Multicultural Germany Class: Europe and Beyond

As the Spring 2014 semester is coming to an end, this will be the last post in our series of student reflections on the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” This week’s summary is by Tanja Mehlo

In the last week of class, we continued discussing Europe and its internal and external borders and how these borders are used to construct European identity. We spoke about a fictional story about a Japanese girl’s travels to Moscow, investigated an article discussing whether Europe can be considered Western, and listened to a student presentation about border protection.

Ann Huang spoke about the concept of “Fortress Europe”, a former Nazi propaganda term referring to German-occupied territory that is now used to describe certain attitudes toward migration and border protection. It brings up an image of a fenced-off place that is highly sought after but off-limits to people on the outside. Critics are protesting the actions by various government agencies that gave rise to this term, such as Frontex, the European Union agency responsible for external border control that has been accused of human rights violations. During Operation Hermes, when thousands of North Africans crossed the Mediterranean to apply for asylum at Italy’s borders, the EU stated that they would grant asylum to anyone fleeing violence in Libya. Later on, this policy was changed, and many refugees were rejected for asylum and deported. This led to a surge in illegal immigration to Europe: Refugees were afraid to apply for legal asylum because of the real possibility that their application might be denied, forcing them to return home to violence and despair.

Concluding the class topic of border protection, we turned to the theme of European identity. The fictional story we read and briefly analyzed, “Wo Europa anfängt” (“Where Europe Begins”) by Yoko Tawada, narrated the story of a Japanese girl who, despite her grandmother’s warnings never to “drink foreign water”, fulfills her dream of seeing Europe. While traveling to Moscow, she misses the crossing of the border and realizes that the border is simply an arbitrary place chosen to differentiate two places. She ends up disregarding her grandmother’s advice and drinks the “foreign water”. As we were debating the meaning of this story, we were wondering to what extent Moscow really is part of contemporary Europe, despite the fact that the story’s narrator considers Moscow as being “in the middle of Europe”.

This debate fit in nicely with the topic of the course’s final article, “Is Europe Western?” by the same author, which questioned whether there was such a thing as Western culture. According to the article, Europe and “the West” as concepts, not geographic places, are carefully crafted constructs that exist to exclude other countries, disregarding the fact that the world is not neatly divisible into “East” or “traditional” and “West” or “modern”.  While many people from Europe would like to group Asia together into a single entity in the same way that they see themselves as European rather than French or German, the author states that there is no such thing as a unified Asian culture. Likewise, modern Europe did not come to exist in isolation – its famous potatoes are from South America, its noodles from China, and most of the math that made it so successful was discovered by Arabs. However, somewhere along the way, the terms “Europe” and “Western” came to be synonymous with “modern”, suggesting that anything that is not European or Western must either be traditional or, if indeed modern, at least copied from the West.  The article suggests that this could happen because tradition and culture don’t actually evolve naturally but are based on decisions made by human beings. As such, all tradition is fictional, and anyone, Eastern or Western, can disregard the fact that he or she is supposedly Eastern or Western and may choose to take on any identity he or she wishes.

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