On cultural clashes and coming home

I’ve got to admit this, I don’t think I will ever get the hang of this blogging thing. I debate just deleting the whole thing every few months. Then have a great idea and jot down the ideas, which are all safely stored as drafts and nothing ever gets written. Ha!

Oh well. There are many things which I could discuss I guess, but instead of picking some specific, cultural thing, I suppose I will just philosophize randomly as usual.

Going “home” to the states for 2 months, it feels normal, or at least 8 weeks is long enough to make it feel normal again. And you know what’s nice, after the first awkward week of jumping every time an overly-friendly stranger initiates conversation/tries to make a sale, social interactions become normal and random exchanges with people I’ll never see again are not dominated by my own inner dialogue on grammar rules and cultural conventions. Oh God, that alone is sooooo relaxing. Not having to think while speaking. My German is fluent, but gosh darn it any unintentional falter, or foreign coloring is seen as a chance to ask nosy questions (well in Germany they are at any rate, double standard, I know, but things ARE different here) or discuss their love for American entertainment (good for you, I don’t care, I like German round robin discussions and documentaries, sorry if that’s disappointing). And you know what sometimes when I am grabbing lunch in the middle of my workday, I don’t want to rattle off my long and complicated life story in front of strangers.

Isn’t that ridiculous? I miss the stupid, meaningless small talk back home, but when I get the chance to do the same thing here, I reject it.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s a different culture and there are different dynamics at play than what people know in America. I am in possession of the most sought after Foreign Language in Europe/the world. And you can’t blame someone I suppose for wanting to get some English help for free. So while ensuring the my articles are all spot on, I also have to look for signs that this person is thinking they should make the switch to English (a conundrum, they are honestly trying to be HELPFUL but when you’ve been speaking German, albeit on and off, for 17 years now, it really ONLY comes off as condescending) and cut them off before they can do so (because when someone does achieve this, the blow to my self-confidence can last for the rest of the day), and finally if we do stick to German, I have to look for an out to the conversation in case they start suggesting that they would really like a language partner to help improve their English (first off 20 year old students are not who I really want to spend time with, tbh and another insult to my German, so thanks for your insensitivity).

I mean reading this I sound psychotic, not gonna lie. And I can be a basket case, if I sense that someone is not sure that I am competent in German. I am actually not nervous in most areas of my life, but I have this one, dumb exception. And people that are learning German look at me shocked that I would still have self-doubt despite completing a  Master’s program where I had half of my seminars, presentations, and papers in C2 German. But I do get negative feedback, that my German isn’t perfect, and sometimes just spiteful, ignorant comments from linguists who actually should know better.

It’s just something that I think we English speakers have to suffer from when learning a foreign language. Other Europeans learn 2 languages in the school and use languages as a tool and a way to play around and interact with their world. I try to do the same, but other people and situations won’t allow it because there are quite simply greater power dynamics at work.

Anyway language issues aside, even if people are speaking the same language, the cultural differences are there. My friend in England can’t stand discussing her personal background when it’s not relevant to the situation either. In Germany you have the lingua franca aspect in England, people like to make fun off differences that no one can help. Either way it’s a constant side-effect of living abroad,  so being somewhere, where all these concerns can just fall away is a huge weight off the shoulders. I did enjoy that part of my time home. I also enjoyed absorbing the new lingo around me, instead of going online to look up new words I see online. (True story, I did that for gif.)

And yet that much time in America only solidifies my decision to live abroad. I won’t get into anything I’ve already discussed many times with all of you in person. But I think the thing that I find troublesome about living where you grew up, is the complacency that almost inevitably comes with it. And I hear this from other expat friends too. I enjoy living somewhere I don’t belong, because I fear the complacency of life where the way things are, is equated with the way things should be. And instead of being general and imprecise, let me take my own wedding planning to show you what I mean.

I mean my goodness self-improvements are good up to a point. There’s no need to be pessimistic and defeatist, but we Americans take it to a whole new level. There is a whole boatload of messages and influence that we internalize everyday. Look at all the lists online, telling you 10 yoga stretches for good posture, 16 new ideas for your small office, 12 things to read before having kids, etc etc. And we click and click and read and read and subliminally the idea is, if you can just organize your life, just take these 3 simple steps, you will become a better person and have a life others can envy on social media. And people do go crazy with these preconceived ideas of how their life is “supposed” to go. I read ridiculous things online that in order for a girl to accept some man’s proposal, he has to obey her three rules, one of which is asking her dad (sorry Dad I love you, but I’m not property). And what will happen if he doesn’t? Will you throw the relationship away cause it didn’t go as planned? And in America this trend takes on what I can only describe as a religious fervor. This message is digested and internalized without a critical eye. The right amount of money to spend on an engagement ring, the right stone to symbolize love, the right stationary for invitations, the proper order of events at a wedding, engagement photos, wedding photos, the right cake to have, the right decorations to look good on instagram, gifts for having a baby, showers and showers and needlessly expensive bridemaids dresses, empty symbolism from our consumer culture. Symbols are good when they connect you to your culture and have meaning to the community; and there are plenty of Greek ones that I did have in the wedding, but the origins of many of our modern traditions are commercial, made up by advertisers. One may like some of these things and want to incorporate them when the time comes, but buying the “necessity” of having all these things in order for life’s events to be done correctly, seems to be a lie we Americans especially seem to enjoy swallowing.

Bucket lists in particular disgust me. I too have things I would like to do and see in my lifetime, don’t get me wrong. What is the message there though, that life is just one long list of check-lists to tick off one by one before kicking the bucket? That a life which can’t tick off a list of cookie cutter experiences and tourist attractions is worthless? People don’t waste time making lists, and just allow for life to happen, and your list of priorities to change as you grow. Some of the most magical moments in my life took place in the most mundane surroundings, and the most wonderful places I’ve lived in, or visited were rarely those where I had to elbow my way through tourists.

I like lists, don’t get me wrong and I want to see the world, and family and a career and try to have it all. I mean why the hell not. But being back at home, seeing people running around, just doing things “one should do” reminds me of the very arguments people use to mock those who follow religious teaching, i.e. believing what you have been told without any critical thought because you would like to control and interpret your own personal experience as unique and meaningful.

It makes me sad to see people deriving meaning about their lives from miss manners and bucket lists. And this trend is coming to Europe, most definitely, in the social media apps from America, in the lifestyle touted by Huffpo and the buzzfeed lifestyle articles. (I should talk another time about what has changed in Germany since 2005, cause there’s a lot which comes to mind.)

So during the wedding, I would get sucked into one aspect and then try and pull myself out of it. I like pretty things, so I wanted the room to be lit in a certain way and things a certain color and I wanted pretty flowers. That part was ok. But I had an idea about cheesecakes instead of a wedding cake that would make things look nice and still save money and it nearly grew out of control and had to be reigned in again because we were fussing about trying to please too many people, and “do the right thing”. There were definitely things I didn’t do, and things I was told later, I didn’t do right. Well who cares. One thing that made me laugh was that apparently I am supposed to ask people to give speeches about how great we are, (still not clear on this?) um, no… I already demand compliments from my husband, I won’t do the same of my friends. Or that I am supposed to thank my husband for marrying me! Ha fat chance! I might thank him if he had been the one to do the actual proposing. Look these traditions are ok, but doing something “wrong” doesn’t take away from how “good’ my wedding was.

My wedding was lovely. I was so thankful for all the love and help and support people had for us, but if I had focused on trying to impress the people who will see my pictures later, (who weren’t even there!) what a waste of the very short time I had been given to see nearly everyone I love in one room. That, and not the decorations, is what I get my happiness from and those memories will be a comfort in the inevitable lonely moments to come.

When you live abroad and you get messages from the country you live in, you can weigh each one, and say: “yes, an improvement, I’m willing to adapt it into my life” or you can reject things offhand, saying ‘not me, not my culture”. Absorbing junk is just not a thoughtless process here. And the extra bonus is when reading things from home, you can say, “well that doesn’t apply to me, because I can’t do that outside of America” or “well that’s silly, who would want to do that?”. But also “oh my gosh I wish I could visit these 12 steakhouses in my lifetime, but since that is a silly waste of time when I want to see my family, I will just plan one good steak dinner the next time we visit, and it will be ‘good enough’, because darn-it living without steak lowers your standards”. 🙂

When I got back to my beautiful, modern flat, and got to cook for my lovely husband and watch the pair of storks build their nest in the church across the street, I knew I was happy to be home, which just happened to be in Europe.

But a few weeks later, when the sun was shining and I took the train into town and went down into the city centre in between museums and churches and ancient buildings, with a cup of my favorite German coffee and bought bread that has been made the same way for some half a millennium, I wandered in the market looking at the beautiful flower stands, while eavesdropping on the French, Spanish and Russian tourists, and realized as I smelled the sausages stands cooking, I couldn’t wait to try out the new village butcher my husband and I had discovered. I knew then. Walking the miniscule little cobblestone alley towards the university, I realized that 10 years after I first discovered how lovely a life in Germany can be, this market setting can still bring a smile to my face and make all the troubles in my life seem a little further away.

My home is the bustle and sounds and smells of an ancient market square after a train ride, not the aisles of walmart and a parking lot.

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