Due to the initiative of a classmate, our Global Seminar was able to celebrate the 4th of July at the US Embassy’s party in Berlin.
After going through security, we were greeted by a live band, free food and drinks, and an entire field filled with people dressed in red, white, and blue. Witnessing an amazing fireworks show with people celebrating our independence was mind-blowing; we couldn’t be more proud to live in America.
Following the party, we were able to navigate the wonderful streets of Berlin using subways, trains, and buses.
We use public transportation everywhere in the city; personally I love how easy and liberating it is to hop on a train and get wherever I need to go; this night was slightly different. We were sitting at the subway stop because it was pretty late and we were pretty tired from the party and from the hot day. There were 5 minutes until the subway’s arrival.
I noticed as a man sat on the bench next to me; I didn’t acknowledge him because I was sitting next to a few of my classmates and it was not unusual to sit next to strangers. When he put his hand on my shoulder and tapped me, I couldn’t help but turn towards him; he was holding a bottle of wine in his hand and seemed happily tipsy. I was wary as he asked if I had a cigarette or any tobacco and I answered that I didn’t. He then apologized and I turned back to my classmates, double checking that I had all of my belongings.
He then began to engage in conversation with me by jumping up and asking “Vietnam?” whilst pointing at me. As I turned back towards him, he went on to grab my wrist and pull me up (not aggressively but enough to make me stand). He then laughed and said “no you not Vietnam” gesturing with his hand at his shoulder height, motioning that height was a way to distinguish race. I shouldn’t have, but I was shocked and immediately laughed. I was very wary of his actions especially when he grabbed me, but his shocking racial joke completely caught me off guard.
He then asked me where I was from. My answer was obvious; I am from America. He paused and then vigorously denied my belonging to the US. At that point he grabbed his almost empty bottle of wine and thrust it at me, asking if I wanted a drink. I politely declined and turned back to my friends, but he again interrupted.
This time he wanted to see why I did not drink. The language barrier made it difficult to communicate with him, but he eventually decided that I never drink. He then asked about marijuana and also gestured toward his veins on his arm. At that moment, we were all pretty shocked because we couldn’t tell if he was asking if i smoked weed or did other drugs, if he was offering me drugs, if he wanted me to go get/take some with him, or some other situation. I said no again, and my friends and I leaned away trying to ignore him and not aggravate the situation.
My friends were concerned, asking if I was okay and if I wanted to walk away, but I was fine. Walking away could be misconstrued and this was a very delicate circumstance because he was drunk and we couldn’t understand him. I changed my mind when he started to stroke my hair.
At that point, I finally gave up and we stood for the remaining time. The entire exchange took 4 minutes, as a minute later, our train arrived and we made sure to get into a different car.
Returning safely to our apartments, my classmates expressed their own emotions regarding the situation, and anger was a prevailing one. I had only expressed amusement, caution, and shock during the situation. Despite never facing conditions as bad as this, even in New Jersey or other states, I often get questions such as “Where are you REALLY from?” after answering that I am from Washington State. My perception of Berlin has not changed at all; I love the city and everything I learn from being here but I also am more aware of problems that arise from traveling.
I am proud to have been born and raised in the US, but even in the US, I was forced to gradually condition myself to handle situations like this. I had finished celebrating the United States’ Independence just a few hours earlier, but I was forced to ask myself what does it really mean to be American, especially as an asian-american studying in Europe.