Frankly ... integrated
Where are you from – and if so, for how long?

Where are you from – and if so, for how long?
Photo (detail): © mauritius images, Gary Waters

Some people are forever being asked where they’re originally from, and their whole lives long. Curiosity about others’ origins is human nature, says Sineb El Masrar, but it can also be annoying.

By Sineb El Masrar

One thing that often vexes certain people in our society is questions about their origins. Most conversations about this touchy topic follow a similar pattern. First, you’re asked where you’re from. If the answer is not some spot on the map that lies beyond Germany's borders, the question is promptly rephrased with the addition of the adverb “originally”. And since all good things come in threes, the follow-up question is usually where your folks are from. The hope being that they were surely born abroad and that this will clear up the mystery. Which often turns out to be true, but not always. After all, many young “ethnics” now attending German schools, universities and training programmes have parents who were also born in Germany themselves. So the last question ought to include their grandparents, too.

What’s your pedigree?

But today’s column isn’t about how we react to being pestered with questions about our national or ethnic origins. In a nutshell, some of us get annoyed, even outraged, while others remain communicative and “chill”. The former take the question as an attack on their identity and a challenge to their right to be living in the Federal Republic of Germany. The latter may take umbrage if they happen to be having a bad day, but are otherwise only too glad – and sometimes proud – to recount their lineage and their family’s immigration story.

But my question today is how long certain people in Germany will continue to be regarded as members of the immigrant community. Many “ethnic” families here have actually had German citizenship for several generations. Quite a few have never been to their ancestors’ native country, not even on vacation. In some cases, because the “immigrant” parent was never actually part of their family life or because family rifts run so deep that people give that foreign side of their genealogy a wide berth for many years. Or because there’s a war going on or political oppression in the land of their ancestors, and going there might simply be risking life and limb. So it’s understandable that not everyone should feel like running through their pedigree.

Talk to each other!

We’ll always be curious about other people’s origins. It’s human nature to want to know who the person talking to us is and where they got facial features or first and last names that strike us as being foreign or “ethnic”.

The asker is often hoping to find similarities. But just because someone “looks German” – i.e. the way the world and many Germans themselves, whether “ethnic” or not, expect Germans to look – doesn’t mean they have any experiences or even geographical histories in common. Conversely, just because someone is black doesn’t mean their connection to Germany doesn’t go back several generations.

Everyone has a story to tell about where they and their family are from, and these stories are often fascinating. Why some people are assumed to be of immigrant origin is usually in the eye of the beholder, and getting to the bottom of that assumption itself and the story behind it should be reason enough to strike up a conversation. Which is something we should be doing now more than ever. So talk to each other!


“Frankly ...”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly …” column series is written by Sineb El Masrar, Susi Bumms and Maximilian Buddenbohm. Sineb El Masrar writes about migration to and the multicultural society in Germany: What strikes her, what is strange, which interesting insights emerge?