Voices, muffled by the din, surround me like an ambush. Questioning, their curiosity of who I am, where I came from, and why I am there is expressed. Their foreign tongue speaks at me, but the meaning is lost. I look around, nervous, for someone I know, someone familiar to provide a comfort. In this city of strangers, their periodical laughs feel mocking, inquisitive eyes are staring, and welcoming smiles prove intimidating. Welcome to Germany, they say.
Their intentions are friendly and my confusion innocent in this festival of music, celebration and sailing that overwhelms their new guest. I answer questions when I can, and they try not to criticize my pronunciation and errors. In two days, my mistranslations have left me late frequently, lost in conversations, and eating food I neither ordered nor recognized. Despite the confusion and frustration, the three weeks of mistranslations, embarrassment and new experiences proved extremely satisfying.
Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Kiel, Germany to study the language and culture while living with a host family through the AATG. With a group of twenty anxious and excited Americans, I flew away from my home country to the northern tip of Germany. The traveling was simple, and in a group of other Americans, the realization of having left was only evidenced in the German signs and curious looks in response to our English. Until I separated from the group, until I finally met my host brother, I was unconscious of my location.
Compared to other diverse societies, I found that Germany’s culture is not so different from the United States. Values, social interactions and habits are similar. Men and women do not walk around in lederhosen and dirndl, sausage and beer are not the focus of all meals, and folk dancing is not the key source of entertainment. Consequently, they assumed we would reflect the characters seen in movies and personally know Britney Spears. The stereotypes were disproved, but subtle differences, however, shined. Each morning, the Americans would have classes together and we would all share experiences. We would complain about the long bike rides throughout the city, the strange looks our clothing and actions attracted even before we spoke, and the “bubbly” mineral water that we hated with each meal. With time, we adjusted, though we never truly passed the cultural differences.
As a class, we would go on trips with our host siblings. Although we all were friends, two groups would immediately form: the Germans and the Americans. Talking was easier with people from the same country, even beyond the consideration of different languages. We would talk comfortably about home, current events, funny stories, and reactions to Germany, some topics we avoided with our respective hosts simply because explaining the cultural details proved too difficult. After three weeks of living together, the unspoken boundary still existed.
Germany showed me how a collection of small differences makes up entirely different customs. I lived with a family for three weeks but found that I felt more comfortable with the Americans I saw just once a day. We were more similar due to the common American culture embedded within us. Because of the figurative disconnection between us, I never quite assimilated with the Germans. Location does not separate people, the culture does. My newfound awareness allows me to observe people differently and judge them less, understanding why people often act they way they do. Because of this experience, I look at the stereotypes of culture lightly and can accept the differences as mere deviations from my norm.
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