by Asa Willoughby
The last thing people assume when they see me, an Amritdhari Singh (initiated Sikh) who wears traditional South Asian clothes full-time, is that I am a fluent German speaker and spend much of my time between Germany and the UK. When people do find this out they are always curious to know how I am perceived in a country like Germany where South Asians make up less than 0.5% of the population.
Germany through the eyes of someone well acquainted with the South Asian diaspora in the UK is a fascinating trip down memory lane. South Asian communities often look the way they did here maybe 30 years ago. Where we have Southall, Whitechapel and Bradford full of an abundance of shops selling clothes, food and more from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan, German cities at most have 2-3 shops selling everything. We have some of the best in Indian and Pakistani fashions on our doorstep, the full range of Shan Masala mixes and every South Asian delicacy from Idli Sambar to Aloo Paratha frozen and ready to go. Shops in Germany, often known simply as Bollywood shops, sell clothes, spices, DVDs, books, newspapers, meat and veg all in a space barely bigger than my living room in North London. The South Asian clothes in shops in cities such as Hamburg and Cologne are straight out of the 90s and most look like they have been in the shops since then too. Nowadays it is largely Germans going to Bollywood themed parties or Indian weddings that purchase these retro novelties.
With this minute community, Germans are then naturally often entirely ignorant of South Asian culture altogether. India being the land of Bend It Like Beckham (which was of course produced in the UK and filmed mainly in West London) and Pakistan being a terrorist nation in tatters, you can forget anyone having heard of Bangladesh, and to hope that anyone would be aware of pre-partition India is simply idealistic. Therefore, seeing someone like me walk around in not just a plain ShalwaarKameez, but one that I have designed to include all the best of South Asian textiles, as well as proudly sporting my Turban, is something straight out of an Aladdin storybook. I have for the last 3 summers worked as a receptionist at a Youth Hostel in Lübeck, a small city in northern Germany with a population of just under 250,000. Being front of house at what is essentially quite a German institution has given me some interesting experiences to say the least! On more than one occasion I have been asked if I was a magician, that too by adults being completely serious. I have often had guests just stand and stare at me, refusing to believe that I am the one checking them in and others who attempt to speak to me in English automatically, assuming I won’t be able to speak German. A German friend once told me the only thing they were ever taught in school about South Asia was Gandhi so I suppose the ignorance isn’t so surprising.
People in northern Germany are largely just curious; they want to know more, what am I wearing? Where does it come from? What is my story? But this isn’t the case all over Germany. An hour’s drive from Lübeck into the neighbouring state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is Schwerin a city once belonging to East Germany. Here I am the enemy. Despite usually only being a passing tourist in Schwerin, the curious looks I know in Lübeck, turn into threatening scowls here. It feels entirely unsafe and incredibly uncomfortable. This is the face of right-wing Germany as it exists today. Cologne is similar; I have never been stared at anywhere in my life like I am in Cologne. If I am on the tram for half an hour travelling from the suburbs to the city centre, every pair of eyes in the carriage is on me for the entire half an hour journey. No one approaches me with curiosity; I am not given a voice here. Interestingly, Cologne supposedly has the largest Sikh community in Germany. I am yet to see them outside of an Indian shop or one of the two main Gurdwaras in the city.
There is no one common experience I can give of wearing traditional South Asian clothes full-time in Germany but I can proudly say that almost all of my colleagues and friends in Germany are now aware of South Asian cultures and identities, they have almost all visited Gurdwaras in Hamburg, Bremen and Cologne and some have even begun cooking authentic Pakistani cuisine. This is progress in my books. Dispelling ignorance is the only way forward, and being able to speak German has definitely helped me do that!
- Cover photo courtesy of Zee News