Divided by a common language

When the wall between East and West Germany fell in November 1989 I was 20 years old and had just finished high school.

I had been living on the east side of the wall and therefore this meant a huge change for me. The very country I grew up in disappeared within a matter of weeks and months, as if it was withering away due to an open window.

Newspapers disappeared, tv stations disappeared, the government disappeared, the popular music disappeared, the very way of thinking and talking just disappeared. The fabric of our society was completely changed within a year. The buildings were still there, and the people as well, but the society I grew up in was gone.

A once in a lifetime feeling.

Three months after the wall fell down, I moved to Berlin, the formerly divided city, and entered a West German university there. In the small institute I had chosen, I was probably the first East German to arrive after the wall opening.

I was very nervous, how would people perceive me, what would they say? Was West Germany as cold as I had always been told in school? Would I be excluded, ridiculed? I imagined many things before the semester began but what really happened surprised me: nobody noticed that I’m from the East.

I spoke the same language as everyone else. I looked the same. People just assumed I am West German. This was a relief but it also brought funny situations: I often didn’t understand cultural jokes, the humor was different, a lot of the books and movies that people spoke about, I had never heard about.

But, I could not speak out and just say: “Ahem, sorry, I have been living behind a curtain for the last 20 years, I have never heard about this book etc that everyone else seems to know.” I tried it once or twice and it instantly killed the ongoing conversation and everyone would concentrate on me and the fact that I came from the East. A very kind reaction but also kind of embarrassing and disrupting.

So I mostly stayed silent and tried to learn and catch up. Which made me almost feel like a spy, in a strange and funny way. I was in fact a foreigner and nobody had a clue. We all spoke the same language and yet sometimes I didn’t understand a word.

Three years later I moved to Japan for my studies and stayed there for 1 1/2 years. I was sooo relieved to be a “visible” foreigner when I arrived there. Looks, language, everything about me said that I had come from far away. And only there did I realize what had puzzled me about my initial three years in (West) Germany.

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