Hi, I’m Rachel Sang-hee Han and I’m a travel journalist. I grew up in the U.S., moved back to Seoul, got married with an Italian and now live in Stuttgart, Germany. We are actually in the U.S. for six months through October for work, but we certainly call Stuttgart our home. I worked for CNN Travel as an editor and I’m now a travel journalist and columnist for The Korea Times, an English daily newspaper in Korea. I also run a travel blog about all my travels here.
What brought you to Germany?
Mostly work and family. I never wanted to live in one place, so when the opportunity came to move to the rather non-obvious Stuttgart, I jumped at the chance. Moving and living in Europe was a first time for me, so it was more of an adventure than moving all of my belongings to one place to another. It was a big jump, and I’m glad I made it. After three years in Germany, I’m now a semi-expert on German cars, German wine and German food. Not yet with the German language, but it’s getting there.
What is it that you like or dislike about Germany?
The dislikes mostly changed over time and experience, which is a relief, because I’m very much fond of Germany now. The likes are quite obvious, the beer, the sausages and the transportation. The S Bahns and U Bahns are super convenient and efficient, even more than driving around with a car. Another important factor is the safety issue. I have never felt so safe in any other European city and this is a huge plus for anyone.
As much as I love Germany, there are some downsides too, the biggest being the inflexibility. It’s quite difficult and complicating to cancel anything, such as the Internet, cell phone carriers and other technical essentials. Some companies require you to send a hand-signed note or mail, which takes time and additional effort. Many stores being closed during Sunday was also a rather unpleasant surprise and for someone who is used to going out during the weekend to do some grocery shopping, this took some time to getting used to.
Do you feel integrated?
It’s hard to say if I feel fully integrated because I haven’t been living in Germany for so long, but I certainly don’t feel mistreated or left out. Of course, there was the time when I ordered bread in German and the lady behind the counter answered back in Germany, but I think this was more of a language barrier, not an integration issue.
I have to say it’s quite difficult to “feel” integrated nonetheless. I find it difficult and tricky to meet and actually become somewhat good friends with Germans. I realized that you need to be in a certain group for a rather long time, such as the same school, coming from the same neighborhood or sharing the same hobby etc, to actually become close, and being outside of such examples makes it more likely to feel distant.
Integration is a two way street, where you also have to try to integrate yourself into the culture, society and people, not just wait for them to open their arms.
And this, I have tried in various ways: learning the language, going out with friends, trying out the local cuisine and bars and participating in both local activities and national events. Trying to put yourself within that circle can be a great start. It’s so easy to stay shy and quiet, but I would suggest anyone to be a little bit more aggressive when it comes to experiences and learning new cultures. Even if it means you have to drink too much beer and eat bratwursts.
Do you think Germany is a multicultural society? Do you think a multicultural society can function well?
I think Germany is getting there. The fact that a lot of people, both old and new, speak English proves that. But because of various factors, including cultural traits, personal accounts and sometimes even national tendencies, it may seem difficult to define Germany as being multicultural. I still occasionally get the short stares now and then and it takes a little more time, multiple meet ups and beers to become more than an acquaintance. And Germans also have some prejudices even within Germany (Bavaria vs Swabian, for example). Plus most of my German friends are those who have traveled a lot or already have a lot of friends from abroad.
But a society to become “multicultural” is a long process, not a final destination. It needs time. It needs open-mindness. And it’s tricky because it can have an effect to different people in different ways. It needs to happen with time and understanding and this can only be achieved when most of the people are on board. And in this regard, I believe Germany is not yet there but on the right track.
Does concept of nationality play an important role to you?
I have to say yes, because it works as a quite interesting conversation starter. I’m a Korean who grew up in the U.S. (and thus has a very heavy American accent) who lives in Germany with an Italian husband. And it’s more than just nationality; it turns out to be a unique discussion about different cultural traits, mostly about food, entertainment and travel.
Any stereotypes of Germans/ Germany have been confirmed?
The beer. The excellent beer and that the Germans love beer. This is all true and I’m very happy to be a part of it. I’m more used to wine and wine glass pairings, so I was pleasantly surprised to watch a German friend explaining and pairing all the different types of beer and beer glasses in less than two minutes.
Germans and Germany as a nation being punctual and precise is also a famous stereotype. There were some moments at the train station where I may have shouted “Delays at German train stations? What is happening with the world?” but other than those occasions I have been very satisfied and happy with everything being in order, punctual and precise.
Any cross-cultural mistakes?
I passed my stop while riding both S Bahns and U Bahns because I didn’t push the button to open the door for multiple occasions. Now I find myself looking for the button wherever I am, including Seoul where there are no buttons whatsoever.
Not making dinner plans or reservations, expecting restaurants would have seats or even manage to squeeze us in also turned out to be a mistake.
And then there was the time when I made the mistake of reserving for a slot with a personal trainer and running late. I was five minutes late and he canceled the session. I came back home, confused if it was completely my fault or whether the trainer could cut me a little slack and tell me to not be late next time and go on with the training session. I moved to a different gym.
Have you lost some habits from your home country and picked up some German habits?
My husband and I are very excited for January now because it’s all about planning for vacations and holidays. I was never the person to plan my vacations early on in the year, but now I am all about planning, planning and more planning. And the emotional release I get after wrapping up the final details of our vacation is very much worth all the trouble.
Another habit is hitting the stores to finish up grocery shopping before 8 p.m. on a Saturday. Seoul is shopping heaven, which means you can find almost anything at any given time, and for me to plan and shop everything before 8 p.m. in Germany has been quite a challenge. But a successful challenge. Trust me, it takes time.