Hello and welcome to the 35th issue of Place! In this week’s dispatch we meet at an old wooden house in Hamburg, Germany. Inside, two of its inhabitants, Wentao and Tomris share overlapping identities, but very different lived experiences. Brought together by Germany’s first lockdown, the two begin to converse, and as they grow closer, start to unravel deeply winded threads of judgement, homelands, and what it means to truly be free – in society, and, to yourself.
At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world. Do you have a letter to share? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in writing for Place you can find our inaugural pitch guide here. If you’re the social type, follow us on Twitter (@place_letter) where you can share your favourite pieces and Instagram (@placenewsletter) for a visual feast. Yours, The Place editorial team.
Whenever I returned home from work or studies in the winter of 2019, Tomris was either sitting or lying on the couch in the common room right next to my door, holding a glass of wine or champagne. It was such a frequent occurrence, I almost wondered if she was an alcoholic. In the beginning, I would politely chit chat with her, about our lives, stress from studies, and trifles at work. But the duration of our talks got shorter and shorter. I kind of got annoyed by her constant presence in the public space, and in particular, the fact that I had ended up with such a needy roommate.
Tomris moved into the vacant room in my Hamburg home earlier that year, a big wooden house on a canal I share with several German and international housemates. She looked like any other Asian woman I knew, though with conspicuously short black hair. She moved to Hamburg from Berlin for an internship, was 21 years old, and was from Kazakhstan, a country that I knew little about, except that it is a northwest neighbour to China, the country where I am from. I didn’t know the language they speak, the religions they practice, or what the people there look like. Though despite the mysteriousness of her origins, Tomris seemed just like any other immigrant I knew in Hamburg at the time -- someone looking for something different.
I must admit that I didn’t plan on trying to get to know her better; neither did I intend to understand why she would consume so much alcohol at such a high frequency. Until one day, a common friend mentioned that she was gay, something that I hadn’t guessed before.
“I thought I was very obviously gay. Look at my hair!” she laughed when I mentioned it later. From that moment on, I felt something shift between us – we shared the identity of being not only Asian, but also LGBT. I felt drawn to her, and had so many questions to ask her. Why didn’t she have friends or go on dates? Was there a correlation between her sexual identity and her peculiar drinking habits? Had she come out to her family and friends? My piqued curiosity and lockdown restrictions in Germany came at the same time, and Tomris and I began to talk.
Tomris is one of many migrants in Germany who identify as LGBT. As the largest economy in Europe and a country where same-sex marriage is legal, Germany has attracted many LGBT migrants who are in pursuit of the freedom to love who they choose, as well as a better life. But moving to a place completely different from where one has grown up is often concomitant with challenges: learning a new language, finding a job, making friends, and navigating cultural differences and German bureaucracy, not to mention instances of racism, xenophobia, and homesickness.
This is easier for some than others. I felt that my own sexuality was liberated after I moved to Europe three years ago – my LGBT identity is not something that bothers me or something I am uncertain about. Compared to Tomris’ cultural background, mine is less overtly homophobic, as China is slightly more accepting to LGBT communities than Kazakhstan. It’s been easy for me to make friends in Hamburg, but I also enjoy being alone (the luxury of personal space that Germans hold dear is something that is scarce in my home country).
Tomris’ journey however has proved very different than mine, and is in fact two-fold: unlearning the bias that she’s held against herself for being gay, while learning about how to accept the place that accepts her.
Tomris speaks fluent German and English, in addition to her mother tongues Russian and Kazakh. I thought that being quadrilingual would make it effortless for her to find friends in Germany. But in reality, it’s not so easy. Tomris told me that after two years of living in the country, she had not made any new friends aside from her flatmates, not even the students who she studied with.
Before moving into our house, she had never stepped out of her Russian-speaking social circle. In Berlin, she had lived with her best friend from Kazakhstan and only hung out with Russian speakers. She told me she had felt a bit lost after moving into our house, which was full of not only Germans but other internationals of various cultural backgrounds. “I didn’t know how to communicate with you,” she said. “If I see someone, should I always say ‘how are you’?”
Moving into our house was, in some ways, Tomris’ first true culture shock since moving to Europe. When she first moved in, we happened to host some big parties, where we drank and danced through the night. This made Tomris assume that drinking was the main medium of communication in our house – when she had been sitting on the couch with a glass of wine or champagne she was attempting to send the signal that she wanted to be friends, that she too could participate in our wild shenanigans. When she didn’t get the response she thought she would from us, she had become distraught. “I was crying in the night and wanted to move out,” she confided to me.
Aside from the stress of making friends, Tomris’ expectations of embracing her sexual identity in Germany have also been difficult to achieve. Tomris comes from a Muslim family and a country that is not particularly known for being LGBT friendly. Authorities in Kazakhstan have largely failed to provide adequate protection for those who experience homophobic acts, and anti-gay rhetoric is not rare in the country’s parliament. In 2015, Kazakhstan’s senate passed a draft law aimed at protecting children from harmful information; one provision specifically indicated the prohibition of “propagandizing nontraditional sexual orientation” among children, though the bill was later rejected by the country’s Constitutional Council due to “vague wording”. For these reasons, Tomris was forced to, in many ways, suppress who she really was throughout her life. Although ready to begin opening up this side of her identity when she moved to Berlin, the people she was around were stifling – many of her Russian friends still made homophobic jokes.
She was shocked when she noticed another girl checking her out, for example, something that never happened to her back home. “In Kazakhstan, it is an absolute no-go for girls to flirt with each other, you would feel ashamed,” she told me. She has seen girls kissing at parties in Hamburg, but still feels that it's difficult to do so herself. Is she interested in me? Will I get rejected? Will she make fun of me? These concerns always linger in her head, and they still affect her dating life today.
“My body is in Germany, but my mind is still in Kazakhstan,” she said.
Being surrounded with friends in Berlin from the same culture wasn’t the only thing that made Tomris unimpressed with the new life in Europe. She had expected Berlin to be an old European city with traditional architecture that one would see from European travel books. “But Berlin looks so similar to the East, and to Kazakhstan.” The wide span of Stalinist buildings and the remaining communist vestiges in the German capital did not give her the elation she had anticipated. For many, an important magnetism about moving to another place is the ubiquity of difference.
Now living in Hamburg, she loves to amble through old neighbourhoods or take a train to the Hafencity district and watch ships arriving and departing from the city’s famous harbour. Compared to Berlin, Hamburg is smaller and much more relaxed. The Elbe River runs across Hamburg, and there are numerous canals flowing through the city. We can paddle to the city centre’s beautiful Alster lake by boat from the canal just outside our house. Hamburg looks like the Europe that Tomris had looked forward to, and has begun to give her the freedom of identity she envisioned while back in Kazakhstan.
It was also in Hamburg that she began using dating apps to connect with girls, if anything pushed by the monotony of lockdown. Chatting online proved easier than approaching strangers at parties and bars. Once the first lockdown in Hamburg eased, she was then able to meet face to face.
“I didn’t know anyone in Hamburg, so I could be whoever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do,” she said.
She gained confidence as she received more compliments from girls, something that she never got back home. She had never found herself good-looking, as the beauty standards in Kazakhstan are biased toward European features. “I am never sure if I look pretty. Sometimes I even wonder who would like this Asian girl? I would never date her if I were white.” On the other hand, she sometimes feels that some people are interested in her because she is different, or in her words, a “rare Pokemon”. For both dating and finding a job, “it is just interesting to some people [to meet a] Russian-speaking and Asian-looking Muslim.” Sometimes, she thinks that girls are interested in her merely because of her ethnicity. “To them, I look Asian, but not Asian in a stereotypical way. And I am Muslim, but not Muslim in a stereotypical way.”
In general, Tomris likes Germany, a country where she feels safe walking alone at night, something that she doesn’t feel safe doing in her homeland. She also feels that she is being well taken care of by the government, and is particularly fond of the country’s social security system that provides her with free education and health care.
One day, sitting on the carpet next to the window of the living room, I asked Tomris, “Do you see yourself living in Germany in the future?”
“No,” she replied, not hesitating at all. “I want to move to southern Europe, the warmer Europe, such as Spain, Italy or Greece.” Tomris believes that people in these places will be more convivial and gregarious than those she meets in Germany. She misses the warmheartedness in Kazakhstan. “In Germany, if I need urgent help, I can’t just call a friend in the middle of the night, for example, to pick me up or lend me money,” she said. In Kazakhstan it is common for friends to do so. “Even strangers who just meet in a bar would gladly throw their wallets at someone who needs money - and they can become lifetime friends.”
While it might be easy and swift to move to a foreign place physically, it takes a lot of time and effort to accommodate oneself to the new surroundings to feel comfortable and at ease. Human beings are always migrating - for food, for resources, for security, for love, for freedom. We tend to be replete with beautiful expectations for the place that we yearn for.
Certainly, Tomris has not found the best place for her yet, and she might be faced with other kinds of struggles and hindrances in the “warm Europe” that she dreams of. Perhaps a perfect place has never existed and one can never feel completely satisfied with the place one resides in. But that is probably why moving to another place is so spellbounding, as it allows us to learn about ourselves and fathom who we are and what we want, until one day we reach a compromise with ourselves.
At least, that is in part true for Tomris, for despite the challenges she’s encountered, moving to Germany has gifted her at least one thing that will benefit her for the rest of her life: self-acceptance. Slowly, the internalized homophobia and distorted beauty standards that have been engraved in her mind have started to unroot themselves.
Tomris no longer drinks every day in our living room (she’s since figured out the ways we communicate as roommates), but she still sits on the couch very often. Now, I can understand why she yearns for us to be close to her.
It is perhaps a perpetual process to uncover your identity in a new environment while dealing with the recurring ghosts of your old selves. For those of us who are captivated by Europe’s friendly LGBT environment and the freedom to choose who we love, nostalgia is not fully kept at bay. There are moments when the remnants of the places we grew up in come back to us – at times even, the same remnants we tried to run from.
But for now, I suppose, Tomris and I will just keep walking, starting with the cobblestone pathway that leads to our big wooden house by the canal in Hamburg, a place filled with a bit of Germany, and much of the world.
- Wentao Lu is a writer and photographer from Hefei, China, currently based in Hamburg, Germany. The fourth photo in this essay was taken in Zhailau, Kazakstan, and was provided to the writer by his roommate and friend, Tomris.
Join us next week for another escape.