Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“Typical American” Part 1 / 3


There have been so many incredible experiences that I have had so far in Germany, and I have really learned so much in a short amount of time, but there are also times that provide unique challenges, and some parts of the day that become another struggle in the experience of living abroad as an exchange student.

Here in Germany I am not just a student however, since I am also an employee, a volunteer, a representative American, and a member of a family – and whereas these all give me great opportunities to learn, I put them in order of how challenging they are as well.

As I have addressed, the month of October was very hectic for me and full of many changes. I was very fortunate however to have the Sebode family graciously open their doors to me and invite me to be a part of their family.

The first few days were very pleasant and full of smiles, but there were a few instances that caught me off guard – after all, any situation that you move in with a host family is a little awkward at first.

I briefly mentioned it when I was living with the Weber family in Saarbrücken, but my host family, especially Stefan, would throw me some pretty difficult questions surrounding politics or my opinions on certain aspects of German or American culture.

From Washington DC when we had some seminars with professors discussing some cultural differences, we were all warned about our sensitivity as Americans, and how this clashes with the directness of many Europeans, notably Germans.

I think over the past few weeks, I can definitely attest that in some aspects, I am definitely a sensitive American – there were some things that just ‘pushed my buttons’ and caused me to guard myself a little defensively.

I think it was my second meal with my host family where Inge and Andreas were naturally asking me questions to get to know me better. This is when Inge made the comment that “I wasn’t really a typical American”

To this I kind of laughed since I, myself, don’t even know what a “typical” American is – exemplified by my very diverse group in my CDC language school group. Two of her reasons were some that I have heard before – “I am not fat like they would expect” [one that would sound rude if said in America, but every other country I have been in, including Japan and Finland, talking about weight is just as normal as the weather – and of course is something that whether I like it or not, will always be a stigma with my nation- the inventor of McDonald’s].

The other was “you are actually learning foreign languages” which was also pressed on me in Finland, because it is mostly true that Europeans are much more proficient and diligent in learning foreign languages than Americans are – something I wish could change, but quite honestly we don’t have the great opportunities like Europeans do – we can’t drive 4 hours in any direction and be submersed in a different dialect or completely different language].

Since I didn’t really fit this particular stereotypical mold they had in their heads, I was then asked to summarize myself what made ME American. This question was incredibly difficult to answer, let alone in German. Coming back recently from Poland, and very impacted from the trip, my answer was along the lines of the fact that my ancestors came from Poland and Italy, my family is more culturally Polish but my last name is from that quarter of Italian. My family had to start over a new life in America, and now I am the result as a mix of different cultures.

Inge didn’t buy it. “Just because your family is from Poland and Italy doesn’t make you American.”

I was stumped. Yes, I thought, that is precisely what makes me American – the fact that I had family that dealt with different struggles in their homelands, came to America for new opportunities, learned English, and now in my generation I am working hard to uncover this part of myself, discover my ancestors’ language, and refer to myself as a hyphenated American – Polish/Italian-American ; that is my idea of America, how my story is just as different from my neighbors' and their neighbors' and so on. On top of this I expressed how proud I was to have such diverse friends from many nations, cultural backgrounds, and religions - but this didn't seem to help my case much more.

This is what was difficult. My idea of myself as an American was not what my host family was expecting to hear – I think they had their own ideas of what America was and what they thought my answer should be.

Inge said, with a smile, that we would have a lot of time to learn about America since they didn’t really know too many Americans.

I knew that my host parents had never been to America, let alone outside of Europe, but I asked why they didn’t know too many Americans [since maybe there was more than just the fact that we are rare visitors here in Göttingen].

“We enjoy traveling, culture, music and being with friends. We just don’t find American people interesting.”

And that comment – said perfectly with a smile – couldn’t have felt more like an icy dagger.

This proved to me where I stood as their new American son. They weren’t being rude – most likely far from it – they were just being honest. My host parents are older, and they haven’t been outside of Europe, so I knew they would have some preconceived notions about Americans, but it was me that was naive to think that they really had a deeper understanding of the people in America outside of the media onslaught that reaches the entire world of who we are [clumping us Americans as one big group].

I had my work cut out for me. Not only was the question of why I am an American going to be lingering in my mind, but also the entire idea of why Americans can be and are cultured and interesting.

[ This personal reflection on the first completed 1/4th of my year in Germany was a bit long. It will be in 3 parts. To see them all together, click the pink link below for "Typical American". These links group blog posts together with topics that I write about and cluster as a group. ]

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