Overheard in a Berlin Café: When Cultures Clash

I was just starting to sip on my soy caffè latte when a young woman in her early-to-mid-20’s came and took the table next to me. I could tell straight away she wasn’t a native German—olive-tanned skin beneath a mass of curly black hair. She placed her coffee on the table, took out a hefty math textbook, some notes, and a pen, and started studying and taking down notes.

I carried on doing what I was doing (deadlines are deadlines after all!) but, like me, math girl seemed distracted. Taking out her phone every few minutes to check for messages, she seemed to be waiting for a call or a communication from someone.

A few minutes passed and I saw her on a video call to someone—my headphones were in and I was typing away, but there was a distinct voice emitting from that phone. Ten minutes later, the star of the video call walked in and took a seat opposite math girl. A tall, muscular and well-suited man, they looked like the epitome of a cute couple.

When their conversation began I knew I was right about her not being German. Speaking in a soft Arabic dialect, the pair started arguing before they’d even said hello to each other. Concerned with how little time her partner was spending with her, math girl was visibly upset with her boyfriend, but it didn’t seem to be in a superficial or self-centred way. She wanted acknowledgment from him that she too was important to him, more than the job that had suited him up, more than the gym that gave him that physique.

I began to muse at how it must feel to be caught up in a culture which doesn’t necessarily fit around the culture your family raised you in. Second generation children of immigrants often feel an identity crisis when they live in the west but have had an eastern upbringing. The couple seated beside me didn’t seem to be an exception to this. Relationships between Arab couples are traditionally conservative in nature, involving the consent of the patriarch, pre-arranged dates, and, more often than not, a marriage proposal. Meanwhile, second generation young adults living in diverse, metropolitan Berlin are living in a society which is open about dating, open about the free choices young men and women have in their lives.

This couple next to me seemed to be living that identity crisis: math girl needs commitment from him; she wants to know that she is equally as important as his job and the gym. He can’t give that to her. I won’t play judge, jury or executioner, but this guy just wasn’t willing to give this girl what she wants, instead repeating over and over that the gym was just too important and “dinner plans can wait”. There sits before him a highly intellectual woman who knows her own mind enough to ask for what she wants, but he can’t give her the answers she needs.

Coming from an immigrant family that migrated to England years ago, I know the conflicting feelings that arise from being stuck between two cultures, not knowing which one you belong to, and add to that the pressures of having personality traits which embody both cultures. You feel lost, unable to know who you truly are. The young woman next to me seems to be experiencing the same thing but in an entirely different way: the conflict in being the smart, math-solving, independent woman she is along with the need for and assurance of acknowledgement in her relationship.

Ultimately these feelings can transcend any culture anywhere. Insecurities relating to one’s identity don’t necessarily have to stem from being a second generation immigrant, though I think it’s that group in particular which can feel the most pressure. Whereas we’ve been brought up in the west, our eastern traditions can be decisive factors in how we approach relationships and other major life decisions.

I sat in the café until the couple’s conversation came to a close. While I was rooting for the strong independent female to assert herself, take a stand and declare her emancipation from this emotional turmoil, our heroine decided to leave with her knight. It might have been the sweet words, it might have been her own emotional needs, but she stood up and left hand in hand with him.

Leaving her math papers behind along with her unfinished coffee, it felt like she was leaving part of herself behind, not entirely rejecting who she is, but not entirely embracing it at the same time.

By Shoshi Khaddour
Damascus born, London raised, Berlin based. Shoshi is a journalist with a focus on a range of social and political issues. A former broadcast journalist, her interests include food fairs, films, current affairs and space.
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