Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Leaving the Village

Counting today, I have two days left in my village. Friday morning I'll take a train to Hannover to go to a friend's wedding, and then next Tuesday I fly home (out of Berlin).

I'm ready to leave. The Lausitz is beautiful, sometimes breathtakingly so, like when I walk along the paths through the barley fields at sunlight... but it isn't home. I love Germany, but I'm not crazy about eastern Saxony. To be perfectly honest, I didn't like living here very much. I've been too lonely. But, still, I think that living in a rural village for a year was a good experience. Now I'll try to tell you something about what it was like.

Since November, I have lived in a village of about 1,000 souls, part of a Gemeinde (like a township) consisting of 15 villages, with a total population of around 5,000. The village I live in is by far the biggest in the area. It includes, among other things:
-an elementary school and a secondary school
-two bakeries
-two butcher shops
-a couple of small, diner-type restaurants
-two tiny grocery stores
-a shoe store
-a doctor's office, a dentist, and a physical therapist
-one fast-food place (Turkish)

But it also includes chickens running around in people's yards, the occasional sheep or goat, a couple of cows, a handful of horsedrawn carriages proceeding down the main street on Sunday mornings, massive vegetable gardens in every yard, and fields of barley, wheat, and rye in between the residential streets.

At least half of the residents seem to be over 50. If you wanted to get rich in this village, you could open a store that stocked Kittelschürzen, a kind of flowered smock favored by German grandmothers. There are also some families with young kids, but virtually no one between 18 and 35.

Most of the residents were born in this village, or in one of the smaller surrounding villages, and have lived here all their lives. They prefer their own company and are suspicious of 'outsiders' of any kind, including Catholic Sorbs from the next Gemeinde over and mountain people from the Oberland south of Bautzen. Foreigners are viewed as locust-like pests who descend to take their jobs. Dark-skinned foreigners are viewed as 'dirty.'

A small group of Neo-Nazis likes to congregate in front of the school where I work around dismissal time. The local administration claims they can't do anything about this, since the boys are former students and there is, they say, no proof that they are Nazis. --I don't know what the litmus test for Naziism is, but seeing as these kids have shaved heads and wear racist T-shirts, listen to racist music, put anti-foreigner posters and graffiti up on a shed belonging to the elementary school, and shout 'Foreigner!' at me when I walk by them, I don't see how it's possible to come to a different conclusion... But, around here, they would probably have to march through the streets bearing posters of Hitler before anyone would admit there was a problem.

East Saxony is to Germany what the rural South is to the US, complete with it's own Good Old Boy network.

The widespread xenophobia and racism seems almost comical once you consider that, to my knowledge, I am the only non-German person living in this town. There are also two Turkish guys who work at the fast-food place, but they live somewhere else (and I don't blame them). I have never seen a non-white person in the village. (And, despite what the locals think, Turks are white!) I frequently go months without seeing a black person. Then, when I do, I can't help but stare. And grin. After months of uniform paleness, a bit of diversity is very refreshing.

I have lived in this region for only 10 months total, but I already know almost all residents of my village on sight. When I see someone new (which isn't very often), I wonder who they are and what they're doing here. Going to Bautzen is sometimes overwhelming, because of all the new people.

It seems that I'm starting to absorb aspects of the local mentality. This scares me. I like the countryside and the peace and quiet. The mentality-- not so much.

It'll be good to go home.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

On Becoming a Foreigner

Yesterday I got an email from a prospective Fulbrighter who will be TA-ing in Saxony next year. She asked me to give her some tips on what to bring along and what to expect culturally. Answering the first question was easy: plenty of medium-weight clothes, an umbrella, American measuring cups, and a jar of salsa (the German kind has the consistency of ketchup). The second question was hard.

Culture shock is very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it thoroughly. By thoroughly, I mean “having lived in a foreign country for at least six months.” Vacationing abroad is not the same. It can give you a taste of another culture (and a taste is much better than nothing) but you usually return home before the glamor wears off and the details of daily life begin to overwhelm you. Tourists don’t get to know other countries the way the resident foreigners do.

When you move to another country, you become a foreigner. Your ways are strange; the other country’s ways of doing things are “normal.”

Suddenly, many things you’ve taken for granted since childhood are different:

The grocery stores are filled with unfamiliar brands and products. Some items you’re used to eating at home (like boxed macaroni and cheese, hommus, and decent salsa) are missing all together; others are three times as expensive as in the US. Other sorts of stores also take some getting used to-- the drug store doesn’t sell school supplies, and to get prescription drugs you have to go the pharmacy, which doesn’t stock toothpaste or shampoo or develop photos. Nothing is open after 8pm on week nights, and everything shuts down on Sundays and legal holidays.

Houses don’t have central thermostats. Each room is heated separately with a grate-like device. Refrigerators are smaller. Door knobs, light switches, locks, and even the flush mechanisms for toilets are different. People will think you’re weird if you walk around the house without slippers.

Streets are narrower. There is no speed limit on the highway. When you use public transportation, you'll find that the procedure for buying a ticket on the bus differs from that in the city you went to college in back home. You find this out when you try to do it the American way and get yelled at by the bus driver.

Standards of hygiene are different. Houses are kept immaculate—even the bedrooms of teenage kids!—but many people only shower every other day and wash their hair only once or twice a week. It’s perfectly acceptable to wear the same clothes to work or school three days in a row.

Values are different. Kids can smoke and drink legally at 16 and are usually allowed to have their boyfriends and girlfriends spend the night. Sex scenes on TV are ubiquitous, regardless of the time of day. Educated people make racist statements at work that would get them fired in the US. But weapons, war, and violence of any kind are condemned much more strongly than they would be in the States. And despite their generally intolerant attitudes, I haven't heard of any East Germans lobbying to amend their Constitution to deny people's human right to marry.

Manners and social expectations are different. Being friendly toward strangers is considered superficial. At best, you’ll be treated with a kind of polite formality; at worst, people can be very cold and downright aggressive. The natives will strike you as rude sometimes, and you’ll also seem rude to them: you’ll address someone by the wrong word for “you,” or forget to shake a colleague’s hand, or ask a question that seems like harmless small-talk to you but in the context of German society is considered socially inappropriate.

Perfect strangers will interrogate you about your political views. Some people will assume that if you are American, you must also be a heavily armed, SUV-driving fundamentalist Christian who is chomping at the bit to forcibly overthrow the governments of Iran and North Korea. Some people will express surprise that, as an American, you are neither fat nor stupid. Some people will simply hate you.

Then there’s the language barrier. Even if you have an excellent command of German, occasionally people will use words you don’t understand and you’ll have to ask for clarification. This may lead them to think that you don’t speak the language at all. You will also run into people who, upon hearing your accent, start shouting at you as if you were deaf or using a simplified, grammatically incorrect form of German. “Du gehen morgen Essen kaufen, ja? Essen kaufen?” (rough translation: “You goes tomorrow buy food, right? Buy food?”)

Being a foreigner is a stressful business.

There will be times when you want to go home. You would do anything for a chimichanga or a pan of cornbread. You think that if one more bus driver or postal worker yells at you for doing things the wrong way (which is to say, a non-German way), you will either call him every name in the book or burst into tears. You miss your friends, your family, and your dog. You wish you never came over here.

But then, when you reflect on it a while, you realize that it was worth it.

There are some things you can only learn as a foreigner, like the ability to function well in two cultures. Your foreign language skills will improve by leaps and bounds—even if they were good to begin with! You will learn new ways of doing things; develop new tastes in food, music, clothes, and freetime activities; and most importantly, you’ll realize in a way that most people don’t that all cultures have their good sides and bad sides. You cannot idealize a foreign country after you’ve lived in it, but you cannot despise it, either.

America is not the greatest country in the world. Neither is Germany. There is no greatest country in the world. There are only scores of countries with their own ways of doing things, each with their own unique good points and bad points.

Would I do it again? Definitely.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

More Info about Next Year

I should probably apologize for the lack of posts this month. It's not that I haven't wanted to write; I just haven't had much time. The school year may be almost over (I have two and a half weeks left here, and the kids are here until mid-July), but things are definitely NOT winding down. Oh no. Between three-hour teachers' meetings (that other TAs don't have to attend), correcting tests (something my contract says I'm actually not supposed to do), working 14 hours a week at the school (2 more than I'm obligated to by contract), and prepping for lessons (still takes me about 10 hours every week!), I've had my hands full.

Well, ok, enough whining. You want to know what's going to happen to me next year!

I'm happy to report that the second year of Ada Abroad will be spent at a Gymnasium (college-prep secondary school, grades 5-13) in the city of.... Hamm!

I think I can tell you the name of the town this time because it's a bigger place-- it has at least eight secondary schools, so I just won't reveal the name of the one that I'll be working at. And more importantly, it has a train station. So I won't be stranded there on the weekends. Plus, while there is no university in Hamm itself, there are two college towns only 30 minutes away by train: Dortmund and Münster. I'm planning to apply to Uni Münster. The Fulbright Commission will even try to get the tuition fees waived for me, but that's not for sure yet because next year I'll just be an alumna, not a current grantee.

Before you go laughing at the name of my town, you should know that it's pronounced 'hahm,' not 'ham.' And that the German word for the pork product is actually Schinken.

Here's the link to the town's website: It's mostly in German, but I think there's some info in English for you monolinguals.

Anyhow, I fly back to Michigan on July 5th and will be staying there until September 7th, when I head back to Germany. The only reasonably-priced flight I could find leaves from Toronto and lands in Amsterdam, so there will be some train travel involved, but I'm just happy that I didn't have to spend upwards of $900 for my ticket! (I paid about $360-- a pretty good deal.)

I'll try to post again soon. But in any case-- see you back in the States!