Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“Typical American” Part 3 / 3

[ - continued from part 2/3 ]

Now maybe jumping from a simple dinner conversation question to quoting political scientist Robert Singh or referring to “Common Sense” from the American Revolution is a bit of a stretch, but it is all part of my own personal exploration to properly address the stereotypes and loaded questions I am faced with everyday as an American.

Many times the misunderstandings are from outspoken opinions and preconceived notions, and the differences between us are subtle, but in everyday life living abroad they have some impact on me.

Referring to Americans being so prude, at another meal with my host parents, when I was talking about my brother going to university, and his girlfriend, also a very good friend of mine, was also was studying there, they started asking more questions. “Did my brother live with Louise?” – My answer was obviously no, since that would be very disrespectful to all of our parents – living with a significant other, especially as a teenager is largely unheard of in America - but this only started more questions leading to relationships and sex, and how teenagers in Germany are generally free to be in close [ and knowingly consummated] relationships as young as 14 or 15.

First I was probably blushing, since talking about sex with parents, especially at dinner of all places is not something I am used to – but quoting Stefan from Saarbrücken, Germans love talking about Sex, Politics and sports. And still in our first week together – a time that I would consider still for first impressions - we hit up the topics the Germans loved, but also ones that Americans consider taboo [we all hear to never talk about religion, sex or politics on a date… well this was like a date with my host family getting to know each other, and we just talked about all three].

[ Remember in Saarbrücken? - Lady GaGa has a penis ... ]

A sharp difference like this was one that made me realize that I was a bit out of my comfort zone, but also made my host parents realize that small talk is very different in America [“what do you mean you don’t know who your dad votes for?” – “that is just how he was raised… we don’t really talk about money, politics or sex too openly with our parents… especially at dinner."]. The other thing to note is that, being the foreigner in these situations majority of the time, naturally it is the way I see things that is strange.

I learned very quickly through conversations and our family weekend together that my host parents were a little more open about these topics to say the least. When we were showing photos of our families during the weekend, Inge had great photo albums of their trips to Corsica, an island of France in the Mediterranean. I was a bit shocked since many of the photos were from afternoon lounges on the beaches, however, often topless and with full nudes of the family members.

I don’t know what was more shocking to me – the fact that these photos were there, or the fact that NOTHING was said about them and we continued flipping through the pages without even one awkward hesitation – it was completely natural to them, and I think would have only been proven otherwise if I had made a comment.

In terms of Politics, of course I have been pressed, and even razed as the representative American, because of European's sharp animosity towards President George W. Bush, but I have been very challenged at walking the line of understanding, and also rationalizing and even defending America and our former president when comments were a little to opinionated – I am not in Europe to bash America, even if I don’t agree with some things. That is one of the biggest challenges.

One professor in the university, actually an American ex-pat in Göttingen dealt with a similar situation better than I had ever seen before. In a great, heated debate about the ideals of the American Dream when we discussed the basis of American politics, one German student contested how we as Americans could possibly respect our freedoms when we “could reelect a past drunkard and international criminal to be president”. A very loaded opinion, indeed, and something that is hard for me to react and respond to when I hear this myself, since I can only really say “I wasn’t old enough to vote then.”

The professor, a little nerved by the frankness of the statement shot back – “tell me one of Bush’s policies” and the German student began to hesitate and then mentioned something about Iraq. “No, tell me one of Bush’s domestic policies.” This caught the student completely off guard – nothing…

The professor continued – “I may have not voted for Bush myself, but I know that my reasons for disliking him are a little different than yours. It is important for anyone to know the policies of any international figure, international and domestic, before throwing off misleading comments.” The professor, even after admitting that he didn’t support Bush, still defended some of the positive policies of President Bush including those about national parks, and proved that it is ok to disagree, but you have to get your facts straight first – or at least know some facts before making such direct opinions.

It is situations such as these, addressing our shyness to discuss sex or opinionated politics with people we don’t know too well [even though I am well reminded that we have “so much sex on TV and a huge porn industry”… that still doesn’t change the topics that I discuss with my parents and Babcia at dinner time…] as well as topics that are very difficult to walk the line of expressing personal opinion while promoting at least understanding for why Americans do the crazy things we do. This is why I went back into some older photos from this year and brought some back from the international night at the language school - representing how I was the Michigander of the group, but also as a reminder of the challenges we had to represent our own group and define America for our presentation.

These connections may be diverse, and very wide spread on my posts, but they represent the spontaneity of life in Germany, the awkward dinner chats that one never knows what will be said, the loaded questions at any time, as well as more lectures and seminars to help me put everything in order and jot down some ideas of what I really represent here as a 19 year old student from America [Midwest] [Michigan] [Metro Detroit] [east side of Troy].

[ 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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