The first seven years I lived in the US, I really did not enjoy it too much. Yes, you heard right. The first seven years. Seven. SEVEN YEARS!
I found the Americans fake, I hated the supermarkets, I hated the food, I hated political correctness that I found stifling, I hated the day to day complicatedness, that everything was so much more expensive ($100 or more cell phone bills each month, seriously?), I feared the religious and alternative right (I am an atheist liberal lefty damn-it), I was tired of dealing with the bureaucracy that they call health care, I was worried about equality, I hated their helicoptering style of parenting, and and and…
It took me seven years to find my spot. I learned to appreciate the moments and groups I was able to relate to. My running group, my friends, and our general aim for more equality, women’s rights, personal freedom and choice, and the pursued of happiness. I loved that you can try new things in the US and are being cheered on sometimes even by strangers. I ran a marathon, something I never would have dared to do in Germany. I dared to approach people, make new and unexpected friends, dared to try yoga, traveled, volunteered, pursued a career, and other challenging adventures at work… and felt genuinely happy just putting myself out there. Not everything was easy, but I allowed myself to fail occasionally. My attempt of joining a soccer team did not really result in much. I only once was able to run a marathon in under 4 hours and had to explain to my colleagues each time why I did not succeed in my goals. Embarrassing? Not really; just a miss of a goal and an opportunity for a new try. I did not succeed in getting a few jobs I wanted or failed at getting a specific promotion I desired.
I love the kindness of the Americans. The general encouragement you get for putting yourself out there. The generosity to allow failure if you are not as successful as you need to be. I loved that I was allowed to be different. It was okay to be a little more introverted, someone that liked working, and someone who had her initial struggles in being a mother and parent, someone with her own style and ideas.
The other things I did not like initially? I still did not like them, but I found ways around: I found supermarkets I was able to tolerate or ordered online, I did not participate where it did not add value to my life, I found good friends with whom I was able to talk about politics, religion, and my desire to create more equality and strive for equal rights in life for everyone.
I generally found a place that was kind to who I was and that allowed me to explore who I wanted to be.
The reverse culture shock hit me hard when moving back. Not only did my country change into a direction I was not anticipating, I also did not like how the country, society, and my friends saw me.
Remember when I said that I was a liberal lefty, atheist, and striving for equality?
I was in shock how much more religious Germany appeared than I remembered. Abortion, women’s role in society, school teachings… Why does the first day of school for every German child seem to involve a church visit? Why do Germans still feel so much a woman needs focus her life around motherhood? The religious aspect was even more dominant looking at the Muslim students at my daughter’s school. My daughter is the only girl in her class not a Muslim. Some of the mother’s are fully veiled; there is something really odd when you are in a parent-teacher conference and the person you are talking to is not showing her face. it is even odder if no one talks about this and the elephant is in the room. Pink and bright for all to ignore. It was apparent we did not pick the right school for our daughter, when we learned that only one of the other girls was allowed to participate in parties or privately organized after school activities by non-Muslims. The two years in Germany my daughter had to give up her social life with her class mates and find friends outside of school through her sport clubs.
We picked the school to do our active part in teaching our kids open-mindedness, friendliness, tolerance, and create exposure to different thinking. We received the opposite. Instead of a friendly mix of kids from various backgrounds, segregation in our city is very apparent. The separation seems to be by religion. Christians in one school, Muslims in the other. We as belonging to neither faith are somewhat in the middle.
I was also in shock how far I was away from being a liberal lefty in Germany. Political correctness? Wow. Germany has a problem with open conversations. There seems to be a trend towards one opinion – collectivism – in Germany that I am no longer used to. Some harmless comparisons: In the past I had always laughed at Germans really, really absorbing fashion trends… If there is a type of shoe that is in fashion, it is very difficult to buy any other kind of shoe as these are not available. Every single radio station plays kind of the same music… Germans will claim this is not true, but who once lived in the US and can choose a channel to for example listen to Heavy Metal or Country and nothing else. they can very easily find that. In Germany you can only find random mixes of various different popular songs from various genres from the last 30 or 40 years. The exact mix might vary, but that is about it. I gave up on radio after a while back. I also gave up on German TV. Once my husband pointed out that German acting always involves people yelling at each other. And since he mentioned it I could not unsee it — Every time I tried to watch a German show, I ended up turning it off when people started yelling at each other.
The worst part for me in this reverse culture shock that I am experiencing is the lack of kindness and encouragement. Whenever you make a mistake, a German will point it out. If you are trying to get a German to participate in something new (running, yoga, a dance class), their knee is too weak. I mean half of Germany should be on crutches considering how many people are complaining about knee pains. If you are talking about a new plan or idea, so many Germans have a tendency to tell you why the plan will fail or why your idea is bad. If you voice criticism on these traits or point out trends, there is always a German who will blame you for generalizing. A dialogue is often only possible with a few friends or colleagues who love to learn and share thoughts. Too many are just dismissing otherness or different thinking. And so I find that equality is really lacking in Germany. Just in 2016 a law was introduced that enabled the principle “no means no” as a step into the right direction for rape victims. Keep in mind a law that had existed in most western countries for years. So there is hope. However, in daily and public life you still will find opinions and thoughts being dismissed just because they are coming from a woman, a gay, or another ethnicity. All political followers are at fault: left, right, middle. Often using appearance or tone to dismiss what was said. Yes, the US has similar problems; my personal experience sees the problem so much more persistent and more widely spread in Germany as so many are so dismissive towards differing opinions, though. Germans feel morally superior and that is a problem, because they are just not.
So, it appears my thinking is not as left in Germany as it is in the US. Yes, it is true that compared to my old High school peers who have fermented their leftism over the course of 12 years like a good old Kim-chi, I am now center with right thoughts. Apparently, whether you are right or left is a question of the reference points,
Yes, I am fully aware that after 12 years in the US. My cultural shock will last longer than a few weeks. I am now back for two years. Considering it took me an initial 7 years to feel at home in the US, I am fully expecting it to take a little longer before I can embrace my Germanness again. However, there are values I do not want to give up: I want to live in a kind and encouraging environment. Equality is a must for me. There are compromises I am not willing to make regardless of where I live. I am not willing to tolerate intolerance.
Feeling morally superior is dangerous. It drives ideological thinking and politics. And it drives censorship and restriction. I generally want to live in an environment not dominated by these limitations. Opinions need to be discussed. Fears need to be acknowledged and taken serious. Otherwise equality is a farce. And equal rights will not exist.