When 'Foreigner' Actually Means 'Native' In Berlin

Michael Songuer i i

Michael Songuer, a second-generation Turk, teaches at his dance school in Berlin Kreuzberg. Khue Pham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khue Pham for NPR
Michael Songuer

Michael Songuer, a second-generation Turk, teaches at his dance school in Berlin Kreuzberg.

Khue Pham for NPR
Susy Mondry

Susy Mondry is part Korean and part German and thinks it's great to be different. "I think I can pass as everything," she says. "It's fun." Khue Pham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khue Pham for NPR

I have a Vietnamese name and a German passport. When I was born in Berlin 25 years ago, the wall was still dividing East and West, and the city wasn't very multicultural. At the birth clinic, my mother was the only person who wasn't German.

In today's Berlin, Turkish Doner Kebab shops compete on every corner with Chinese restaurants and Arabic Shisha cafes. These days, the city celebrates its estimated 860,000 immigrants once a year at a big carnival.

A local radio station covers news and entertainment in 21 different languages, including Russian, Farsi and Turkish.

But being an immigrant means you're not equal to the Germans. It annoys me that most Germans think of me as an auslaender, a foreigner, even though I have German citizenship and speak the language perfectly.

Take that term — immigrant. Even though I was born here, Germans call me an immigrant. And worst of all, so do I!

Michael Songuer, a second-generation Turk, says he is always having to prove to the Germans that he is not a criminal.

"They think of me as a typical Turkish youngster who tries to be a gangster," says Songuer, 30. "They don't know that I finished my university and stuff, and that I'm a grown man, and now I'm a business man."

Songuer runs a dance school in Berlin Kreuzberg, an area more popular with immigrants than with Germans. Young Turks and Arabs who grow up here call themselves ghetto kids.

Songuer is showing a class of Turkish and German youngsters a new hip-hop choreography. His students wear baggy clothes and cool expressions on their faces. As they try to copy his jumps and turns, he shouts at them for not trying hard enough.

'The New Germans'

The journalist Henryk Broder calls ambitious immigrants like Songuer "the new Germans." He says they are driven by the desire to catch up with the mainstream.

Broder, who was born in Poland, is one of Germany's best known journalists. But even he feels he will never be a real German.

"What's between me and them is that I'm never satisfied with what I have achieved. ... The real and native German may be as mediocre as he is, [and] he's complacent because he can hide in the big army of the majority," Broder says.

Student Susy Mondry, 25, just thinks it's fun to be different. She has inherited her German father's straight nose and her Korean mother's dark brown hair.

"I was singing in a salsa band, and I was thinking: 'Well, that's pretty good' because I could pretend I was from Brazil or whatever," Mondry says.

But sometimes the rules of the game get twisted. Mondry is currently looking for an apartment to share with other students. She saw an ad on the Internet, but was taken aback when she realized the guy offering the flat wasn't German.

"I was kind of disappointed when I heard his voice because of his accent," Mondry says. "I imagined just the two of us in his house and I thought maybe it's not a good idea to live with him. I was scared after, because I was scared about myself."

She looks at me, a fellow immigrant, trying to understand what it means to be a Berliner, a new German, an Auslaender.

Germany's capital has been transformed into a city of immigrants, but Berliners are only slowly adapting to the change.