PhD, a surprisingly great time for personal growth, Part 2

2) Adapting to cultural differences

 Life as a North American

I immigrated with my mom to Canada from China when I was 11, integrated smoothly and quickly felt Canadian. To be honest, I didn’t expect to have experience a greater cultural difference between Canada and Germany. Some Canadian/American habits like making small talk and asking “how are you” may make people uncomfortable. This is okay; this is just a cultural difference. What is polite and acceptable is not universal, but cultural. There is a much more direct and honest style of communication here compared to Canada. I highly recommend learning basic German to live comfortably in Dresden. Fitting into the local communities can be challenging if you do not speak German. What works great in Dresden is finding community outside of work based on your hobbies, like sports, music, and theatre. This helps so much for the sense of belonging.

Life in Europe and Germany specifically is much less materialistic. Use of credit cards, having a mortgage and student loans is much rarer. Quality of life is higher due to the greenness of the cities, close proximity to national parks. There is a general attitude in slower pace in enjoying a simpler life. With a longer history compared to the Americas, Germany has very rich and accessible cultural and art experiences. As a historically significant Baroque city, Dresden specifically has many museums, opera, ballet, and symphonies. On the other side of the spectrum, independent movie theatres, short film festivals and techno parties are all new experiences to try, and maybe embrace. I learned to embrace cultural differences and became more open to new experiences after moving to Germany. Incorporating the aspect I like about the German lifestyle into my life has helped me tremendously in adapting to a new environment, and truly being happy and feeling at home in a new city, this will be true for wherever I may move to next.

Living with racial stereotype

It would be dismissive if I share my experience moving to Germany without talking about living with casual and overt racism, which I have never experienced prior to my move. This may be more specific to Dresden as almost all of my experiences confronting racial stereotype has happened in Dresden. Luckily, I have never been physically attacked, however this is happened to others in the international community. On a regular basis in professional and non-professional situations, people assume my nationality based on my race, and throw wild guesses. I am very proud of my Chinese heritage but feel that Canada is my home. When I answer that I’m Canadian, the follow up is immediately where I’m really from. This makes me feel that my identity is being questioned, and I believe that if I were Caucasian, I would not be asked the follow-up question. Further, I get asked if Victoria is a fake name, and one time I was asked if I was “Eskimo”.

I am still learning to respond in these situations and explain how I feel, and I understand these questions come from a lack of information, and awareness that people can be from any country independently of how they look. Hopefully I can help people understand that Canada has always had massive amounts of immigration, and that to doubt someone’s identity based on appearance can be hurtful. A more difficult scenario is encountering overt racial stereotypes comments in public spaces. In these situations, I am learning to identify if my safety or my dignity is at stake. If the latter, I will speak up even if it has to be in English, so that the person can understand and stop, and hopefully one else will be affected by this particular person.  I completely did not expect these encounters and wishes I knew what I was getting into. I learned that as a racial minority, my ethnicity will always be an important aspect of my interactions, but I hope that I can increase the understanding that in this age of globalization, humans can have multinational identities.

Overt xenophobia

Racism has complex roots. I am not the most knowledgeable to discuss the entire history of xenophobia in Dresden, but would like to share what I know and have witnessed. Dresden has not seen much of foreigners until the recent 10 years, and one of the first major groups of foreigners come from the conflicts in the middle east. As a result, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (Pegida) an anti-refugee/immigration political movement, was founded in Dresden in 2014, and still has weekly marches in the city centre (ironically, I had to take tram ride the march to attend my German class on Mondays). This event should be completely avoided by foreigners who are not white. Recently on May 1st 2019, there was a march where neo-nazi also participated in. These events are endlessly shocking for me, and reflect on the larger nationalistic movements in Germany, Europe and many other parts of the world.

Globalization leaves a large group of under-privileged people behind economically, and foreigners are easy targets to blame. I believe that happy people cannot be hateful. As an ignorant North American, I came to learn that xenophobia in this region is a direct effect of the result of WWII, the East/West divide, and the refugee crises, therefore has no simple solution. As a foreigner, I still don’t know how to affect change or if I can affect change. Living in Dresden, you can completely bypass these overtly xenophobic occasions and immerse in a fantastic international bubble. I can hope for now that as more international scholars move in the city, and change the demographic landscape. With these changes, I can only hope that people can scale up the sense of belonging as a human of a single nationality to a human of earth.

Overall working on my PhD in the Grill lab has given me of my best scientific experiences, and I’m deeply grateful for scientific training in Dresden. Beyond this, my time in Dresden, Germany has been so special, because it was an opportunity to become more open, stronger and understanding. This is the personal growth that could make one feel belong and happy anywhere in the world.