Letter by a Grateful Immigrant

Picture Source: International Financial Law Review

Having reflected on the power of humor in her latest MGP blog post on Saša Stanišić’s Herkunft, guest author Angèle Yehe Zheng (Graduating Senior in Philosophy, UC Berkeley) returns to present a creative piece of writing about her experience as a second-generation Chinese immigrant in Luxembourg. This project grew out of Professor Deniz Göktürk’s Fall 2021 German Studies seminar on “Cultures of Migration.”

Dear Dianne and Christophe,

I want to thank you again for inviting me to your Christmas dinner! The chicken was amazing, and I am honored to be invited to your Christmas gift exchange tradition. Thank you, Dianne, for the German philosophy books, and thank you, Chris, for the French oven – the cocotte! I have started to read the books and already baked a pain de campagne in the oven. Hopefully, you will equally enjoy my gifts. I am glad that you were ready to decorate your house with the Chinese lantern I brought!

I have always felt incredibly lucky to have both of you act as my quasi-godparents… In contrast to many of my fellow second-generation immigrants, I feel that I have had a better chance to understand Luxembourgish traditions through you. This opportunity also allowed me to be a person who is well-versed in Luxembourgish culture, and I am deeply thankful to you for that. 

However, I am afraid that my experience skewed your view on immigrants, and the discussion we had on Christmas about immigrant life once again confirmed my fear. The dismay you expressed about loud Portuguese, offensive Persian neighbors, and self-segregating Asians unsettle me. Especially when you contrast “them” with me who “has a healthy portion of Luxembourgish-ness.” After all, I personally identify as a Chinese immigrant, no matter how “Luxembourgish” I seem to you. Therefore, as an immigrant, I feel obliged to discuss the immigrants’ perspective with you in more depth, and express some ideas and experiences to you that you did not consider.

First of all, you mentioned how immigrants should be grateful for the privileges they have due to living in Luxembourg. I completely agree, but I would argue that most people are more grateful than not! Having a Luxembourgish nationality granted many the privilege to choose who they wanted to be, which Berlin-based author Olga Grjasnowa takes to be “one of the greatest privileges in life.” For example, having the Luxembourgish passport granted me a much easier access to education in contrast to my cousins who have Chinese passports. I am able to study in the United States, even during a time where the US has heightened hostility against China and its citizens. Many of my female friends of Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese descent appreciate their lives in Luxembourg, because they now live in an environment where they are no longer required to play the traditional roles designated for women by their original cultures. Most of us are getting or have already gotten a bachelor’s degree, have possibilities in leading different lives than our cousins back home, and enjoy being individuals in Luxembourgish society. We are aware of our privileges, and we cannot be more grateful for the freedom granted to us by Luxembourg. 

Having listed how immigrants are aware of their good fortune, I want to point out that your complaints of ungratefulness have nothing to do with whether immigrants feel gratitude or not, but with their “refusal to adapt to Luxembourgish society.” Certain actions of people seem to suggest to you that they are not acting in a civilized way, even though they have the good fortune of living in Luxembourg. However, I want to point out that politeness takes very different shapes across cultures. For example, the accepted volume of speech varies greatly in different cultures. While Luxembourgish people are accustomed to lower volume, Asian people and Southern Europeans live with different ways of communication. Frankly, we are louder. Unfortunately, once we are used to this way of communicating, it is very difficult for us to realize that we are doing it ‘wrong.’ To this day, I vividly remember the furious phone call one passenger had on a train my family boarded. We were trying to settle down when I overheard that passenger complain: “Nondi kass nach mol (In god’s name again), how loud do these people want to be! The train does not belong to them!” I ran to warn my parents to be more quiet, but the volume of my warning made her flinch again. I felt helpless. I wanted her to not dislike us, but I felt my wish was impossible to be fulfilled… After having seated, I told my dad what the lady said, and a deep sadness arose in his eyes. The whole family was completely silent throughout the four-hour ride.

The norms of other cultures seem out of place when they are practiced in a culture with different rules, but that does not mean that people practicing them are uncivilized. Certainly, you can argue that since they now live in Luxembourg, it is only right that they adapt the Luxembourgish practices or at least integrate into the society by learning the right manners. However, “[i]f we assume that we have to integrate someone into society, we then establish that there exists a social norm which is better than and superior to others” (Grjasnowa 135). Your demand that others learn the “Luxembourgish ways” does convey a belief that your way is the right one, while others are, to some extent, wrong.

Also, it is not as if immigrants don’t try! While immigrants are not refugees, some sentiments illustrated in the article “We Refugees” by Hannah Arendt resonate with me. She writes how some refugees exclaim “their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like” (Arendt, p.111). And I see the same sentiment being repeated among immigrants, especially the second generation. So many of my Chinese peers who grew up in Luxembourg cannot speak, read, or write a word of Chinese. They are not interested in the culture of their parents, but take up everything that is remotely “Western” voraciously. Products of Asian cultures, such as Japanese anime, are only fantastic if their fellow Luxembourgish students think that it is krass (cool) too. We try so hard to belong, to have the identity of the people whose homeland we inhabit, but in reality, we only lose the ability to make decisions for ourselves.

Another issue with “integration” is, one can do everything right, but still not truly belong due to one’s skin color. Violence based solely on another person’s skin color is a phenomenon that unfortunately exists in European societies. Grjasnowa acknowledges that “it is also a privilege to not even once know how it feels to be someone who is not read as white on the streets of Germany” (Grjasnowa 137). I think the same applies to Luxembourg. To this day, I still get pointed at on the street, and drunk young men will breathe their alcoholic breath into my face while using their fingers to skew their eyes to a slit. I have been laughed at by young girls while waiting for food at cafés, as they sang “Ching Chang Chong” cheerfully. Of course, that was not the first time I had to listen to how Chinese people don’t own any shoes, and how they have to beg to own a pair. I had heard that song so many times, despite having shoes on whenever they started singing it. You both have praised my “Luxembourgish-ness” on several occasions, but I still do not belong. At least not in the eyes of people who can only see my yellow skin and only hear me when I speak Chinese. My fellow immigrants and I, we can try our best, but even if we don’t do anything wrong, we cannot fully integrate into Luxembourgish society.

Of course, you can argue that I am biased due to my culture and heritage. When the African-American author W.E.B. Du Bois studied as an exchange student in Europe, he met people who treated him as an equal, even though he anticipated an opposite treatment due to his past experiences in the United States. He makes an interesting observation that “I had not regarded white folk as human in quite the same way that I was, I had reached the habit of expecting color prejudice so universally, that I found it even when it was not there” (Du Bois 100). This quote seems to reflect your argument of me experiencing things with prejudice when there is none. Certainly, I have had experiences where I was expecting prejudice but was met with hospitality. Each of those moments made me blush with shame, and reminded me to see beyond culture and skin color, to see the person behind actions. Yet, the notion of finding prejudice when there is none can be applied to both immigrants and natives of a culture. Immigrants expect prejudice, and natives expect discourtesy. Every superficial interaction between both sides solidifies those expectations, which hinder the establishment of a true understanding.

If you have read this far, I want to thank you for your patience and kindness. Thank you for reading and considering my stance. I hope that I have shown you that immigrants are not ungrateful nor deliberately impolite. Being an immigrant is not easy; we often get treated as symbols of our culture which people don’t hesitate to target. But adapting as quickly as possible is not a solution. After all, Luxembourgish identity is itself a mix of many different influences. 47.4% of the 632,000 who live in Luxembourg are foreigners. Could it be that you are trying to grasp onto “Luxembourgish-ness” to distinguish yourselves from “the others”? Feeling overwhelmed by many “outsiders” who are unaware of local customs can be irritating! Yet, just as you are grasping onto anything Luxembourgish when surrounded by strangers, the strangers, too, want the comfort of things and beliefs they are familiar with. Asking immigrants to integrate is equivalent to demanding that they throw away their identity, and this certainly does not solve the problem. I think a mutual understanding and an open embrace of our differences are more important and useful in bridging the gap than a blind acceptance of mainstream identity.

Yours sincerely,

Angèle

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “We Refugees.” Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, edited by Marc Robinson, Farber and Farber, 1994, pp.110-119.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. “Chapter X: Europe 1892-1894.” The Autobiography of W.E.B Du Bois, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 97-114.

Grjasnowa, Olga. “Privileges.” Trans. Allison Garcia., Transit vol.12, no. 2, 2020, pp. 135-138. The essay was originally published in: Aydemir, Fatma, and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, editors. Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum, Ullstein, 2019, pp.130-139.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies at UC Berkeley. She researches on the intersections of German-Asian cultures, particularly as they pertain to the cinematic entanglements among Germany, China, and Korea.
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