Asians’ shaky place in the white gaze

Posted on : 2023-04-20 17:00 KST Modified on : 2023-04-20 17:00 KST
Reflections on the life of an Asian immigrant family in Germany
A rally takes place at the Statue for Peace in Berlin, Germany, in March 2021 after a white man killed six women of Asian descent in a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. (Yonhap)
A rally takes place at the Statue for Peace in Berlin, Germany, in March 2021 after a white man killed six women of Asian descent in a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. (Yonhap)

“The special class smelled of poverty and alienation. It looked like the kind of place where you hide shameful or unsightly things, like a backyard or the back of a stage.”

That’s how writer Maryam Madjidi described her first experience of school in France, where she’d immigrated at the age of 6, fleeing Iran with her mother and father.

Immigrant children who don’t speak French are kept in a special class, also called the French beginners’ class, until their language skills are good enough to enter regular classes.

Madjidi admits that, when she was a child, she hated seeing the rootless, trembling faces of the poor children in the special class and couldn’t wait to get into the regular class with the “real” French people.

Only much later did she realize she’d undergone what might be called “identity washing.” That’s when she gained a critical perspective on an educational system that unilaterally assimilates children from diverse cultural backgrounds into French culture.

Unwelcome children in the “welcome class”

When my family moved to Berlin in the fall of 2018, my child was admitted into a language education class called the “welcome class” at a German elementary school. My hopes that the class would be a beacon of hospitality and integration, as the name suggested, were soon dashed.

The children in the welcome class were from a diverse range of cultures, with nearly as many countries represented as there were students. But there was a serious shortage of teachers.

Both the main teacher and the assistant teacher were irregular employees, and the main teacher — who had the key to the classroom — took a number of long sick leaves. Whenever that happened, the children in the welcome class would be left to roam the halls all day long.

That certainly wouldn’t have happened to any of the “real” Germans in the regular class.

Since it wasn’t me but my child who was in the welcome class, I don’t know what the classroom smelled like. I remember hearing about a Syrian child who had to transfer schools every time a spot opened up in a refugee facility and about a Bosnian child disabled in the civil war who rode around in a wheelchair. The Bosnian child had to give himself injections during recess because his family hadn’t received government funding for a personal assistant.

That first winter in Germany was so cold. The kids in the welcome class were supposed to spend three hours a day with the kids in the regular class, but they were often sent away because they didn’t speak German.

Without anywhere to go, the immigrant kids entertained themselves by sneaking around the school. Under the lead of a Polish child who was a longtime member of the welcome class, they would turn off lights, shut off heaters, and hide in the supply room.

My child had so much fun exploring the school that he told me he was glad we’d come to Germany. But when I pictured the welcome class kids tiptoeing through the quiet halls, I couldn’t help thinking that immigrants live like unseen shadows in white society.

Germany used to integrate immigrant children in the regular classrooms, unlike France. But given the rapid surge in the number of refugees and foreign students, Germany instituted the welcome classes for students who don’t speak German in 2015 to support language education.

The welcome classes are seen as a well-intentioned failure. But many question whether the classes were ever intended to benefit foreign students, given that segregation of minorities always leads to discrimination.

Imagining other races

In 2019, a North African refugee shoved a mother and her 8-year-old child off the platform at Frankfurt Central Station and into the path of an oncoming train. That incident came up in conversation with an elderly German woman who was teaching me German.

Though a supporter of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, she was a nice enough lady who had recently voted Green for environmental reasons. When she started griping about Muslims, she noticed my discomfort and added, “But Asians stay out of trouble, don’t they?”

While many Asians harbor negative feelings about Muslims, how is being stereotyped as an obedient Asian any different from being stereotyped as a dangerous Muslim or an inferior Black person?

In the novel “Pachinko,” Noa Baek, a second-generation Korean Japanese, is excluded from mainstream society despite having received an elite education. Even when he’s dating Akiko, a Japanese woman, his Koreanness keeps getting in the way.

When I’m in a group of white people, I sometimes feel as if they’re talking not to me, but to an imaginary Asian in their head, which matches Noa’s thoughts about Akiko in “Pachinko.”

“She would always believe that he was someone else, that he wasn’t himself but some fanciful idea of a foreign person; she would always feel like she was someone special because she had condescended to be with someone everyone else hated. His presence would prove to the world that she was a good person, an educated person, a liberal person.”

When people of a certain race or religion are placed on a list of suspects because they’re thought to be more likely to commit a crime, we call that “racial profiling.” When we discussed this topic at school, it got a strong reaction from the Turkish men in the class. The students in that discussion were barely 20 years old, but every single one of them had been stopped by the police.

From the obedient race to carriers of disease

What are things like for Asians, who are more often left in the shadows than viewed with suspicion?

When Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education collected examples of hate against Asians in 2020, it found not only the positive stereotype of Asians being “model immigrants” but also a tendency to regard Asian women as “childlike” and Asian men as “effeminate.” The white gaze produced a spectral image of Asians that robs them of their very sexuality.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the image of Asians shifted to being potential carriers of disease. That was the moment when stereotypes about Asians having bizarre eating habits and poor hygiene gained tangible reality.

When the agency asked in a survey who respondents were willing to sit by on public transportation, the number willing to sit by Asians decreased from 51% to 47% over the course of the pandemic.

So it’s safe to say that anyone of a different race or nationality in a given society is subject to racial profiling because they’re given attributes imagined by the white gaze and can be included or excluded at any time.

By Nam Eun-joo, freelance writer and translator

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