Something Better

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Chapter 4

The coming Monday – the twelfth of January – was another test in itself. It was the official start of the semester. I had a couple of classes that Monday – a Chemistry lecture, followed by lab, in the morning and early afternoon, as well as a one-time 'cultural exchange' class in the evening that had been organised by the school for exchange students.

My morning class was a two-hour block of lectures. I went in, sat near the back and doodled on my notes. The professor seemed perfectly nice but was prone to speaking too quickly. It took me half an hour to begin to get used to his accent and speech pattern, but even by the end of the two hours, I was still only jotting down every two out of seven words. I left the lecture hall with a burgeoning headache and a slight sense of dread. Lab was better, since the instructions were clearly labelled – my English-reading skills were much more superior than my listening – and chemical symbols were thankfully universal.

Afterward, I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, exploring the quaint streets and alleys without even the aid of a map. Getting lost – it was one of the beauties of travelling on my own, I had found. There was something liberating about strolling along the streets with no concrete destination in mind.

I made it back to the university just in time for the cultural exchange class at six. The sun had long set and a cold wind was whipping at my cheeks, so I was relieved to finally step into the brightly-lit and warm building where my classroom was located.

All the international students had been randomly divided into different classes by the school administration, so I had no idea if Kjell or David – the only people I knew in Edinburgh – were in the same class I was. I wandered down the mostly still-empty corridors to find classroom 2.1B. It was towards the end of the hallway, the second-furthest classroom from the stairs.

The desks in the classroom were arranged to form a wide, upside-down 'U' shape. The first thing I saw after walking through the door was Aksel, sitting alone in an empty row furthest away from the whiteboard at the front of the room. His legs were stretched out in front of him, but they were so long that the table covered only half of their length. The only other people in the classroom were a group of Asians in the row lining the right side of the classroom.

As if feeling my eyes on him, he looked up and saw me. There was a split second when I thought he was going to ignore me outright, but then he said, "Hi."

"Hi." I hesitated, but ended up gesturing to the seat next to him. "Is this seat free?"

"Yeah." He turned away as I pulled out the chair and sat down. He was resting his cheek on his palm and staring out the windows on the other side of the classroom.

"Um," I said, feeling oddly uncomfortable when he turned back to look at me. "Thanks for, you know, Friday night."

"It's fine." Then he turned back to the windows again.

"Sorry I just... left like that," I tried, even though I was annoyed at having to speak to the back of his head. "I didn't know where you were, and... Oh, I'll wash your sheets for you if you want."

"No need," was his only response. He hadn't turned his gaze from the windows.

Great. I was stuck beside Mr. Unfriendly for the next three hours.

I turned towards the door on my right, watching the other people file in. Hopefully, there would be someone else to talk to.

The next person to walk in was a European girl with her dark hair cropped short and a silver bar in her nose. After a casual sweep of the classroom, she headed for the row Aksel and I were in.

"Hey," she said, dragging out the word like she couldn't be bothered to reel it in. She nodded at the empty seat beside Aksel, who gestured with a hand, palm-up, to indicate that the seat was free.

She sat down and kicked back in her seat, observing him with a relaxed air. "I'm Marie," she said. "From Belgium."

"Aksel," he replied. "Finland."

"Finland," she repeated. "I've been there. Nice place. Way too much snow for me, though."

He was turned away from me towards her, so I couldn't see his facial expression. But when he spoke, his voice had the lifted tone of someone who was smiling, "When were you there?"

"February. I went to–" here she said a Finnish city name that I didn't recognise.

"Oh," Aksel said, "that's more far north than I've ever been. I've heard there are two months in a year where they don't get any sunlight at all."

"Sightseeing in the dark wasn't exactly something I enjoyed," Marie said drily.

I was leaning on my table, idly listening to Aksel and Marie hit it off like Aksel and I had never quite managed, when a shadow fell over me. I looked up into the questioning brown eyes of the boy who'd come to stand beside me.

"Hi," he said, his hand already on the back of the chair. "Anyone sitting here?"

There was something about the way he formed the English words that sounded oddly familiar.

"Hallo," I said, instinctively reverting to the German pronunciation of the word. Then I cleared my throat, "No, the seat's free."

I saw him start at my accent. He was frowning a little now, even as he pulled the chair out to sit down in it. "Thanks. Where are you from?"

"Germany," I said, with the awkward smile that usually accompanied my declaration.

"I am Karl," he said in German, out of the blue. After hearing everyone speak mostly in English for the past few weeks, the sudden switch in language now made my eyes widen. "I come from Cologne. And you?"

A wide grin was spreading over my face. He had an answering one on his. There was just something about meeting a fellow countryman overseas that made you feel a sense of camaraderie right away.

"I'm Emilie, from Hamburg," I said, following Karl's lead and replying in our native tongue. "I love Cologne. You guys get such great conventions."

He laughed. "So says the girl from Germany's number-one musical metropolis."

"Gamescom," I said simply.

Karl shook his head at me in mock disappointment. "Games over musicals?"

I laughed. "Oh, please. Like the culture scene in Cologne isn't amazing too."

"It is, isn't it?" he smirked, then shook his head again and grinned at me. "Hamburg is beautiful. We took a boat tour at the harbour and the scenery was amazing. You're lucky, to live near so much water."

"What are you talking about?" I retorted. "The Rhine flows right through Cologne."

"That's different."

The class had started to fill up while I had been caught up in conversation with Karl. Finally, when everyone had arrived, the instructor at the front of the class cleared her throat and clapped her hands together. "All right, that should be everyone. My name is Anne, and I'm going to be leading this intercultural class today... But first, welcome to Edinburgh!"

It was only when I turned to face the front that I realised Aksel was watching me. I jerked my head to the left on instinct and met his eyes for a moment. His expression gave nothing away, but I could've sworn there was something like annoyance lurking in his gaze.

Pursing my lips, I tore my gaze away and focused on what Anne was saying.

"So, what's an intercultural class? Like the name suggests, we're going to learn a bit about each other's cultures, and of course also learn a little something about Scotland. In this class, we have sixteen of you from ten different countries altogether. First, let's get started with some self-introduction."

I let out a harsh breath and stared down at my hands, pressing against each other atop the table. If there was one thing I hated, it was introducing myself. I always had to endure the same startled once-overs, the same prodding questions.

"First, let's split you guys to up into groups, all right? Europe, Asia, the Americas..." Anne headed for the students seated the closest to the front. "Where are you from?"

"Taiwan," said the slender, pale-skinned girl at the very front of the class.

"Japan," said the girl sitting next to her.

Anne cast a glance around the class and zoomed in on a pair on the opposite side, "And you?"

"We're from Turkey," the girl said. The guy beside her nodded his agreement.

Anne's face lit up. "Why don't you two join the girls over there, for the Asian group?"

There was a moment of awkwardness as the East Asians exchanged glances with the Turks.

"Well, Eurasia, I guess, and Asia," Anne corrected herself in the ensuing silence. "You guys okay together?"

"Sure," the Turkish guy replied.

Even before Anne turned around to appraise me, I knew what was going to happen.

"Oh," she started to say, turning to look at the Asian group, the members of which were shaking hands and exchanging friendly greetings.

I was just opening my mouth when I felt a hand close over my left shoulder. "She's with us," Aksel said.

"Yeah, she's from Germany," Karl added from the other side of me.

"Oh!" Anne exclaimed now, glancing down at a list in her hand. She turned back to me with raised eyebrows, "Emilie Hoffmann?"

"That's me," I said, with a wry smile. Watching the surprise flash across people's faces when they matched my name to my face never got old.

Anne, for her part, got over her surprise quickly enough. "Great," she said, gesturing to the four of us, "This is the group for Europe, yeah?"

"Yeah," the Belgian girl – Marie – sitting on the other side of Aksel lazily affirmed.

When Anne moved on to group up those from the Americas and then from Oceania, Aksel seemed to realise his hand was still on my shoulder and snatched it back.

"You're from Germany?" Marie leaned forward and looked past Aksel at me. She scanned my features unabashedly, "Are you mixed, or something?"

"Uh... Yeah."

"Thought so," she replied. "You look really Asian. The other Eurasians I've met all look more... well, European."

I shrugged, feeling an awkward smile half-form on my lips. "Yeah... I'm an outlier, probably."

Marie looked at me like she couldn't quite figure out what I was saying.

"All right," Anne was standing in front of the teacher's desk again, back to addressing the class as a whole. "Now, I want you all to write down some things that come to mind when you think about the countries your classmates are from. We'll do a little exercise to see how true or false stereotypes are. You all okay with that?"

There were murmurs of agreement from the class. Then someone from the Oceania group – Australian, it seemed, judging by the accent – asked, "Which countries?"

Anne, referring to her name list, read aloud while everyone scrambled to write them down. Everyone except my group members, who sat unmoving in their seats.

"Does anyone have paper?" Marie asked.

"I do," I offered, reaching into my bag and pulling out a writing pad and a pen. Stifling a sigh, I jotted down the rest of the country names that Anne was saying. Japan, New Zealand, the USA, Australia. I had missed a couple in front.

"Oh, and write down your own countries by the side, please," Anne called out as an afterthought. "Fifteen minutes, then we'll do the presentations."

"You fine with doing the writing?" Marie's question at me was superfluous, considering that I was already doing it.

"Um, sure."

I wrote the word 'Europe' in capital letters across the top of the sheet and underlined it. Then, remembering what Anne had just said, I wrote down the names of the three countries we were from at the top right corner.

There was a beat, before Aksel leaned over with his own pen and crossed out one of the n's in 'Finnland'.

"I keep misspelling Finland," I admitted with an embarrassed laugh.

He looked at me unsmilingly. "No problem," he said, "in German it's spelt with two n's."

That gave me a jolt. It was my turn to stare at him, "You know German?"

"A bit," he said, but he didn't elaborate.

I had never met such a close-mouthed guy in my life. I gave a slight roll of my eyes and turned away, "Right!"

"You learnt it in Finland?" Karl wanted to know.

"Yeah," Aksel said shortly.

"Have you been to Germany?"

I had to give Karl props for trying to strike up a conversation in the face of Aksel's reluctance to talk.

"Yeah," Aksel said again. "I was in Stuttgart a while back."

"Stuttgart?" Karl sounded surprised. "Why would you go to Stuttgart? Even I haven't been there."

"That's where the Mercedes cars come from, no?" Marie asked.

"They have a big rotating Mercedes logo on top of the main train station in Stuttgart," Aksel said. I was noticing, increasingly, that he didn't seem to want to speak to either Karl or me, but was more than fine with responding to Marie. If only there had been more Europeans in the class – I would be able to gauge if Aksel hated us specifically or if he was just more partial to Marie.

"That sounds... strange," Marie said.

"I think it's a source of pride for them," I said. "They have a Mercedes-Benz museum and all."

"It's kinda a boring place, though," Karl said, "too industrial for me."

Aksel shrugged. "I liked it there."

I tapped my pen against the writing pad. "Okay," I said, steering the focus back to the task at hand, "what other countries are there?"

"Mexico, Turkey," Aksel reeled off.

"Taiwan," Karl offered.

I wrote those down, before shoving the writing pad further from me so that Marie, on the other side of Aksel, could see. "Okay... So... Any thoughts about..." I looked at the first country on the list, "Japan?"

"Polite," Karl said. "Really polite."

"Technologically advanced," Marie said. "And they have all these weird inventions..."

Aksel shrugged. "Sushi."

Biting back a smile, I put their contributions on paper, while adding some of my own.

At the end of the fifteen minutes, Anne clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. "Everyone done?" Upon receiving confirmation of the fact, she nodded and turned to the Asia group. "Let's start with America. What do you guys have?"

The Turkish girl seemed to be the appointed spokesperson for the group. "Hollywood," she said.

"We have that too," said someone from the Oceania group.

"Same," Karl said, on our behalf.

The Asia group had a few more points, some of which the Americans laughed at and denied, some which they shrugged and conceded.

Anne turned to us next, "What else do you have for America?"

I shoved the piece of paper at Aksel instinctively.

He eyed me consideringly, while the rest of the class stared at us. Then, taking his own sweet time, he slid the sheet over to Marie. Rolling her eyes, Marie glanced at it.

"Americans are dumb," she announced. She looked over at the Americans, shrugging, "Sorry, but that's the stereotype."

"And you have those TV shows," Karl added, "where someone goes around interviewing people off the streets, asking really simple questions, and everyone gets it wrong."

Judging from the unanimous stifling of smiles across the room, everyone else knew exactly what Karl was talking about.

"Americans aren't dumb," one of the American guys spoke up. He was lounging back in his seat, arms crossed over his chest. "Those shows that you're talking about – they're doing it for the ratings, so they only show the wrong answers. It's not credible to judge everyone based on that. I don't think Americans are particularly dumb compared to people from other countries. There are stupid people and smart people everywhere. On average most Americans are rather smart, we have plenty of people with college education."

Marie shrugged. "That's all we have, that hasn't been said already," she told Anne.

The rest of the presentations passed in much the same fashion, with Anne naming a country and then each group offering their list of stereotypes and impressions, while the natives of said country either agreed with or refuted their opinions.

When it was Germany's turn, I leaned my chin against my palm and chuckled a little at the Asians' impression of us. They spoke of technology, efficiency, beer – all of which neither Karl nor I had much to say about.

"Not every German likes beer," Aksel said suddenly, the first thing he'd said since the presentations had started, aside from acknowledging the strong Finnish connection to heavy metal music. Even when the Americans had commented that Finns were rich, and Marie had vocally agreed, he had only smiled and shrugged.

"What blasphemy," I murmured, and the whole class laughed. I looked at Aksel and saw that he had fixed a wintery look at me. My mouth twisting, I broke eye contact.

"Sausage," the Mexican guy said. "Schnitzel..."

Then came the negative stereotypes – stern, rigid, humourless. Karl and I exchanged glances and shrugged. These were long-standing stereotypes, nothing we hadn't heard before.

"I guess we can seem stern sometimes," Karl said, "and we respect people's privacy, so we're not going to butt in. But if you ask for help, most people would be glad to help you if they can."

"And," I added, "Germans have a sense of humour, just like anyone else."

"German humour, though," someone else said. That got a laugh out of everyone.

"Anything else?" Anne asked the Americans.

There was a pause, and then one of the American guys said, almost challengingly, "Hitler."

A silence settled over the classroom. Well. I couldn't say I hadn't been expecting that.

Anne broke the silence first. "Well–" she began, but Karl spoke over her.

"Hitler wasn't German, you know," he said. I snuck a peek at his face and saw that his expression was set. He caught my look and gave a little shrug as if to say, Amis.

"He was Austrian," Marie drawled. "But Germany gave him power."

"He deceived the German public," Karl shot back. "Morale was low and people were poor and desperate after the humiliation of the first World War... He made promises that salvaged their pride. He manipulated the public."

"Are you saying Germany's role in WWII is justified?" The same guy who had brought up the topic challenged. "Are you pro-Nazi, or something?"

Karl looked annoyed. "I didn't try to justify anything. I'm only saying that the circumstances at that time helped Hitler rise to power. I don't condone what happened at all, and I'm definitely not a Nazi, or neo-Nazi, or anything like that."

"And accusing Germans of being Nazis or whatever just because we're from Germany," I said, almost immediately regretting speaking up when all heads swivelled towards me. My neck froze up from the sheer amount of attention I was receiving, but I pressed on, "that's really ridiculous. Especially for the younger generation – we hadn't even been born when WWII happened. Of course the past should be remembered so we learn from the mistakes, but I don't think it makes sense to accuse all Germans of being Nazis, or to say that all Germans need to feel responsible for what happened."

"But you're not really responsible, are you?" The Taiwanese girl spoke up, presumably with good intentions. "You're not a real German."

I tightened my grip on the edge of the table. It was nothing I hadn't heard before – nothing I hadn't thought before.

"She's a real German," Karl said drily.

I stared down at the table, cupping the bottom half of my face as if my hand was a shield. Nobody said anything else after Karl's assertion.

Anne cleared her throat. "Well, let's move on," she remarked cheerily, turning to the Oceania group, "What else do you guys have for Germany?"

"Soccer," one of the Australians offered, moving onto a much pleasanter topic.

"Oh," the Japanese girl exclaimed, "a lot of guys in Japan watch the Bundesliga."

Beside me, I saw Karl start and stare at her in amazement.

"Cool," he said, the previous topic of discussion apparently forgotten. "Which teams do they usually support?"

I smiled, but still couldn't bring myself to look up, to rejoin the discussion about a country that was mine but not mine.

You're not a real German.

That thought kept me from speaking up again during the rest of the class discussion.

That night, something kept me from returning to my room right away. Despite the cold, I was sitting on a bench right outside my dorm building, nursing a bottle of cheap vodka and staring up into the sky. It was a clear night, and the stars sparkled overhead like tiny winking eyes. Apart from the occasional student returning to the dorms, I was mostly alone.

Wanting to be left alone, I rarely looked directly at the passers-by even when I heard the scraping noises of their footsteps against the pavement. That was, until I heard the slow crunch of footsteps on the gravel path... Footsteps that stopped for a long beat before starting up again, before petering out once more.

I looked up, and immediately regretted it.

It was Aksel.

The bench I was on was placed in such a position that anyone coming directly from the university would have to walk past it – and me – in order to enter the building. Judging from the stiffening of his shoulders, I knew that he had seen and recognised me. When he lowered his head and trudged on without a word of greeting, I thought he would walk past without acknowledging me. But then, after a few more steps, he stopped and half-turned from just behind the bench. "You're not cold?"

"I'm freezing my ass off," I replied, then took a swig from my bottle. The alcohol made me feel slightly warmer.

"Then why are you out here?"

"I dunno."

There was a moment of silence, before he said, "It's not that cold."

I snorted, cringing when I felt the cold air hit my lungs too quickly. It was like being frozen from the inside out. "You would say that. Your room is a bloody freezer."

"Sorry," he said, with the air of someone who had just come to a sudden realisation. "I forgot to turn on the heater yesterday."

"It's fine," I said, and lied, "It wasn't that cold."

Another silence, and then, "Why are you drinking again? You're allergic."

I fixed a glare on him. "Are you my dad, or what?"

He glared back, as if the idea of being related to me was an insult in itself.

I went back to my supermarket vodka.

"You don't have to try so hard," he said, his words abrupt in the silence.

I didn't yet know what he was referring to, but I took offence immediately. "What?"

"To be European," he said.

"I am European," I shot back, annoyed.

"You're Asian, too."

"I know who I am, thank you very much."

"I'm just saying," he said calmly, like my cutting tone meant nothing to him at all, "you try so hard to fit in, you end up acting like a stereotype. You don't have to deny your Asian identity just to fit in."

"I liked you better when you were refusing to speak to me," I said ungraciously.

"I'm not criticising you," he said. A frown was beginning to crease his forehead. "I just think you're too self-conscious. None of us here thinks you don't belong with us just because you're half Asian."

"You can't deny that I don't really belong, though," I said, tilting my head to look up into the night sky. The stars winked again, mockingly now. "Sometimes I just... I have to act crazier, louder – you know, to get people to even notice me. Whereas you... All you need to do is stand there and people automatically include you into their group. Because you just – I don't know – belong."

He said slowly, "I don't think this has anything to do with heritage."

"Easy for you to say – people never question your right to be here." My jaw was set in offended mutiny. "You don't ever have to deal with questions like, 'where are you from, China?' in your own country. As if every Asian is Chinese. Or people telling you, 'oh, you speak German so well! How long have you been learning it?' You don't have to deal with the surprise every time – every single time – people match your name to your face. We were both born in Europe, live in Europe, but that doesn't matter because I don't look like I belong."

He was quiet for the longest time, and I thought I had finally given him something to think about, when he said, "I think these people don't mean any harm. They just jump to conclusions."

I couldn't refute him, because he was right. But it was the little things like these that wore you down everyday. "Just because they don't mean any harm doesn't mean they don't do any harm."

"You can't control other people's reaction towards you, but you can control your reaction to them."

"Now you sound like a some motivational quote."

Aksel wasn't looking at me when he spoke again. "I think you have very low self-esteem."

"That is one sentence no girl, whatever her heritage, ever wants to hear." I should've been offended, but I wasn't. He was right. There were times when I wished I had been born somebody else – somebody who could be considered 'fully European', or 'fully Asian'. Being Eurasian was like being stuck in between two worlds that had both rejected you.

"I'm telling you, it doesn't matter as much as you think it does. This sense of belonging – other people don't decide it. You do. You belong where you want to belong." His voice had risen a notch. He was getting frustrated.

As was I. "And I'm telling you, you don't get it. And you never will, unless you walk around in my skin for a day, because this is something you will never experience."

"I'm not belittling your experiences. But you don't have to keep over-compensating," he said, his volume falling again. He said the next sentence very quietly. "I think it's cool that you're half Asian."

I scoffed. "Are you sure you're not just exoticising the East?"

"Exoticise what?" he demanded, "You don't behave like an Asian at all."

"And now aren't you just reverting to stereotypes? How is an Asian supposed to behave?"

"Well then, how is a European supposed to behave?" he shot back. "Being European is something you are, it doesn't depend on the way you act. You're just as guilty of the generalisation you accuse other people of."

I opened my mouth to retort, then closed it. "I hate you so much," I muttered, childishly, after a while. Surprisingly, though, I felt better. I had never discussed this issue with anyone before.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'm a hypocrite too."


But he just gave his head a short shake.

"What, you're going to hold out on me after I spilled all my deepest, darkest insecurities to you?" I asked, only half-joking. It wasn't that I truly wanted to know. A part of me was still in disbelief that he had roused himself from his usual disdainful silence to hold a conversation with me that had lasted this long.

He sighed. "I told myself not to... And yet..." It seemed more like he was muttering his thoughts out loud, rather than divulging them to me.

"Not to what?"

He turned to look me in the eye for the first time now. "Not to talk to you."

I blinked. Then I looked away to hide the sharp flash of hurt his words had brought with them. "Oh."

He turned on his heel, the sole of his shoe scraping sharply against the gravel. "Be careful out here," he said, his tone ice-cool. It was like our conversation had never happened.

I wrapped my arms around my knees and frowned into the distance. He was right. He was a hypocrite. Preaching all that rubbish about how nobody thought me different from the rest of them when he personally couldn't stand me.

He had taken more than a few steps away before he looked back at me. "This has nothing to do with your heritage, or whether or not I think you 'belong'," he said.

"Okay," I challenged, "so you just don't like me as a person?"

He paused infinitesimally. "Yeah."

I listened to the creak of the door as he let himself into the building, leaving me out alone in the cold, in more ways than one.


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