A couple of days ago I followed a discussion of expats on twitter about being a gringo. Because everybody in Brasil, who is not Brasilian, is a gringo. Hence, even if you look like a foreigner (or be from the city of São Paulo in a far away state) you can be a “gringo”. And what it means is this: foreigner. I am a gringo.
The discussion was, if “gringo” has also a derogatory component, and it was not a ling discussion, because everybody agreed very fast: no it does not. “Gringo” is a purely descriptive word. All my friends agree. Brazil does have a problem of racism when you see how inequally wealth and education is distributed between “white” Brazilians and “black” Brazilians, but calling someone “gringo” or being on, is not a problem. Now here comes the sad part:
There is no gringo in German(y)
Being German it is not natural for me to understand, that “gringo”, “foreigner” etc. can be used in a purely descriptive way. I grew up in a country with only few foreigners (about 8.5% of the population and many of them are Turkish who were brought into the country to work half a century ago), but for as long as I can remember, there has been a hostility towards foreigners. “They want to take our jobs” is one if the arguments, often used, “They only want our money” is another. Friends of mine have been insulted, because they are of a light brown skin color, and years ago there were no-go-areas in Berlin for people with dark skin color, because neonazis were posing a threat in these areas. Even if you go to the “Ausländeramt” (foreigner´s office) in Berlin chances are high, that you are treated badly (like we were). It is embarassing, but it is true.
But the most ashamed I was about two years ago on a trip to Brazil, travelling in this wonderfull country and being asked many, many times “where are you from”, simply because people were interested and without prejudice. In São Paulo I visited Livraria Cultura, a giant and amazing bookshop with a small section of books in foreign langauges. I was interested to see what German books they were selling, and shocked to see “Deutschland schafft sich ab” by Thilo Sarrazin, the former finance senator of Berlin and high ranking politician and business man. It’s a racist book in which he denounces mostly muslim immigrants as genetically deficient and a risk to Germany and it started a giant discussion in Germany (no, not in 1950 or something, the book was published in 2010).
There is no “neutral” way to say “foreigner” in Germany. And it is on of the valuable lessons I learned in Brazil: Yes, there is!