Sunset Combs

Silent


     On the streets of Vienna and Berlin, I am white enough and silent enough to be German. Occasionally, my American posture gives me away, the slight hip-jut while waiting in line. Often, with my jagged pronunciation of German words, my cover is blown, and my Germanness evaporates, fallen rain. But if I remain calm, not babbling and searching for the right sentence structure, if I reduce my vocabulary to please and thank you and the name of the dish I want at a restaurant, I can fool the real Germans. And there’s a twinge of excitement, of pride, having tricked them into believing that I am one of them. Walking down sidewalks formed by carefully placed stones, with a vague sense of how to navigate the part of the city I inhabit, I disappear into the crowd, one of the many. Not a tourist, not a visitor. I am aware of my separation from the people around me, from the barriers titled both cultural and language. I will never feel as though I belong. But I am also aware of my ability to slip in and out of the masses like a fish in the flowing current. 


***

     At a family dinner my father announces that I get to study abroad. If he had not taken it upon himself to tell everyone, I wouldn’t have said anything so publicly. I would have told a select few, privately, and let them pass it on. “Austria and Germany,” he says with a sense of pride, and sense of regret for allowing me to grow up and leave him. My aunt’s ex-husband, my cousins’ father, the white military man with the thick brow and thick arms, who never shows his sons affection, scoffs. “Better watch out for all those Muslims,” he says. “Germany’s lettin’ ‘em in like crazy. It’s dangerous over there.” I bite my roll angrily, muttering, “Racist,” under my breath. No one says anything. A couple people nod along, perhaps in genuine agreement or perhaps just in response to the tenseness in the kitchen. I don’t ask. When the night is done and my father and I pile into the car with full bellies, I am still hot with anger and embarrassment. 
     “Now I’m even more worried,” my dad says.
     “That’s ridiculous,” I tell him, always late to break my shy silence, and only doing so because the bubbling inside me needs somewhere to spill. “Anyone can be dangerous, not just a single group of people. He’s racist. I could get shot here by a white person. That’s so much more likely. That’s ridiculous,” I say again and again. 
     “Yeah,” my father murmurs, knowing the truth when he hears it but worrying still. 


***

     In the German Language School cafeteria there’s a white girl from my school group who talks loudly about her troubles over breakfast. “My mom is such a freak,” this girl says. “She eats salads for every meal--without any dressing.” She goes on to lament the years of her childhood where her parents confiscated her Halloween candy, only giving her one piece a day. She is thin and pretty and without college debt, although she is Mrs. Relatability, talking up all the crucial college talk-points: too poor, eating unhealthy, binge watching TV shows, drinking too much coffee. She tells the group a story, always projecting long tales about her own life over meals. She tells a story about her family, who is so poor they can only afford enough solar panels to heat their pool. My boyfriend and I have a running joke about this girl, where we complain in high-pitched voices about things that don’t warrant complaining. “Oh my god!” one of us will say. “Don’t you hate it when your butler breaks his legs, so he can’t carry you to work and you have to walk?”
     We do it in a way that means we’re better than her, though we never say those words explicitly. We were the two in the group who applied for scholarships to afford plane tickets. We were the two who had never been out of the country, never flown on a plane. We were two people who had broken families, his father out of the picture, my mother dead. We were the ones with worse horror stories than your parents taking away your Halloween candy and we didn’t know what to do with that exactly. So while this girl told her long-winded tales, my boyfriend and I made fun of her behind her back, and we wrote down our own long-winded stories in silence, onto a page, always keeping them to ourselves. 


***

     On the streets, people approach us with open hands and month-old newspapers, asking for money in German. These people are never German--not really--because they were not born here. But these people are also not German because they are never white. They ask for money in a language that is not their own and even though their pronunciation is so superior to mine, they are seen as less German than I appear. They assume I speak German and I reply to them as though I do. These people occupy all subway stations--the steps leading underground, the long hallways taking you to your next train. They occupy storefronts, streets and restaurant patios. Some of them without newspapers to sell. Some of them with roses or toys instead, or some with a sign reading ‘I am Hungry’ or some with nothing at all. 
     A man asks me for a Euro while my boyfriend and I eat blood sausages, slick on our tongues. I place the money in his dry palm and he clasps it, saying, “God bless you.” Another man, after receiving money, grasps my boyfriends hand and kisses it sloppily. 
     To them, I think, I am German, no matter my hip-jut or my poor pronunciation. Or maybe to them, I think, it doesn’t matter what I am, German or American or whatever. Maybe, to them, it only matters that I am so opposite of them, that I can so easily blend into a city they have been rejected from. 


***

     In the background of the abroad group, quiet and unimposing, is a girl with brown skin, shiny brown eyes, fluffy brown hair, a face shaped like a cut-out heart. She is always occupying the corners of our vision, never at the forefront. She is petit and kind and not very good at German, though she already speaks four or five other languages. This girl hardly speaks when we’re with the group. She is polite and answers what you ask her, but she never offers anything more. While the one girl spews personal details like spittle, this girl folds her hands in her lap and eats without making a noise, table manners to impress a Queen.
     One day in class, while discussing home and adjusting to a foreign world, the professor asks this quiet girl to speak. She says that she got to visit her family in Afghanistan over the summer for the first time in a long time. “It was so hard,” she whispers, “to see how they have to live there.” She stops up her mouth with her cupped hand and her words leak from her eyes instead. She leaves the room and returns only when her tears have stopped streaming. The professor does not ask her to speak again. 


***

     While making my rounds of goodbyes before flying out of the country for the first time, I stop in to see my grandmother. Her son, bipolar, unmedicated and hooked on Jesus Christ and Donald Trump speaks nonstop, filling the small kitchen with his thin, flailing arms and prayer. He used to make me memorize psalms when I was young and recite them in the next room, sitting on the floor into the late hours of the night until I got it right. My grandmother speaks over him, knowing he is drunk and not wanting to spoil the visit. “Nice weather today,” she shouts. “Not too hot.” I nod and play with her cat, eyes never glancing up in fear of meeting his fiery, Passion of the Christ gaze. 
     “Lord, Jesus,” my uncle shouts, “be with her on her travels. Don’t let any Muslims get her.”
     “That cat keeps attacking my feet,” my grandmother yells over him.
     “Austria is good with their immigration laws. They don’t let anyone in. Thank God you’re not going to Germany!” He shouts. I nod and do not correct him. I am thankful, although not to a god, that he has received the wrong information and hopeful that no one will clue him in. 
     My grandmother, my father, my boyfriend, and I make more muffled small talk over my uncle’s ranting and eventually, after what could only be a fifteen minute visit, I say we should probably get going. My uncle hands me a jar full of sand with stuffed animal lizards glued to the jar and a pencil holder to wish me well. “I love you,” he says. “Be careful over there. The Lord will be with you.” 


***

     At the top of the stairs leading down to the subway I take to get to the University of Vienna everyday a woman stands, skin dark and smooth, braids long and piled on her head like a crown. She is glowing and always smiling, selling old newspapers that look to me like some kind of tabloid about daily life in Austria. She sings loud, beautiful songs that are not in the language I know or the language I am learning. I see her everyday, smiling broadly, a space between her two front pearly teeth. She is always smiling. And when I smile to her in return, I always try to force this feeling into my eyes, to communicate to her without words that I appreciate her songs I don’t understand, that I appreciate her smile, and that I wish her well. She gives me a nod of greeting and I pretend this is her acknowledgment of my affection for her, of my apology that I am here, crisp Euros placed in my hand every week so that I can go sightseeing, only to return to my home when my time here is done.


***

     One morning my boyfriend and I wake up too late to make it to breakfast with the rest of the group. We walk to the cafeteria to see that the quiet girl, the quiet girl who is not me, is sitting by herself. And when it is only me and my boyfriend and her, she speaks. She offers. Perhaps having recognized the silence within us as well, she tells us about growing up in Afghanistan. Rebels killing innocent people, blowing up buildings and pillaging, American soldiers patrolling the streets. She tells us how hard it was for her to go home and see that it was still happening, that it had been happening her entire life, and that it might never stop. She comes from a Muslim society where the rebels believe that women should not leave their house or gain an education, where neighbors from down the road were chased from their home. In high school she left her family behind and came to the US, to Catholic school, shedding her Muslim God for a Christian one and not believing in either. We try to get her to trash Catholic school but she is too kind to speak hurtful words. “I liked the prayers,” is all she says, even though she doesn’t believe in them. I nibble on my croissant while my boyfriend asks her personal questions I would be too anxious to ask, although questions I am eager to hear the answers to. This is when I regret being raised to be the passive little girl, where being polite meant being shy and unquestioning.
     “What place feels most like home to you?” he asks her. She thinks hard about his question and answers it truthfully. 
     “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t have many memories of being a child in Afghanistan. We had to leave when I was young and live in Pakistan, when the conflict escalated, but I don’t think of that as home either. Everyone hated us. I remember the kids at school asking me when I was going to leave their country and go back to my own.” She pauses. “I guess wherever my family is, or maybe the US, but I’ve never really fit in there either.” She gets worked up, emotional. She is full of more life and more feeling than I have ever seen her now, when she’s talking about her country’s conflict. About her family’s fear. About her own sadness and uncertainty. 
     “I am saying all of this to you while you’re trying to eat breakfast,” she says, shaking her head at herself and apologizing for her conversation topic of choice. “No, it’s alright,” we tell her, soaking up her problems that were silenced before, feeling grateful that she chose us to hear her story while at the same time, carrying a stomach full of stones and pity in our throats. 
     When the three of us reenter the entire group, she is silent once again.


***

     In class we have readings about the other. The professor says these are things we need to be thinking about in a foreign country. He says that by being here, by saying I am American, “Ich bin Amerikanerin,” we’re saying someone else isn’t. By representing ourselves we are excluding others. To represent ourselves we must be opposed. Meaning cannot exist without difference. 
     I never speak in class, but I write in my journal about how I other myself, excluding myself from conversations and saying that I am unlike everyone I meet. I am not like this girl and her healthy parents with her heated pool and her trips to Hawaii. I am not like this girl with her knowledge of war and loving a family so deeply yet leaving them because you know you have to, so that one day you can return and save them. I write about the pride I hold in the bad things that have happened to me. My sadness and pain gives me experience and scarred, torn edges that make it hard for me to appear to people as smooth, as a fitting piece. I try to embrace this by excluding myself from group outings and conversations, to make myself believe I don’t belong and have no desire to. But with each day outside of my own country, I begin to realize that I don’t truly know the meaning of the term other. Because I am an American. And because I am white enough and silent enough to be German. My edges are not the most torn on these city streets.


***

     In Germany, in front of the grocery store we frequent, a man stands by the spot where people leave their dogs when they shop. He stands there from morning to night, holding a clear plastic cup with a small pile of change nestled in the bottom. One day he has a dog with him, one day he is not there. But every other day he is. My boyfriend gives him the change from the cashier sometimes and I always make sure to make eye contact and say hello because I read a Humans of New York post one time where a homeless man said that the worst part was that no one would look him in the eye, that he didn’t feel like a person, and that’s absolutely the only idea I have of what a person asking for money is thinking. And I don’t know what else to do but hope that my gaze means something. But there are time when it is beyond my control, when someone sitting on the street sees my gaze look down at them, my backpack full of groceries, my apartment right down the street, a doorman waiting to buzz me in. 


***

     When we take our oral German placement tests for our second German school with new teachers, the loud girl and I get asked the same questions. “What do you do in your free time?” and “What do you want to do after college?” Things like that. The quiet girl, on the other hand, with brown skin, gets asked where she’s from, and she answers, “Afghanistan,” in English because we were never taught how to say it in German. And the teacher giving her the exam asks her about the bombs there, taking his thick white fists and dropping them on the table in front of her, his mouth mimicking the sound of a hot explosion. 
     “What? Are you serious?” I say when she relays the contents of her oral test. 
     And this girl, this soft, kind girl doesn’t even get angry with him. She says, “I just told him, we don’t get many bombs in my city anymore,” shrugging her shoulders that are shaking in laughter. 
     I realize over time that even though I don’t have a pool and I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’m not thin and pretty that I have more in common with the loud girl of the group. We walk through the streets with an ease unknown to some. We went to similar schools, got similar treatment, grew up in Midwestern towns, ate the same food and watched the same shows when we were young. We ask the quiet girl what shows she could watch in Afghanistan, doing that ‘90s kid thing where we get really into talking cartoons. We list show after show and she shakes her head. Back then, she did not yet know English and didn’t have access to all these shows. The only cartoon she knows of ours is Tom & Jerry because it was silent and you didn’t need to speak a language to understand that Tom hates Jerry and Jerry is outsmarting him. And I think about this girl with her portioned candy and her oversharing, who I do not necessarily want to be similar to. And I don’t know what to do with our similarity, with not being able to completely other myself. Because I have the privilege of othering myself, instead of being othered by an entire race, an entire country. 


***

     When I return home to my small town, so much smaller than the cities of Vienna and Berlin, to my small family and my small existence, my family greets me with hard, relieved hugs. They tell me they are so glad I am home and in one piece. My grandmother’s son hugs me and the first thing he says is, “Boy, I sure am glad you weren’t raped and killed by a Muslim.” And I have so many things to say to him, to everyone, about these things they have all wrong, but I can’t. 
     “Nothing bad happened. No one did anything to me,” I tell him. “I was never in any danger.” 
     That’s all I can say, perhaps not silent, but quiet still. I cannot tell him about the friend I have made, the kind girl with her small voice and big heart. I can’t tell him because he will twist it and turn it and never believe it to be true, because he is self-medicating and confused. And because I am afraid. I didn’t have to speak up, I just had to be white enough and silent enough to be German. 
     Later, weeks after I returned home, my uncle will be going on another rant, fueled by alcohol and racism. He will curse at my grandmother and shout, “God votes Trump!” And my heart will pound so hard in my chest, begging myself to say something--something. It will beat the hardest its ever beaten with unspoken words. 
     Eventually, I will tell him, “I don’t think Jesus would say those things,” because I am trying to speak in words he will understand, something I’ve grown more accustomed to. He will stop, looking at me and trying not to waiver on drunken limbs.
     “Wow,” my uncle will say. “You really called me out. That was brave.” 
     Yeah, sure, I will think, casting my eyes down and blinking back tears, cheeks warm and ears warmer. But it will only be then that my heart will start to slow. 
 

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