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.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I hope that you didn't scare the prospective Fulbrighter to death. It seems that you have learned alot from your year over in Germany. You have become much more of a world traveler than your family has ever been. We are proud of you and love to read about your travels even though we haven't left home. Looking forward to seeing you this summer.


Judy, Scott, and Elyse

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Blogger Ada said...

Thanks, Judy!

I look forward to seeing you and my cousins, too. :)

I did my best not to scare the prospective Fulbrighter too much. I kind of censored myself!

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