Driving our identities through East Germany on a hot summer’s day
On our drive back to Berlin from a short holiday at the German Baltic Sea, the Ostsee, we have stopped in Pasewalk.
The whole town looks as if the stifling summer heat has frozen it. Even the flies that linger around the entrance to the Asian noodle bar seem confused by the brute midday heat, not sure where to land. The town center is desolated. Only one small café, a newsstand, and the Asian noodle bar are open. Except for one store that sells bulky and dated looking television sets, the surrounding shops are closed, even though it is a weekday. An old German couple sits on a bench underneath the modest shade of two trees, staring intently onto the square. But there is nothing to see. The square is empty.
Pasewalk is the infamous town in the Vorpommern region of Northeast Germany where Hitler was once treated for temporary blindness during WWI. Allegedly, it was here where he learnt of Germany’s capitulation in the war and resolved to rectify Germany’s grand humiliation by joining politics. Afterwards, the Vorpommern region became part of East Germany under the former DDR. Today, this area is a major stronghold of the German Neonazi Party, the NPD.
We order our lunch at the Asian noodle bar. It’s hot and the flies have moved inside. A young man is running it by himself. It turns out he is Vietnamese and has been in Germany for 17 years.
“Too long”, he says with a wry smile. His wife and son are in Berlin. He goes there every weekend.
“How’s it like here?”, my parents ask. Really, they mean to say ‘How bad is it here for an Asian-looking foreigner, an Ausländer?’.
My parents always have that particular sense of uneasiness in East Germany. They suddenly become very self-conscious about their Chinese looks and Bavarian accent (which of all possible West German accents signals most clearly to East Germans that they are privileged and arrogant ‘Wessis’) and are terrified of running into Neonazis at every street corner.
That’s only one part of the story, though. I think that what really sets them at unease is that they are in a former Communist country, especially since East Germany’s Communist past can still be felt acutely in the region today. Having escaped their own Communist past in China through immigration to West Germany, working again in a dizzyingly transformed China after Mao, and simply through the general passing of time, they have been able to shake off the trauma of those years – the food deprivation, the intellectual deprivation, the cruelty of the political campaigns, the general terror – almost completely, or so it seems. It just doesn’t seem right, or at least absurd, that the country that became their refuge and new home, the country that is miles and miles away from a nightmarish China should contain a place that reminds them so much of what they tried to escape and forget.
“Well, it’s not Berlin”, the Vietnamese guy says laconically.
“This is the town center” He looks behind his back. “Pretty sad, huh? It’s not the Neonazis that are the biggest problem. It’s the drug users. Unemployment is very high. You almost feel like every young person is a junkie. And it doesn’t help that we are only 40 kilometers away from the Polish border.” He throws in the last phrase as if the open EU border to Poland can account for all the misery.
“It doesn’t feel here how Germany should feel like.” My parents and the guy nod empathically at each other.
It takes three Ausländer who came to Germany from two Asian Communist countries to appreciate the full meaning of this sentence. The desolation, the sense of abandonment, the mutual mistrust, the acute sense of scarcity (though one could not point exactly to what it is), the silence – heightened today by the numbing summer heat – that looms over this town, all of this is too reminiscent, too universal, and does not fit into the immigrants’ (and indeed many politicians’ and tourists’) dream of Germany.
“At least you are right in front of the police station.” I say this more as a joke.
He smiles his wry smile again and shrugs his shoulders. A police car slowly drives past the noodle shop. Inside, two heavy-looking police men stare at us and our rental car as if we each had two heads.
I step outside and look at a massive Gothic church made of red-brick. It stands next to the town center in a quiet Church yard, majestic and serene. It has the charm of that simple and unpretentious architectural style that is characteristic of Northern Germany. The St. Marienkirche was built during the 14th century and has been a quiet witness to the many powers that tried to take hold of the town. Pasewalk was wrecked numerous times during the Thirty Years’ War, burnt down by the Poles in the 17th century and by the Russians one century later. During the Great Westphalian Peace, it was handed over to Sweden.
I cannot help but feel curiosity and a sense of fondness for this town that has undergone so many transformations of identity, ravaged by everyone and yet belonging to no one. Today, brighter and livelier cities come to mind when one thinks of Germany. Pasewalk is in the history books, but on the mental map of the cosmopolitan traveler who drives westwards towards Berlin, it’s a forgotten place.
My parents breathe a deep sigh of relief once we are on the road again. Even more relief arrives in the moment we are in West Germany. It’s a funny sensation. You can actually sense an invisible border as you drive along the Autobahn towards Berlin. Suddenly, you are in West Germany. I couldn’t say whether it was the change of countryside, roadside houses, town names, other drivers on the road, or all combined. You suddenly have left East Germany and you know it.