners for these positions. In fact, I had had to get special dispensation from the German Foreign Office to be even allowed to go. So, nobody had prepared me for that moment at the border when my well-laid plans looked like they would dissolve before my very eyes.

As I could not provide the guard with a satisfactory answer, I was asked to step out of my car and was taken to a small, very grey room where a friendly middle-aged lady offered me a nice cup of tea. I waited for 2.5 hours until the original guard came back and explained that they had agreed to grant me 24 hours leave to remain in the country. During that time I would have to work something out with my employer that allowed to get me some form of documentation that proved my right to live and work here. Absent that documentation, I would have to return to Dover the next day, so that they could put me on a boat back home. And with that he walked me back to my car, opened the driver’s door for me and watched me get in. And as I was getting ready to leave, he gave me what - to him, I’m sure - sounded like an apology. 


“I’m really sorry for this, Miss. It’s not the likes of you we want to keep out. But we have to do our job”.


It is that “apology” that has haunted me and that has determined my entire behaviour as a UK resident since 1993. Because what I heard was not the apology, but the threat that was implicit in it for anyone that did not conform to the standard that the UK applied at the time for the people “it did not want to keep out”. I was not part of that other group because I was whiter, richer and better educated that those people. I had come to perform a highly qualified job for which another country had paid to train me. I was unlikely to become “a burden on the welfare system” anytime soon. Instead, I would probably pay into that system for a few years without taking anything out and then bugger off back “home”, where another country that had not received any of my tax and national insurance payments could deal with my health issues, periods of unemployment, and social care etc. Because that’s what “home” means, isn’t it? It’s the place where they have to take you in when the chips are down. And it was clear to me, in that moment at Dover immigration, that the UK had no intention of ever becoming my “home”.


So, I made provision for that. I got leave to remain in 2003 before I left the country for a one-year trip, even though I did not have to as a – by then – EU citizen, because I didn’t trust the bastards. I had been subjected to enough Kraut-bashing and anti-EU rhetoric by then to have lost any faith in the UK’s commitment to remaining inside the EU for good. 


And after I came back from that trip, I made sure never to leave the country for longer then the two year-period that would invalidate my leave to remain. I kept my name on the electoral roll for every moment of my life here. I hoarded council tax bills and tax statement and payslips and pensions statements and schlepped folders and folders full of them from place to place when I moved – all so that I could prove my entitlement to live here when the time would come that I needed them. And I was absolutely certain, at the very least since the financial crisis in 2007, that that time would come.

Brexit means Brexit

When the votes of the Brexit referendum were counted, Mrs Matron and I were holidaying in the US. That gave us a timezone advantage, meaning that we could actually watch the spectacle as it unfolded, although I do of course use the word “advantage” ironically here. To be honest, I was probably the least shocked by the result from anyone I knew. If anything, I was shocked by their shock. How could they not have noticed what had been happening in their country? 


We lived in Scotland by that time, and one of the reasons for that was that I had felt increasingly uncomfortable about living in the small village in the North West of England, where we had ended up buying a house. That village was two miles south of Burnley, which had come to infamy by electing a BNP councillor. And even though the neighbours remained friendly, I felt an overall change of sentiment in the air. Something had morphed from “it’s not the likes of you we want to get rid of” to “if we have to get rid of you to get rid of the others, then so be it”. 


We moved to Scotland, and all of that changed. Yes, it really is different up here and, no, I’m not imagining that. I’m also not looking at the country through rose-tinted glasses. It has it’s own issues and those issues will need to be named and addressed. But the reason why I am a fervent supporter of Scottish Independence is because that independence would allow me to feel safe again in a country that never felt like it would be just as happy, if I wasn't here. Or maybe feel safe for the first time since I moved to the UK.

When the results of the Brexit vote were confirmed, Mrs Matron was dumbstruck. She just had not been able to believe that her once rational fellow-country people would do something this stupid. There is a photo of us holding our feet into the cold water of the pond in Prospect Park in Brooklyn that day, and I remember us sitting there for hours, just being silent with nothing to say. And I know that the same was probably true for a lot of my academic, middle class “British chums”, most of whom actively apologized to me for what they had not even done when we got back to the UK.


But I refuse to see this vote and the absolutist stance with which the UK subsequently approached negotiations with the EU as merely a response to the existential fears of voters that used to make up the “Red Wall”. The three people I actually met, who admitted to me that they had voted Leave definitely do not fit that demographic.

They include a well-to-do octogenarian from Inverness, who sat next to me during a classical concert in the Usher Hall. He explained that he had done so because he felt that so many of the laws he did not agree with and that affected “normal people”, came from the EU. When I explained to him that many EU laws actually aimed at protecting individuals’ rights, that we would probably not have some of those laws, like consumer protection or workers’ rights, if it were not for the EU, and that the UK government was one of the most active movers and shakers in the European Council when it came to shaping those laws, he said, “Oh! I did not know that. They didn’t tell us about that”.


They include an administrator at Cambridge University, who I taught on our online degree, and who told me at our graduation celebration, knowing full well that I was an EU citizen, that she had voted for this because the EU was undemocratic and decisions needed to be made in Westminster (spoiler alert: where people like me don't get to vote on them). 


And they include the guy, whom I now call charitably “my wife’s brother-in-law”, an engineer with a University degree and a middle-manager salary, who angry claimed - on Christmas Day 2016, no less - that “not only stupid people voted for Brexit” and that he had done so because “we must have control”. 


It was late already when he did that, fortunately. Late enough that after an initial angry outburst by Mrs Matron and the subsequent embarrassed silence that settled over the room, I could check my watch and proclaim “Oh look! Is that the time? We should probably get back to our hotel” (and thank the heavens and my foresight as an introvert that made me persuade Mrs Matron to book a hotel rather than to stay with them in the three-bed house in a Tory-voting Yorkshire constituency). Maybe 
unsurprisingly, I let it be known that I "suffered from a migraine" the next morning. So I did not have to attend the Boxing Day breakfast and we made it back to Scotland without further incident.


That one was particularly painful, though, because it was so close to home. Because he and I had had countless discussions about this in the run up to the referendum, where I had explained to him in painstaking detail what this would mean for people like me. Because he knew that Mrs Matron and I had actually gotten married specifically because we were worried about what would happen if the referendum went the wrong way without us having any legal connection. Because he knew that we were considering leaving the country, if that happened. He voted Leave despite knowing all that, because he believed that I was making things up, blowing them out of proportion, subscribing to “Project Fear”. He voted Leave because he genuinely believed that for people like me “nothing would change”. He still believes that.


I have not spoken to him since that Christmas. I just can’t. Because we mostly only see each other on family occasions, and I know that I will absolutely eviscerate him the next time we meet, and I feel that this is not a fight to the death that should ruin a birthday party or an anniversary or another Christmas. So I have stayed away from all of those occasions for the last five years because he won’t. Because he does not think that he has done anything wrong. It isn’t talked about in the family, because I don’t talk about it. Because I have never made it clear to my in-laws that this is why I’m no longer visiting when I know that he is there too. That bit is on me. But even though they are Remainers and even though they know that I am finding it hard, they have also never made any attempt to raise the issue or to address it. Because I am the one with the problem, aren’t I? I could just bury the hatchet or have it out with him or ignore him.


Which sometimes makes me think, “why”? Why is it that those of us that bear the brunt of this futile, self-harming, xenophobic decision are the ones “with the problem”? And sometimes I wonder, if they would have reacted the same, if I was black and he had made a racist remark? Or Jewish and he was anti-semitic. Or a lesbian, and he was homophobic. Would he still be the one to get invited to all the celebrations regardless - to keep the peace, to not make a fuss - while it would be quietly tolerated that I would decide not to join them? Where is the line here?

There's no place like "home"

Today is the 1st of July 2021. The deadline for the EU Settlement Scheme ran out at midnight last night, so today is also the day when my new life of precarity in the UK starts. When I will hold on even tighter to all the various pieces of paper that prove my right to stay here. Because even though I finally gave in and applied (and was granted) settled status, I still don’t trust the system. Given all that has happened in the last five years, I trust it less than ever. 


And I am actively scared for my future. I am scared that a minor infraction of a UK law will get me deported, as may now be possible. I am scared that a future UK government, swayed by the mob of public opinion, will adopt laws that water down my rights further, its obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement be damned. They are already talking of breaking that agreement for all sorts of reasons now, what is to stop them doing things that affect my rights under it too?


I am scared because nearly all of my pensions provision is in this country, a country that views pensions not as a right but as a “benefit”which is paid at the discretion of HMG. Will I still be entitled to that pension, if I decide to leave the UK for good? Will they cap it at the amount that applies on the date of my retirement without any increases, as they already do for British people living outside the EU? Yes, for now I am protected from that by the WA, but see above.


I will probably never again be comfortable accessing any kind of state benefit in this country, notwithstanding the fact that I have paid national insurance here for nearly 30 years and never "taken out" more than the occasional visit to the GP. Because what history shows is that becoming a “benefit scrounger” is bad enough if you are a UK citizen, but if you are a foreigner, it can get you a ticket back “home”.


I am afraid of what this and future UK governments – unleashed from the restraints of EU law – will do to all of us. I am scared enough of the NHS being destroyed, or of health care being restricted or taken away from me specifically,  that I have made sure, for years now, to keep up my health insurance back in Germany at the cost of over €200 a month. And yes, I am aware of how lucky I am that I can afford to do that and I worry about others, who can’t and who might at some point now be faced with a US style health system that prefers seeing you die in the gutter to burdening your fellow citizens (“tax payers”) with the cost of your illness.


But...“Nothing will change”, my foot!


So, on this first day of July in the fifth year after the referendum, when the last of the protection EU citizens had in the UK have finally been removed, I am also just ten days away from leaving the UK – again - to try my luck back "home". Like all the other times I did this, it’s a trial right now. I’m going “home” to see, if I can still fit in there. If “home” can actually be home again. I’m not optimistic about it. It didn’t work the other times because it always came back to the same thing: that my life, my friends, my work are here and that after thirty years you can’t just “pivot on a Pound coin” and leave all of that behind and go back to a country that has also become very different since you first left. 


So, to anyone that tells people like me that it’s not us, who should be worried, because at least we’re not stuck here, who tells us that we have no reason to complain because at least our EU passports allows us not just to go “home” but to move freely and to find a new home in 26 other EU member states, I want to say that yes, that is of course nice in theory. I’m not dissing that and I’m sorry for your loss. 


But in practice, it is not that easy. Because “home” is more than just the place where you unpack your boxes and put pictures on the wall. So when you tell me that I can just go “home”, the only answer I have is, “I had hoped I was. But obviously I was wrong”.

Live light, travel light!

But here we are.I'm going to give this “going home” thing another try. We’ll see, if it sticks this time. Or if maybe Scotland will become independent some day within the next five years while I still have a legal right to return, and allow me to come “home” for good. I hoping for that. 

For now, goodbye, my British chums. And thanks for all the fish!