Kultur und Unterhaltung

What Do We Owe Each Other

Maybe it doesn’t take that many old ladies yelling at you in German on the tram to feel like things are going badly.

And it’s not what I want to say. It’s not what I want to feel. But it is what I’m feeling.

Being an exchange student at Mannheim University is going badly and I’m trying to figure out why.

Before coming, I wondered what it would feel like to be on exchange. So I looked at exchange students in my own university. And I told myself that I would be fine. I assumed that how my environment treated foreigners was a good indicator of how foreigners are treated and perceived within a society.

That’s not how I ended up feeling.

And I keep thinking how could my expectations have been so off? I’ll give you a few hypotheses.  First, Montreal (the city where I live back home) is more accessible to non-French speakers than Mannheim is accessible to non-German speakers. So although Quebec (my province in Canada) is monolingual French, like Germany is monolingual German, that official monolingualism doesn’t mean the same thing.

Second, my linguistic situation gives me a specific point of view. My mother tongue is French. I went to school in immersion (half French, half English). Tensions between francophones and anglophones are a special breed in Quebec, and I have been keenly aware of them throughout my life. I have gotten to know many people who feel alienated by the other linguistic group. I am hyperaware when things are only available in French, or only available in English. Because I know that not only does it make it only accessible to people who know that language, but it also excludes that person from that activity, and with enough repetition from that society.

Third, there is a warmth offered to strangers where I am from that is not offered to strangers in this city. Where I come from, people smile to you in the street and they ask you if you need help. Here, if you ask someone for help, they will kindly answer your questions. But they will not choose to offer you their help. That makes a huge difference on how it feels to live here.

I’m not sure how much it’s this city. How much it’s me. How much it’s being in a new place.

And I don’t know what to say because I don’t know what can be done to make things better.

Maybe it’s scary to talk to foreigners. Or simply not worth one’s time. But it’s also terrifying to live in a country in which you know no one and in which you don’t understand when people speak to you.

I fear that the desire to listen to a foreigner’s perspective can be shut off if they tell you bad things about your home. But I can’t lie either and tell you that being allowed to live somewhere and being welcomed there are the same thing.

I’m ready to accept a lot of things. But not anything. I’m wondering what a healthy relationship with this society looks like. I wonder what can be done to make that relationship better.

But I guess you already listened to one foreigner tell you how they feel. That’s not bad already.

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