In 2012, I was 19 years old at that time, I left Europe for the first time to travel to the United States where a person told me I’m dumb, because I don’t know how to speak “European” and another person told me I’m prudish, because I wasn’t half naked on Halloween. I was very overwhelmed and came to the conclusion that Americans are crazy. I have to go back some time, because 4 years later I haven’t been again, but despite some American friends, I still believe that the majority of Americans is crazy. That is not a great outlook on such a populous country.
In 2013, a year later, I travelled to Japan. In Japan most people told me I’m very kawaii (cute) and everywhere were noises and colours. I adored Japan (at first) but couldn’t help to find almost all aspects of the Japanese culture strangely odd. I returned to Japan a few months later and found things to be even stranger and odder, so I left.
So here I was: A young German woman with no real idea of what to do and where to go, but very fascinated of the world and quite an Europeanist. There I was, in love with Europe, finding all other known parts of the world very strange. That is not a great position to be in. Europeans are known to be very Euro-centric, that’s how most of our history (and history of suffering in other parts of the world) was made. But, when I think about it, I didn’t live up to an unconditional love with Europe. You can’t love unconditionally when you care about politics. It’s sad, but true. So, I loved Europe, because it was home for me. Blanking out politics and crises and corruption and economies I loved that place for its variety, and its beauty and the welcoming feeling. Still, going behind that emotion and thinking through things rationally – I found Europe to be a very strange place as well. Still, Europe is home for me and I noticed that nowhere as much as when I lived in Taiwan.
So, Japan and me, that didn’t work out well, so I ended up in Taiwan. And living there, for a while really unconditionally loving living there, I won a whole new perspective on Europe. Looking from Asia, Europe looks – on a map – very colourful and also like a very wild raggle-taggle. I wrote about that new perspective in German (Über Hahnenkämpfe und den Europäischen Flickenteppich) and discussed my impression with my classmates.
Living in Asia where people would stare at me, or want to take pictures with me or make funny gestures with their hands to agree with me, or eat food in really odd textures, or work in a shopping mall only to call the lift for me, I quickly felt the need for European companionship. I honestly ended up with mostly American friends, and most of them had their roots in Taiwan, but, nevermind. I also did hang out with a bunch of Europeans. Most of them weren’t Germans though. The people who made me feel right at home were Dutch people (and I’m super excited to meet one of them tomorrow during my holidays in Groningen) and English people. So, living in Asia made me realize that people in Europe really don’t differ much between nations, that we really are connected through mindsets, cultural heritage and history. My classmates disagreed with me and I didn’t even take that discussion out of the classroom, because who would agree if not my fellow European Studies companions? “Being a European is only a geographic description.” That was pretty much the end of the debate.
I still disagree. I haven’t lived outside Europe for almost 1.5 years now (which feels like an eternity) and I also haven’t lived outside Germany in those 16 months. I haven’t even travelled much since the beginning of 2016 (even though that’s always up to perception, obviously). Still, I think Europeans are one kind of a people. And somehow I manage to get all sides against me in this discussion. Europeans think I ignore cultural differences between the peoples of Europe and global citizen think I believe Europeans are another mankind than Asians and Africans. Well, I’ll try to explain, taking the example of Germany and me.
Germany is quite a big country, for European standards. That’s because it’s a puzzle of many different regions. I was born in the very South, close to the Swiss border. There are pretty lakes, pretty mountains, really good pretzels and really good wines. There are no liquorices, kale and people don’t pronounce the “ch” properly, they say “sch”. I moved to the North when I was six years old. In the North is the sea (lucky though the one who finds water in it), no mountains and the cows are black and white instead of brown. The further you come to the Northern coast the more people seem to mingle English with their “low” German. Moving from one part to the other as a kid felt like moving through worlds and it didn’t help that I pronounced words very funnily in the ears of my new friends. I’m definitely a Northern German woman (my parents only moved south for studies) and I got rid of almost all dialect words. It’s an hour to the Netherlands for me, but 5 to Southern Germany. So, if I meet somebody from the Netherlands he or she might share more cultural habits with me than someone from Bavaria (like the liquorices, absolutely a Northern thing).
I don’t say, never said, never will, that all Europeans are the same. But I also think that the differences we observe don’t depend on nation borders. Instead they are flowing from region to region, just like the dialect in Germany – a person from the North wouldn’t understand someone from the South, but they could find interpreters in the middle.
And between all those regional differences I believe there is something that connects Europeans. And this connection is something voluntarily chosen. I think the decision to stand up allied against discrimination, against war, against violence, against nationalism and against inequality is something that could connect us Europeans. The problem is that it is difficult to find those similarities among us at the moment. But they are there. Polish people protesting against new media laws and British people taking the streets for Europe are in the end united through the same spirit and the same values. What truly unites us Europeans, or should unite us, is the fight for something better, more equal, more innovative. Chosing to step back from that is, in my eyes, a shame, an Armutszeugnis.
When living in Taiwan, I did a survey with 140 Taiwanese students in university education. I was interested in how they would depict Europe, the EU and Europeans. The results didn’t say that they perceive Europeans at being all the same. They did show though that Taiwanese students, both with experience in Europe and without, perceive Europeans and Europe as a very well connected and quite united continent. The wish was expressed that Europe would work together more closely politically in order to gain power on the international level, weighting in against the US and China. In a following debate in a classroom with International Relations students who also had a special lecture on the EU I was surprised at how much Taiwanese value the European unity and the European flexibility to combine the rich heritage of Europe within one system. This was interesting for me also because from my experience Asian cultures tend to value unity – but real unity, not the whole “united in diversity”-thing – very much. You shouldn’t stand out, shouldn’t be too different to the majority. Still, taking the example of the very well-educated young adults I talked to, it is exactly this feature of Europe which makes it so desirable and so fascinating to them: The ability to be united in diversity. It was almost heartbreaking to give my point of view on how “greatly” united we actually are.
A very interesting book from my small European library at home is John McMillans “Why Europe Matters”. It was the first book I read promoting European identity and at the same time presenting it as something really simple to get and very easy to establish written by an American. So, coming from a country where I once got asked why we Europeans wouldn’t speak the same language since it would come much handier. From an outside perspective it is much easier to throw all European countries in one bowl and mix and mingle. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want one homogenous mass. I also don’t want to go out and tell all Europeans to move their asses and develop their European spirits abroad. Still, seeing “Europe” as one system is not only a matter of foreign ignorance or of fascination or of hope, it’s really also a matter of political vision. It’s a matter of overcoming fears. It’s a matter of a future-oriented perspective. And it’s a matter of common values which need to be fought for, actively and in unity, all regions in their own way and style – but for the common good.