San Diego kicked off its first German Film Festival last month. It seemed to be a long time coming considering that there are an estimated 100,000 Germans living in the San Diego metro area and Orange County.
The festival opened with the screening of “Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland,” a movie written by two Turkish German sisters, Yasemin and Nesrin Şamdereli, about a Turkish immigrant family’s literal and figurative trip back to Turkey. The family immigrated during the big Gastarbeiter movement in the 60s when the patriarch left his hometown in a village near Anatolia to earn big money working in a factory which he sent back to his family. Initially unplanned, the whole family, made up of three children and later four, eventually moved to their new home in Berlin.
The immigrant journey is narrated by the oldest grandchild, Canan who is a female student at university struggling to come to terms with a newly discovered life-changing event as she tells her younger schoolboy cousin, Cenk who is struggling with being teased for not being either Turkish or German at school. Canan recounts how their grandfather left Turkey and entered Germany as the millionth and first guestworker to the family’s integration as a Turkish German family.
The writers took a comical approach on the initial and eventual reverse culture shock. The looks of shock, disgust and bewilderment of the children and wife as they stand looking down at a western style toilet for the first time to the horror and disgust at seeing their old style, squat toilet again for the first time since the family’s move were light-hearted illustrations of the bumps in the immigrant experience. Another amusing image was of the whole family of six packed into their German car driving all the way from Germany to Turkey in order to preserve their ties with the old country. The idea of regular visits back home was immediately terminated when the family soon discovered that the friends and family they left behind expected more hand outs from their newly “rich” German friends.
Seeing the movie came close on the heels of my getting to know a Turkish family here in San Diego who had recently moved here from Germany. We exchanged stories of our own dismay and frustration with general German prejudices of Turks. My new friend, as an academic from Istanbul, was salmon swimming upstream as she constantly faced stereotypes for “not looking Turkish,” was questioned for not wearing a headscarf and for being educated. She was even asked on several occasions if she had been beaten by her parents. The German perception of Turks has been painted in broad brushstrokes by the Turks of Gastarbeiter times who came as low-skilled labor from Anatolia and were more traditional Muslim. Sadly, negative stereotypes of Turks and their culture are compounded with reports in the media of daughters being beaten and killed by family members and of an ongoing integration problem.
The movie takes on many of these stereotypes in a lighthearted manner and had some “Hallmark” moments, i.e. harmonious, communicative and functional familial moments. Even if I wasn’t the child of immigrants, I’d be skeptical of a multi-generational family vacation in a van through backroads and an upset tummy. But, given the frequent dark portrayal of Germany’s perceived “Turkish problem,” the amusing and humanistic touch was warranted and welcomed.