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December 27, 2004

Blowing the Whistle

Sunday morning we went up the hill to have a little lunch and to hang out with some folks who own a restaurant up there. The husband has been friends with these folks, well, forever, the way you are friends with people in a small town where you all go to tiny high schools together. It’s a very traditional postcard kind of village. The staff dress the part in their lederhosen and dirndls. Oh, and the food is quite good, plus, the chef is really a nice guy, I like him.

We arrived shortly after church got out. The neighbors were hanging out, eating cookies and drinking beer and wine – all this before 11 am! – and chatting about pretty much nothing, like you do with your friends when you run in to them at your local coffee house. We were sitting at the ‘stammtisch’ – the table that’s set aside for regulars, having tea, and three guys from the other room sat down to join us.

I know one of the guys from way back when I first started coming to Austria. He asked me if I was still “working for Bill” – a position that has a cache here that it just doesn’t hold in Seattle. The talk turned to health insurance (Austria is beginning to privatize) and language, and as it does when you have an auslander in your midst, to travel.

The older guy across the table from me told me about how, during the early 60s, he’d lived in Australia. He had to return to Austria when he got news that his mother was quite ill, and shortly after he got back to Austria, she died. He never went back to Melbourne, where he’d lived as a young man. Finally, just a few years ago he made the trip.

He was shocked at what he saw. The place was overrun with Chinese. “The Australians, they haven’t got a chance. The Chinese are everywhere. I have to say, having gone back and seen what happened there, I am glad it turned out that I stayed here in Austria.”

I was struck speechless. I am seldom at a loss for words, but as I looked at this seemingly cultured ‘gentleman’ nursing a glass of red wine, a speaker of excellent English, and a world traveler, spewing racism, I didn’t know what to say. I stared at him, round eyed, before finding my voice.

There’s some statistic somewhere that states that one in four humans on the planet are Chinese. I don’t know if that’s true anymore, but I do know that since my brother married my sister-in-law in Beijing more than 15 years ago, one in four people in my family are Chinese. When you go after the Chinese, you go after my family. My nephew, a kid in big pants who works at an artisan bakery. My sister-in-law, who knitted the scarf tucked in the sleeve of my coat hanging just over there, on the coat rack.

When people ask me why I don’t move to Austria, these kinds of experiences are what I think about. Maybe I could rationalize that some old guy in an old village shouldn’t color my perception of what Austrians are like. When I get all worked up over stuff like this, the husband says I’m as likely to hear the same kind of crap out of a guy at the counter at a diner in Montana. Yeah, okay. But. I resent the fact that I’m the one that’s shocked while most folks preceive this kind of racism as harmless.

I have been watching, with great interest, the news about Turkey and the EU. I can’t believe the noncommittal “We agree to talk to you about it a lot later with no promises to let you join” stance that the EU has taken. A lot of the objections by EU member nations look like racism to me. Marauding hoards of Islamic peasants, stealing their jobs, sponging off welfare, locking up their women…I’m not saying that the Turks don’t have serious human rights issues, and good lord, if the EU takes on the problem of the Kurds, that’s one big can of worms. But the racist overtones are too loud to ignore – at least to my sensitive ears they are.

Maybe I need to get a thicker skin at times like this. But what I’d really like are better reflexes. It’s the shock that slows me down. I need to carry a whistle. That’s the thing about racism in Austria, and in Europe in general, in my experience. It’s not like it’s everywhere, it’s not like it's a stop on your itinerary. Thankfully, it's rare in my experience, and honestly, most Austrians are perfectly fine humans with open minds and hearts. But you know how when you go hiking in bear country, you’re supposed to be prepared? I never leave my house prepared to confront racists in Seattle. Here it’s a different story.

Posted by pam at December 27, 2004 07:27 PM | TrackBack
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