Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Well, as regular readers of this paper may have already guessed, Lauren Stokes is not here this semester–I am studying abroad with a program based out of Macalester, starting with two months of intensive language study at the Goethe Institute in Berlin and then moving to Vienna to take classes at the University there. I’m considering “Psychoanalytic Methods in History,” for kicks.
But what I’m attempting to really learn here is Deutsch, and what I’m managing is Denglish–that peculiar mixture of Deutsch and English that tells everyone I am a foreigner as soon as I open my mouth. (One could say that the Germans themselves speak Denglish–our Lehrer is always popping in English phrases–and ask why are we learning their language, again? but personally I think it’s kinda cool.)
But not everyone here speaks Denglish. At Goethe, you have the interesting experience of learning German with people with whom that’s the only language you have in common, because their mother language is Japanese, Turkish, or Portuguese. That means they make different mistakes, are used to different teaching and learning methods, and have entirely different reasons for being here than “Uh… I sort of thought it would be Spass! Did I mention that I go to a liberal arts college?”
My Swarthmore bubble just keeps getting busted. One thing I’ve noticed about Germany? They’re not exactly PC. Last weekend coming back home from a party at 4:30 AM, three German guys lean over and ask if I speak the language.
“NatÃ¼rlich,” I respond. “Ich bin Austausch-Studentin aus den USA.” They ask me if the USA is gefÃ¤hrlich, oder?
“Ich wohne in Philadelphien,” I respond, thinking of the apartment break-in over the summer, the stolen bike, the kid who was shot two blocks south, and the time my landlord’s car was totaled by a criminal trying to escape the police. “So ja, sehr gefÃ¤hrlich.“
“Warum?” asks one. “Weil sie so viele Waffen haben,” says the next. “Ist es nicht, warum sie so viele Niggers haben?” asks the third.
My jaw (Kiefer, like Sutherland) drops. Our Deutsch Lehrer at the Goethe-Institut has assured us that the two most PC terms for black people in Germany are “farbige,” which translates into “colored,” and “Neger… nicht deine ‘Nigger’… Neger. Kein Problem.” I’m still pretty dubious, but I know that they didn’t say “Neger.“
“Wir sagen das nicht,” I say. “Es ist… sehr beleidigend.” They look shocked. But we say that all the time! And that’s how I launch into a detailed discussion of American race relations auf Deutsch at 4:30 AM on a Saturday on the westbound U7. Only two beers short of besoffen, I don’t know if the Sociology department would have agreed with my analysis, but there we were.
We conclude not only that it is very bad to call black people “niggers,” but that violence in Philadelphia comes mostly from poverty and lack of opportunity, not from some intrinsic “rassen-Eigenschaft,” that it’s generally nice to call most people by where they come from and not some word you heard on a music video, but that Americans are sort of wahnsinnig to have so many guns, sorry, there’s no way I can defend my country on that one, and that Mexicans aren’t dumb, no, they’re actually kind of like your Turks, you know Turks? You have many Turkish friends! That’s great, because I have many Mexican friends! And they come from a country to the south and work hard at the worst jobs and our countries wouldn’t run without them, and they make delicious fast food, oder? Genau!
As their U-Bahn stop approaches, they tell me that they are all going to travel to America soon, and they hope their English becomes as good as my Deutsch. I’m touched. “Aber kein bose Worter, OK, Jungen?” I remind them. “Und kein Gewehr-Geste, OK?” I make the hand sign for a gun, intending an ironic reference to the time they asked me about our “Columbianer” and made the international sign for coke-sniffing, which I hadn’t known until, well, they made it. “Doch,” they reply. “Afrikan-Amerikaner!“
The leader then asks me for my number, and since I can’t remember the word for “taken,” I say, “Tut mir leid, but I am already owned.” They high-five me as they sprint off the train. You can just call me Nelson Mandela of the U7.
The next 4:30 AM, a tall guy at a club pulls me aside and informs me that I am not from around here. “Nein,” I say. “Ich bin Austausch-Studentin aus den USA.” He thinks this is the coolest thing ever, mostly because he’s a really big fan of the Phoenix Suns.
“Toll!” I say. “Mein Freund, der da ist,” I gesture towards the dance floor, “er kommt aus Phoenix!“
“Dein Freund?” He looks disappointed. “Nicht mein Freund-Freund,” I say, “mit dem ich schlafe, aber nur mein Freund, der ein Mann ist.“
This is a golden opportunity to find out if their people have invented a separate word for the concept of “a male friend I am not sleeping with,” and I take it. “Dein Kumple,” says the guy. “A male friend is a Kumpel, a boyfriend is a Freund.”
“Wunderbar!” I say, meaning it. But I can’t resist a little bit of Swarthmore. “Wenn ich lesbisch wÃ¤re,” I continue, “then how would I distinguish between my female friends and my lovers, huh?”
He informs me that his people have not yet invented a word for this concept–and that as far as he’s concerned, lesbians sleep with every woman they know–and continues, “But it is good that you are not a lesbian, because I would very much like to have your number.”
I’m too busy doing the “I used the Konjunktiv and a real German person not only understood but flirted with me!” dance to inform him either that his language is “heteronormative” or that I am “schon besitzt.” I pull him onto the dance floor in the direction of my Phoenix-Kumple, thinking I can let them talk basketball and go get another beer–I’m not drunk enough to fight oppression yet.
Since then? I’ve been photographed for a Berlin fashion magazine–because “Deine Mutze ist super!“–had my hair cut by a guy with a mohawk and a thick Berlin accent, been locked into a fire escape and out of my apartment (a situation that inspired surely the most plaintive Deutsch of my life), and did I mention that I’ve decided on my future career?
I think that the girl who narrates MTV’s Next and makes all those brilliant rhymes–you know, like “This beat poet sure can rhyme! But will that buy him time? Or will he hear Next because of those specs?”–is basically the coolest person in the world, and that I would be awesome at her job except she already has it and I don’t want to deprive the world of her talent.
Who doesn’t do a very good job is the person who subtitles MTV’s Next in Germany. None of the wit, none of the rhyming, none of the preciousness. I think German teenagers are being seriously deprived–give me another year in your country, you wonderful German people, and then, well, MTV Deutschland, “Guck mal hin, weil ich deines MÃ¤dchen bin!“
OK, well, maybe four more years. I’d better go hit the Kneipen and learn some more before I speak to you next.
Freuen’ it auf bis nachstes Mal,