Sunday, July 31, 2005


I've been reading the blog of a high school exchange student spending the year in Germany all year. (I am not linking to the blog out of respect for her privacy and age. However, if she were to give permission to link to her regular blog when she's back in the States, I would love to link to it. Her writing is wonderful, succinct, and descriptive. Unlike many bloggers-- and especially high school-aged bloggers-- her writing is lively and reads well.) She's been spending the year in the same area of Germany as my little town in Bavaria, so names of places that I recognize and traditions that I remember so fondly popped up from time to time in her posts, often evoking a deep sense of nostalgia and Heimweh for me. Today, she left Germany to come home to the United States.

My return to the U.S. was incredibly rocky each time, but especially after I spent a year in Hamburg. Hamburg could not be any different from my little Bavarian town, and my experiences there were not exactly positive. Oh, there were good moments. But the year was marred by a very VERY bad host family experience and placement in a specialized Gymnasium where the students commuted from all over the city to attend what could only be described as a magnet program. There was a distinct lack of class community. People showed up for class and left immediately after. They socialized with people from their neighborhoods, not with their classmates. And people in northern Germany are notoriously difficult to get to know. The stereotype of the taciurn, cold Hamburger certainly held true for me, much to my bewilderment, and later to my desperate disappointment.

Now, I would not have traded that experience for anything. I learned so much about self-reliance and perseverance that year. I was on a government grant, so I felt like I could not go home because my family would not have been able to afford the airfare or the repayment of the grant to the program. If you can't go back, all you can do is go forward, come hell or high water. So that's what I did. And ever since, I've been able to draw on the knowledge that there is a reserve of strength that I could not have imagined deep inside me. That doesn't, of course, mean that nothing scares me or that I don't get cold feet. But it does mean that I have a good cry, a bout of hysteria, perhaps a week of sleepless nights, but then I get in the car or get on the plane or walk into the room and get on with it. Sometimes I get on with it kicking and screaming, but I do it. One of my favorite German phrases expresses this: "Augen zu und durch". Literally, it means "Eyes closed and through". The closest English equivalent would be "grin and bear it", but they are not identical. The German phrase indicates that certain kind of courage that comes from doing what you dread to do because you know it has to be done, whereas the English phrase indicates that certain kind of fatalism where you simply endure what you dread because there's nothing you can do to change it.

But I digress.

I was happy to leave Hamburg, and I was looking forward to seeing my family and my friends again. But at the same time, I did not want to leave. I felt like I had just gotten the hang of things. Then I got "home" to the United States and the euphoria of homecoming wore off... and I had never felt more out of place and unhappy in my entire life.

Before you leave on an exchange, any responsible exchange organization teaches you about culture shock and the adjustment process. I had been on two exchanges prior to that one and had not only heard it before, but had thought that I had experienced it before. However, just as I had a far more difficult adjustment to life in Hamburg than I did to life in Bavaria, my readjustment to life in the United States was far more difficult than it had been before. Why? I still don't really know. Perhaps because I had to make such a concerted effort to adapt to Hamburg, whereas Bavaria felt like home from the moment I stepped out of the bus and met my first host family. Perhaps because this was a longer exchange.

Whatever the reason, the culture shock-- or reverse culture shock, if you will-- was immense. I couldn't watch TV because the people spoke English too quickly for me to understand. I couldn't think in English. The air conditioning made me too cold, but the heat and humidity of an Ohio summer was far more oppresive than I remembered. The milk tasted watery ("Skim" milk in Germany is 1.5%, "regular" milk is 3,5%) and drinking tap water made me sick because after a year of drinking carbonated water (which is the standard in Germany), tap water tasted like flat coke to me.

Everything was shocking to me. Everything. The cars were HUGE. The license plates looked strange. The radio played strange music. The voices on sitcoms that I'd watched for years sounded strange. The World Cup was being played and I had watched it with my host family, but had to come home just before the final round. I don't like sports, but I looked forward with feverish anticipation to watching the final round because it was familiar, it made me feel like I was still connected to something. The television coverage of soccer in the U.S. was... abysmal. I cried unconsolably and felt this inexplicable rage over the poor quality of the coverage of this sport that I didn't even care about-- what I recognize now as culture shock.

The first day back at my American high school was epic. I went to a fairly large school with just under 2,000 students in three grades. In Germany, I went to two very small high schools, each with under 1,000 students in 9 grades. When I walked through the front door that first day, I was literally stopped in my tracks. The people were so loud! And there were so many of them! And the girls were wearing so much makeup! I tried to go to homeroom only to realize that I couldn't remember the way to get there any more. That, more than anything, freaked me out. I ran to the German teacher's classroom, which was just down a hallway from the front doors, burst through the door and started babbling at him in rapidfire German. Eventually, he figured out what I was on about and had one of his homeroom students take me to my homeroom with a hall pass. I walked through the door of homeroom and sat down. Hulio came up to say hello. We had been introduced a week or two before (if memory serves) and my best friend at the time had asked her to give me a note on my first day back. I looked up at her with a shell-shocked expression that she still laughs about to this day. I, incidentally, don't really remember this conversation, only the intense feeling of shock and confusion. I mean, this was my home we're talking about. Why did everything seem so foreign to me? Why, when I had spoken English for nearly two decades, did I need to carry a German-English dictionary to school with me?

The feeling lessed in intensity, but stayed with me for the entire 10 months that I remained in the United States before leaving for four months split between Germany and Denmark. I felt like a foreign exchange student in my own country. Once the shock wore off a little, I actually started to enjoy the sensation. I have to say that I learned more about the United States and my role as an American in that time than in my whole life leading up to then, including the time I had spent in Germany. In many ways, it was the parallel to the journey of self-discovery that the year in Hamburg had been. It was just as difficult and emotionally draining in many ways, but it was ultimately immensely rewarding and intensely deep.

That feeling as never been as intense after any of my subsequent trips. I do still have that sensation of foreignness, but it's not debilitating or painful, probably because I know that it will happen. Even after I returned from Denmark, I was ambivalent about life in the United States and felt like I didn't really belong here. My ability to separate German and English while still maintaining both as an active language in daily use grew with time and I haven't needed my German-English dictionary to get though the day since those first few months after my return from Hamburg. There are still moments when I inadvertently mix the two, but usually only if I have to switch from one to another quickly. There are certain words that come to me in German but not in English and vice versa. There are still occasional moments where I say things and I am not sure if they are German or English-- sometimes I'm literally not certain which language just came out and sometimes I can't tell if I'm using English words for a German idiom. The phrase "Can you say that in English" is a part of my semi-active vocabulary, as is "What's the right way to say that?". It will probably never go away, and I'm okay with that.

It took several more years before I finally felt at home in the United States again and I think that only happened after I was able to consciously decide to remain in the United States (as opposed to being here because I happened to have been born here). I'm not saying I'll never live in another country again, not by a long shot. You never know where life will take you. I still harbor a dream of living in Iceland, of calling that strange, quirky land home, even for a short while. But I feel comfortable with my identity as an American. I am not blindly and loudly patriotic, as many of my countrymen are. But I don't need to be-- I have chosen American and chosen my Americanness. That's all I or anyone else needs to know.

And still, I feel Heimweh for Germany. There are things and foods and customs and places and people who I miss almost every single day. There are times when a certain scent on the air or a certain angle of light or a certain taste can make me weak in the knees with longing for my other Zuhause. There is no place that I can ever live and not feel Heimweh for someplace else- but there are many places that I can live and feel like I am zu Hause. A lucky woman, indeed.


At 6:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are parallels between our lives allright. You say: "you never know where life might take you". I say: "you're never really sure of anything in life."

I know what my nationality is, but that doesn't mean I have to blindly swallow everything that is presented to me. Just like you.

My country is my base, my home is where I make it.


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