My name is Christina and I’m an American. I’ve been blogging at LivingtheAmericanDreaminEurope for about two years, minus some time off to have a son and begin to get to know him, while I’ve been an expat for about four years. For the moment my blog is about all things expaty, meaning living, working, raising a child, and so forth in another culture that at times seems like the exact opposite from the one I am from. Other days, I can barely tell a difference. Actually, having a child here makes this really feel like the circus to me.
While I was finishing my degree I was also working for my university. An opportunity arose for a one-to-one exchange teaching opportunity with a German partner university and, loving new teaching and traveling opportunities I jumped at the chance that was before me. I generally know very little about where I travel to as I like to be open to learn as much as I can once I am immersed in the culture and country. I did not know German before arriving in Germany either. I was told that technically didn’t need to worry too much about that since I would only be in Germany for a year and that I would be using English in my daily teaching.
What do you do to integrate into a foreign culture?
I’d like to think I do my part to pay attention, as I figure I am an acutely astute person. This usually means that I talk less, listen and watch more than I might at home and try to pick up what nuances I can. I try to do all of this while also attempting to at least look like a local or native. “Fake it until you make it” as some Americans like to say. I once said that phrase to a class of business students and they all just stared at me with a bewildered and shocked look on their collective faces. They looked at me like I was crazy, which totally required deconstructing later with friends, my husband and an abundance of research on the internet.
I have asked for a plethora advice from friends, colleagues, and other expat bloggers. I have read a bit, about German history and culture. So far, I have taken German language courses off and on since I first arrived in Germany. Had I known better, I would have taken intensive courses that entire first year, but the orientation courses I was offered were incredibly intimidating and scared me to no end as they were above and beyond intense, but all the extra support the instructor could give me was extra worksheets. I would go home after class in those first two weeks fully intending to study and pass out like a drugged tiger.
The hardest part is not making myself too comfortable in my husband’s and my little American/English bubble that we have created in our home. We both use English for work and at home so utilizing the language effectively and appropriately is often stunted. However, because of my son I often am forced to speak German, as not all of the doctors speak English very well, if at all and his Tagesmutter or childminder knowns about five to ten words in English. As the newest and possibly most important addition to our family, my son adds another facet to this whole ‘living abroad’ adventure. He will know the language and culture better than my husband and I eventually and will take me along for the ride. I can’t speak for my husband though.
What strikes you most in Germany (good and bad)?
In the U.S. I think the dichotomy is the myth of the individual. I think Americans are raised to believe in the strength of the individual while it is really the collective community that helps make individuals successful and able to strive. We cannot really have one without the other in spite of what we are raised to think.
In Germany I think the dichotomy might be order. The stereotype is that Germans live by the order. They have a saying here, “Ordnung muss sein” meaning order must be. The reality I’ve witnessed is really that yeah there is order but there isn’t too. Germans seem to not only revel in the order but also in the disorder. An example is any city celebration or music festival. Another example is waiting in line in Germany. It seems Germans have their own idea about queuing up for things that doesn’t necessarily match Americans or Briton’s view.
I had this one experience at the hospital before my son was born. I had to go to the outpatient office in the hospital to talk about the upcoming birth and anesthesia. About a dozen people were sitting in the hallway waiting for their turn to speak to someone and another person was at the counter speaking to the receptionist. I was confused if the specific office I was at was the correct one. I waited until the person at the counter was finished and began to walk up to the receptionist and it seemed like everyone in the waiting room jump ready to tell me I was not next – no matter if I only had a question or not. They will also tell you when it is your turn if you don’t know, as this group did exactly that whenever it was finally my turn to ask if I was in the right place.
I also cannot tell you how many times people try to cut in front of me when I am waiting for various things. The only time people really don’t seem to attempt to cut in front of me is when I am waiting in line at the grocery store. And the customer service is generally appalling, as one of my former students said: “Germany is a cultural service wasteland”. We Americans don’t know how good we have it with customer service. It might be too much at times, but I’d take over the top over practically nonexistent.
Has your lifestyle changed when you came to Germany?
I think my life is much slower and less complex now, which is both a good and bad thing. I was so ambitious in the U.S., of course I was 31 years-old when I moved to Germany. I had just finished my degree before moving here and really thought I had things in my life figured out.
In Portland, I had three to four different jobs, regular volunteering situations and a ton of extracurricular sporty things going on. Here in Germany life is much more simple: work, family, and leisure. I don’t think I am as disciplined as I was in the U.S. but I, don’t necessarily think that is a good or bad thing. I am much more relaxed though.
When I first arrived I appreciated how my life slowed down, I think it also helped me take in Germany. I became an English language teacher. When I decided to become a teacher I knew that I ultimately could teach just about anything anywhere given the resources. However, transitioning from secondary education to language teaching has taken some adjusting. I try to look at it like part of the process though. My husband and I are working on creating many of our own traditions, as a married couple and now as a new family of three.