OPINION: I’ll always be considered a foreigner in Germany but will my German child?

Over five years since Shelley Pascual’s essay calling for an end to the dreaded ‘where are you from?’ question, she’s begrudgingly accepted that she’ll always be considered a foreigner in Germany. But will her German child have to accept this as well?

Pictured is a newborn baby.
Pictured is a newborn baby. Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

In just a few weeks, I am due to give birth to my first child. He will be a dual citizen, given that my husband is German and I am Canadian. As it starts to sink in for me that my son will obtain German nationality upon birth, various questions come to mind.

When he gets older, will he be asked ‘where are you from?’ as I have in the 11 years I’ve called Germany home? And will be he told he speaks very good German? Or, will people automatically assume he is German, despite how he looks and the colour of his skin?

I’ve come to believe there’s a good chance he, too, will be confronted with the dreaded ‘where are you from’ question. Worse still, that he’ll have to defend his Germanness. And this makes me very, very sad.

In my op-ed for The Local in 2018, I explained why being asked this question can be exasperating. Why not, as a possible alternative, ask someone to tell you about themself? That way, the person can answer in a way that’s most comfortable and authentic for them. 

Born in Canada to Filipino parents, I describe myself as a Canadian who feels European. But when people press further (as they often do) and ask ‘where are you actually from?’ it can be downright offensive. 

In Germany, asking someone where they’re from is based on the assumption that they aren’t German. No matter how well I speak German, and even if I get German citizenship one day, I’ll always be considered a foreigner here. But I won’t accept this for my son.

Amanita Toure

Aminata Toure speaking at the Greens’ Party Day in Schleswig-Holstein in March. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

Several Afro-Germans share their stories of being made to feel like foreigners in their own country in this recent documentary about racism in Germany. Their experiences are similar to those of other Afro-Germans whom I quoted in my article from 2018. It’s astonishing that nothing has changed in this regard in all this time.

READ ALSO: What German’s really think about the country’s racism problem

A German-Kurdish friend recently told me that he’s also asked where he’s from. While Kahra isn’t as bothered by the question as I am, he points out that when he was studying in the USA, people simply accepted it when he said he was German.

This brings to mind my upbringing in Toronto. In the 22 years I lived there, I don’t recall ever having to defend my identity. Most of the kids at my elementary school were also people of colour whose parents were immigrants. Yet we all considered ourselves Canadians. 

Looking to the future, I’d like for my son to have a similar experience. In an ideal world, he’d attend a school surrounded by many other kids of colour, and no one would ask him ‘where are you from?’ Disappointingly, however, Germany’s just not there yet.

For one of my Berlin-based Filipino friends, settling in Germany’s most multicultural city was a no-brainer. “I don’t want my children to feel like a minority even if they are,” Jenny said, explaining that the kids at her daughter’s kindergarten represent all corners of the globe.

Still, I doubt the chances of my son being accepted as German will be any higher in the Hauptstadt. Rapper and Berliner, Nura, is yet another German who’s been vocal about how frustrating it is to respond to ‘where are you actually from?’

Canadian German flags

Canadian and German flags flying next to each other. Photo: picture alliance / Gregor Fischer/dpa | Gregor Fischer

It’s not that I despise living in Germany. In fact, quite the opposite. Having spent the majority of my adult life here, I’m grateful for the high quality of life it offers. From becoming sportier to adopting its direct communication style, Deutschland has changed me for the better

Overall, I do feel welcome in this country. I wouldn’t have stayed this long if I didn’t. The other day, I was caught off guard when I was mistaken for being German for the very first time. It made me think that maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s 2023. Isn’t it finally time for Germany to accept that people of all colours with diverse backgrounds can be Germans too? Maybe when there are more and more kids in Germany with mixed backgrounds, asking one another ‘where are you from?’ will naturally fall out of favour. 

But since that could be decades from now, I simply cannot wait. If Germany gets to that point, I will have already moved somewhere else in the world, and my child – I hope – will have grown up in a place where he felt acceptance and belonging.

Have you had a similar experience to Shelley in Germany? Share your own stories and views in the comments section below.

Member comments

  1. I came to Germany 26 years ago from Scotland, becoming a citizen in 2015. People pick up from my German that I am foreign, but ask if I am Irish or Dutch. When I say Scottish, they are charmed, which makes me proud to be Scottish and German. I can laugh at the cliches, e.g. do I play the bagpipes or wear a kilt? So it is almost always a positive experience being asked.

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How to find out what your colleagues earn in Germany

If you suspect your colleagues may be raking in a bit more dough than you are, you'll be pleased to know there's a way to find out for sure. Here's what to know about Germany's wage transparency law - and how to make use of it.

How to find out what your colleagues earn in Germany

Like many countries worldwide, gender pay inequity is a persistent issue in Germany. Recent analyses show that women in Germany earn 18 percent less on average than their male counterparts – the third highest pay gap in the EU. 

In 2017, Germany adopted the Wage Transparency Law (Entgelttransparenzgesetz) to try and address this problem.

The act is designed to highlight pay discrepancies between male and female employees who do equal work. In fact, it’s designed as way to get around the non-disclosure clauses in some employment contracts and the general taboo in German society when it comes to discussing salaries, both of which makes it difficult for women to know if they are being underpaid. 

Unfortunately, making use of the law in practice can prove quite complicated – but it can be done. So if you suspect your male colleagues might be taking home a bigger salary for no good reason, here’s how to find out. 

How does it all work? 

The law, which came into effect in July 2017, has two main stipulations aimed to make pay disparities more transparent and encourage companies to address them. 

First, it enables individuals working at companies with more than 200 people to know the median pay of a group of at least six employees of the opposite sex who work at the same level as you. 

Second, the law encourages companies with more than 500 employees to regularly review their pay structures and publish details on whether they are complying with equal pay rules as part of their financial reports.

READ ALSO: ‘How much do you earn?’ New law tackles gender pay gap

OK, but how do you get hold of this information? 

If you work at a company that employs 200 people, and has at least six people of the opposite sex doing comparable work to you, you can submit a written request for pay information. In this request, you have to demonstrate that the employees whose pay information you are requesting are doing equivalent work to you. This generally means they have the same overall requirements and burdens as you. A good benchmark would be if that person can stand in for you if you miss work because of illness or vacation. 

You can formulate the request on your own, or use a form provided by the government. You should submit the request through your workers’ council (Betriebsrat) unless your company doesn’t have one, in which case, you can go directly through your employer. 

Woman working on laptop at home

A woman works on a laptop at home. The first step in finding out colleagues’ pay is to file a request. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

In addition to requesting information on the median of the average full-time annual salary for your position (with the median being the halfway between the lowest and highest salaries), you can request information on up to two other salary components, such as performance-related pay and hardship allowances. Your employer is also required to tell you how they determined your own remuneration.  

Within three months the works council is expected to collect the requested information from the employer and return it to you in written form. You are only allowed to make a request once every two years, but if you team up with other colleagues, you can get access to much more info in a shorter period of time. 

READ ALSO: Women in Germany earn nearly a fifth less than men

What do I do with this information?

Depending on what you find out, there are multiple next steps. If you discover that you earn less than the median salary of your peers, this doesn’t automatically give you the right to a salary adjustment. Instead, a good first step is to take your concerns to your works council or trade union, who should then relay them to the company and pressure your employers to review their pay structure.

If you really want to ramp things up, suing for equal pay under the General Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetzes) is also an option – though this route can be precarious. If you’re in a union, you might want to consult with them for legal advice about whether your case is likely to succeed. 

This is because you would have to prove that you are being paid less because of your gender. And while the legal process can be long (a recent successful lawsuit took more than four years), you have to decide quickly if you want to pursue it: after finding out about the salary discrepancies, you have just two months to file a claim. 

READ ALSO: REVEALED: Germany’s top-paying jobs and highest-earning states

What if my company doesn’t qualify? 

A main critique of the Wage Transparency Law is that a majority of women in the country don’t qualify for it, given that around two-thirds of women work in small businesses that employ less than 200 people.

For this reason, critics have called for a reform to the law so that it applies to all companies. Some politicians have embraced this position, with Green Party leader Ricarda Lang hopeful that a change could come as early as this year.

Colleagues work together at a startup.

Colleagues work together at a startup. Small businesses are currently not covered by the law. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Zacharie Scheurer

Until that point, strategies for increasing pay transparency at smaller companies include talking openly with fellow employees about salaries and collaborating with your works council to pressure your company to reveal – and potentially review – its pay structures.

Another option is to search for information on average salaries in your field at companies similar to yours, or use websites like Glassdoor to check for salary information from your company.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: How to get an English-speaking job in Germany

Is this law actually effective? 

All in all, making use of the transparency law can be pretty daunting. Even if an employee uses the law to reveal pay discrepancies, there is no guarantee that the company will address the gap. Indeed, critics have argued that the law unfairly places the burden on employees to act on pay discrepancies, through lawsuits or other pressure tactics, rather than companies. 

Perhaps for these reasons, the law has had an underwhelming effect, as it appears that a vast majority of employees haven’t taken advantage of it since its implementation. According to an evaluation from 2019, only four percent of employees surveyed had submitted a request for information, while about 45 percent of companies with over 500 employees have reviewed their pay structures.

Germany is not unique in its rocky rollout of its pay transparency law, as a report by Eurofund found that other countries who adopted pay transparency laws in response to the European Commission’s recommendations have also faced challenges in implementation. But the report contends that with continued dedication to the issue of equal pay, and a willingness to adjust and reform laws seeking to address this issue, these measures could prove more effective with time.