The ‘Good’ Foreigner

On discovering that assumptions can be wrong not only about others, but also about ourselves and our understanding of migrant cultures

Illustration by Paul Lachine

These last months I have hardly been able to recognize Vienna. With the mayoral elections coming up in the beginning of October, posters of smiling political leaders have covered street corners all over the city. The one with the broadest smile was Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who was calling for the protection of “Viennese blood” – a local expression for the essence of being truly Viennese. Very clear and very anti-foreigner. But despite the offensive propaganda, the FPÖ won 27 percent of the vote in the mayoral elections.

Being a foreigner myself in Vienna, the unprecedented success of FPÖ has troubled me deeply. In particular I have been bothered by how Strache insisted on putting immigrants and foreigners into different categories: the “good” (i.e. well-integrated Christian and German speaking immigrants), versus the “bad” immigrants (the Muslims, supposedly unwilling to learn German and integrate into Austrian society). Through these labels, he offers a simple truth, easy to grasp, easy to promote.

Strache would probably classify me as a “good” foreigner – after all I am a northern European (Swedish), non-Muslim and German-speaking working woman. However, regardless of the label stamped on my forehead, the FPÖ’s politics stand in stark contrast to my personal value system and the experiences I have acquired from living abroad in different countries. In fact, I find this man infuriating; and every time I see one of those posters, I feel the blood rising in my cheeks.  So why don’t I just dismiss the man, instead of getting so provoked by him? Why does he get so under my skin?

I began thinking about this recently during one of my German classes for foreigners that I take at Polycollege. In the class (high intermediate), a female student from China sat next to me and beside her, a man from Somalia followed by a woman from Iran, a female student from Ukraine and a younger woman from Chile. There we all were, from all corners of the world each Thursday evening in the 5th district of Vienna to improve our German.

Looking around in the room I realized how diverse this group was. Some had come to Vienna to join a loved one or in search of work and better living conditions, others had escaped conflicts or repression at home. A few had lived in Vienna for many years and raised their children here, while others were relative newcomers.

But one thing this diverse group of people had in common was a relatively advanced level of German, much better than mine. As I had entered the room the first time, I had assumed that with a Germanic language as a mother tongue and six years of school German, I would be one of the best students, and hence a “good” foreigner.

My illusions were quickly shattered. Along with my frustration at not being able to express myself and take part in the discussion, I realized how important language is for my identity as a foreigner in Austria, and how I used language to define myself in relation to other foreigners. And I started to wonder whether my blushing frustration at the FPÖ posters wasn’t because I, in my own way, also have been applying a form of labeling of other foreigners.

Back to Strache, and that 27% of the votes. The FPÖ provides a well-packaged, simplified truth about immigrants in Vienna, a truth that is just about as bleached as Strache’s teeth. Referring to groups in terms of “us” and “them” and “good” or “bad” serves to blame and shame one group, while the other, by simply being labeled “good”, is relieved of any responsibility to contribute to a well-integrated and functioning society.

Admittedly, generalizations are often difficult to escape, and we are not always aware of holding them. People think in categories, this is how we make sense of the world. In a German class with a diverse group of foreigners, I was confronted with some of my prejudices, which made me question what my identity as foreigner was based on.

There is, of course, a big difference between the very human weakness of holding assumptions about a group you are less acquainted with and being a follower of a political party aiming to promote misperceptions towards immigrants. Still, we all hold a responsibility to counter prejudice, to actively contribute to a more open and tolerant society. The more we interact with different groups in society, the more difficult it gets to bluntly lump them together.

So, I thought, maybe the way to deal with Strache and his followers is to make them sign up for a German class! Sitting in a room with immigrants from Iran to Chile, all speaking German well and sharing their stories of how they have struggled to integrate into Austrian society, would teach them one or two things about the true diversity of the Austrian immigrants.

This might be just the reality check they need, to replace their misconceptions and polished smiles with an enhanced understanding of not only their immigrated fellow countrymen, but also about themselves.

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