Thursday, November 06, 2008

How does it feel to be an American expat in Germany at a time like this?

Last night, we went for drinks with a couple of friends (German and Indian) at a little tiny French bar. We toasted Obama, and shortly thereafter, a group of three German women came in. When they ordered drinks, they, too, toasted Obama. Wow.

I came home to find some rather inflammatory comments on yesterday's blog post. While I don't appreciate the way the comments were delivered, they do bring up a point I wanted to address and didn't yesterday because I wrote my post in a hurry.

In 2004, I voted for Kerry. This year, I voted for Obama. My President now is George Bush, and my President in January will be Barack Obama. But between last year at this time, or Monday at this time, or whenever, and today, nothing about me has changed. And nothing about me was going to change depending on the outcome of this election. I still voted Obama, whether Obama won or McCain won. But, because I'm an American, and I have to represent my government to a certain degree, even though I have not changed, people's perception of me has.

Whether it's right or wrong that people see me differently now based on an election in which I had the same role no matter who won, it is still something I have to live with. Even if it is wrong for people to pin the government on individuals, it does make me feel better that people are excited and happy about my country again, and especially so because I myself prefer Obama to Bush! We are representatives of the United States and we are asked to explain and defend our country and our people, and their decisions, while we're here. I do it - even when I don't agree with the views I'm defending, I try to explain where they are coming from, while also trying to make sure people know it's something with which I don't personally identify. You get used to it, and I don't mind doing it, but there's something so much more relaxed now, even if it's just for a while, while everyone is still hopeful and in a party mood. I just feel relieved, at least for a few moments, that I agree with something my country did, and so does almost everyone around me.

Here's what some other, more eloquent American expats are saying:
"Today I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Being an expat while George W. Bush was president generated a constant background sense of unease. You never knew when you would next be verbally assaulted because of the President's latest action. These unhinged ranters were bad enough, but the sincere, reasonable people were somehow worse. They would explain how they had long admired the United States, spend an enriching year there as an exchange student, kept up with American friends and acquaintances, and maintained a benevolent interest in all things American. They even gave George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt after 9/11. Then the lawlessness, brutality, and glib incompetence began eating away at their image of Bush, and the seeming acquiescence of ordinary Americans in Bush's acts undermined their faith in the nation as a whole." German Joys
"A funny thing happened to me today. For the first time in eight years of living in Europe, I walked around wishing that everyone around me knew I was American." This Non-American Life

"I am proud of us today. And I feel like something almost forgotten, some fine ideal, has come striding forward through the murk and disillusion of my brain, just like Obama striding across that stage in Chicago last night . . . there's something truly grand about that place, over there, that I still call 'home.'" Euro Like Me
"I think I can say I’m proud, today, by association at least, with no reservation, to be an American. There is still some good in us. It has been a long time since the entire world could rejoice with us about anything. The sense of relief is profound."
"For the entire time I've lived abroad it has been my habit to cringe when a well-meaning person has asked where I hail from originally. "Ummm... the United States." . . . I know that today for the first time in many years, I will be able to hold my head up and answer the question of my national origin... not with my normal hesitation... not with fear of retribution... but with PRIDE." Snooker in Berlin
"Then I went outside to go pick up some groceries. It was then I felt different. I thought about the fact that my country, which had for so long been the butt of jokes, the target of so much rancor, and a cause for disappointment had done what we all thought was impossible. We elected a black man to the highest office of the government, and did so resoundingly. Old people, young people, black, white, Asian, rich, poor. I suddenly felt flush with emotion. There may have been an errant tear from the side of my eye. I suddenly wished I had a big fat sign on my back that said, I'm American! And I would have been proud to wear it." Pie Pants


  1. Hi CN,

    "I feel good,nanananahhh, I knew that I would, nanananananahhh....."

    We celebrated over a couple of beers yesterday. There is a glimmer of hope now although the country is still mired in a big mess left by shrub. I worked on the Kerry campaign in '04 and I am glad that Obama had all the right people and played all of his cards right for this election.

    I've dedicated a song from Sheryl Crow to shrub on my blog.

  2. Nice post. I can relate to a lot of those quotes, especially the one about the grocery store. This feeling will take sometime to get used to.

  3. Hi CN,

    Sorry my comment caused so much trouble... i thought it was pretty innocent. I also hope my response was ok.

    We're going to have a party on January 20th at my office to celebrate...

  4. While this outflow of emotion is certainly called for, I think people are far too insecure if their identity is caught up in (perhaps flawed) perceptions of Americans based on their political leaders. Should such a shallow opinion matter? Would you not be the same person you are today had McCain been elected? Isn't America still the land of opportunity it always was? Like all of you, I take pride in my country, not for the President we have elected, but because we are truly a country capable of forming a more perfect union.

  5. there was a similar sort of blog throwdown i saw today -- the post was about the surge in american flag sales. and some people got really pissed off in the comments saying people who are proud now are "fairweather americans" who only love their country when they absolutely agree with every single little thing it's done.

  6. Jimmy,
    to answer your questions... I don't think I would be the same today had McCain been elected for fear of what he would bring tomorrow. His choice for VP alone was such a bad move that I would question any other decision he would make for our future. I have two family members called to serve in Iraq who have lost 50% of their retirement savings in the sudden financial crisis. How could I possibly have voted for the same party that got them there?

    You are correct in naming the US a land of opportunity but those opportunists make up 1% of the population. When Americans voted for Obama on Nov. 4, they made an intelligent choice, not an emotional one.

  7. Sarah,
    I'd be interested in reading that thread. Please pass it along.

    Are you serious? I'm not sure I can engage in any kind of logical conversation with you. Do you have such low self-esteem that you feel ashamed/assured by German opinions of America's democractically elected leaders?

    I'm sorry to hear of your family's financial problems, but having served in the military and contributed to the same "retirement fund" (the Thrift Savings Plan is an IRA completely differant than the pension you earn in the military after 20 years) as your family, I know that it is entirely your choice how much risk you want to take (by investing in bonds rather than stocks, etc).

    Don't be so quick to blame the financial crisis on the Republican Party and de-regulation. There's plenty of blame to spread. Read up on the Community Reinvestment Act.

  8. Oberursel: I'm glad the Democrats have been able to turn it around too - now I hope they do a good job!

    Heza: It was really unexpected for me. I guess I never really thought about how it would change the feel of my everyday interactions.

    Adam: Not a problem at all!

    Jimmy: I think several theses could be written on the questions you raise of identity and patriotic feelings (and by people with more knowledge of psychology and sociology than me!). I can only answer for myself, but I think what I've already written in this post sums up my feelings on the matter pretty well. Whether it's right or wrong, and despite the fact that, as I said, nothing about me has changed, it is a positive thing to see people excited about my country again.

    Sara: Does this make the people who only flew the flag after 9/11 Scheisswetter Americans? ;) Actually the idea of country is interesting and I think one of the things that really divides liberals and conservatives right now. (Maybe always?)

    For anyone who hasn't read it, go to to check out their 7-chapter post-campaign behind-the-scenes story. It's very interesting and did a lot to rehumanize the different players for me, after all the brutal dehumanizing that goes on during election season.

  9. CN Heidelberg,

    I understand how much relief you must feel right now. It's draining to always have to explain your country to Germans and to counter the ubiquitous, close-to-the surface fear and hatred of America that Germans have. I went through all of that over twenty years ago when I lived in Germany.

    German anti-Americanism is a pathology among Germans and, while in abatement now, it will return. Trust me on this. I'm really glad that you understand that we were not evil three days ago and angels today. Twenty five years ago Germans were saying the same things about Americans. You know the drill. Oberflaechlich, and so on. Your remarks on that issue were clear.

    Listen, if you really want to help Germans (in deference to your German husband), you should explain that to them that they have a distorted view of Americans and that the source lies in their own insecurities and fears about the world (not to mention their intolerance for people who do things differently than they do). Americans are neither racist cowboys nor thoroughly integrated angels. Our culture is just different from German culture, as is our history. Each country has its virtues and its drawbacks. German anti-Americanism, to repeat, is a GERMAN PATHOLOGY that is not amenable to facts.

    In my family our in-laws include an African-American male, a guy from Nigeria, a woman from China, and one from the Philippines. We're been mixed like this for decades now and our children have multiple family histories. We've been integrated for a long time. We were like this under both Clinton and Bush. We didn't suddenly become multi-racial when Obama won the election. You're from the States, CN. You know how mixed we are. Our culture has struggled mightily to get to this point. It DID NOT COME IN A DAY.

    Obama's election, as I'm sure you've noticed, has made for extremely interesting (and highly entertaining) reading of the German press. Not five hours after the initial jubilation upon Obama's coronation, the journalists inevitably paused (Ami-bashing no longer offering the same schadenfreudlich frisson), began to look at themselves, and asked ... wait for it ... "Where's Europe's Obama?"

    That has to be the most bizarre headline I've ever read. Here are the opening two graphs of that article:

    Europe's euphoria at Barack Obama's election has given way to a worm of self-doubt. America may now have its first-ever black president, but which European nation could elect a leader from one of its own ethnic minorities?

    On Wednesday morning, news of America's historic election was gobbled up by an Obama-besotted Europe. But introspection has set in just as quickly, as the Old World has to admit that its own Obama figure might take some time to emerge.

    Okay, let's look at Deutschland. Where are your minorities? The first answer is easy: Auschwitz. The second is the failure of integration for two and a half million Turks in Germany. In a parliament of around 600 members, five of them are Turkish-German. If a Turkish-German says to a jus sanguinis German: "I'm German," the German mutters under his breath, "Yeah, riiiiight."

    Let me repeat one line from the article: "[I]ts own Obama figure might take some time to emerge."

    Ya think?

    I guess an "Obama figure" is like an "action figure," huh?

    Listen, personally, I think Germany should NOT invite any more immigrants into its country. America is a country of immigrants; Germany is not. But, c'mon, can these Spiegel cats stop making fools of themselves?

    Any responses from those SELF-PROCLAIMED BRUTALLY HONEST Germans would be appreciated.


  10. How does it feel? For the most part no different, but I bet the AMT exclusion on taxes I pay to Germany will fall away and I will be stuck being double taxed again.

    And since I'm going to be expected to pull the wagon even harder for all those living in hope back home, I think it's time I start looking for one of them good government jobs with a nice pension and all the other benefits ... especially since that is going to be the one sector of the economy that will be expanding for the forseeable future ;)

  11. CN Heidelberg,

    Hey, I forgot to mention that I grew up in Dyersville, Iowa, where they filmed "Field of Dreams." When my Aunt Mildred was a young one-room schoolhouse teacher back in the 1920s, whenever there was a blizzard in winter she would spend the night in that farmhouse you see in the movie (the baseball field and the farmhouse are still there, by the way, and people come from all over the world to visit that spot). Imagine my aunt's surprise decades later when she saw the film and recognized the farmhouse.

    Where are you from in Iowa?


  12. Jeffrey, why are the Germans "SELF-PROCLAIMED BRUTALLY HONEST"? I first read about it in "USA erklärt", which is an american blog (where I must admit the author lives in Germany).

    We can not take notes of any "local" events or politics. Our news won't get more far than "XY-State has released a new ABC-Law". I think 90% of what we hear about America is related on your federal government and especially your president. If we now see as a fact (I do so, but correct me) America is "the perfect democracy", we cannot do anything but see that "you Americans":

    - like it to start wars
    - like it to install puppet governments (do I have to tell about examples? I think, they are obvious)
    - cannot do an election without malfunctioning "ballot counters" or "vote machines" or what else it may be

    ... and how miraculous, we see you did not mix two different things up, you and your president are "the same" ;-)

    You may have noticed my english is not very good (to be brutally honest, i find it difficult and I "can it not") so I will shut up now instead of nailing my bad english into my keyboard.

    Let me boil it down as this: Do not start wars, stop those which are running. And let us be arrogant :)

  13. I am happy to "explain" my country to anyone who cares to listen in Germany. Actually, I am flattered that people here take such a keen interest in what is happening over in the US. When you watch TV in the US, how often do you see anything being reported about Germany? In German print and broadcast news, you constantly see stuff reported about the US. That is why Germans will constantly question you.

    In my university sociology class, I learned that women are a minority too. In that category, Europe is ahead of us - Maggie Thatcher and Angela Merkel, just off the top of my head. I think that shows a high degree of tolerance.

  14. Ami in Oberursel,

    I am happy to "explain" my country to anyone who cares to listen in Germany.

    Good for you -- as long as it's balanced, I'd say.

    Actually, I am flattered that people here take such a keen interest in what is happening over in the US. When you watch TV in the US, how often do you see anything being reported about Germany?

    Hardly ever. Americans do not think about Germany or Germans all that often. Today there is no deep-seated fear of or fascination with Germany, so we don't project our anxieties onto Germans. So in the US you won't find any feverish anti-German remarks. During the late 1930s, of course, the situation here was different and we had real fears about getting pulled into another war started by the Germans. But we defeated the German military twice, the second time with such thoroughness that the Germans now are committed pacifists (and, to my mind, that's good for everyone).

    By the way, because Americans don't think about Germany very much and have, I'd say, a generally positive view of Germans as a people, many of them are shocked when they arrive in Germany and encounter the endemic, virulent anti-Americanism among Germans, especially in the press. It really is a shock. They don't realize how much Germans project their unstable feelings about themselves in the world onto America.

    In German print and broadcast news, you constantly see stuff reported about the US.

    A lot of that reporting, however, is very tendentious, more often than not feeding anti-American stereotypes.

    That is why Germans will constantly question you.

    In my experience, Germans tend to complain and insinuate more than they ask honest questions. Maybe your experiences have been different.


  15. Anonymous German,

    Let me boil it down as this: Do not start wars, stop those which are running. And let us be arrogant :)

    Although there are many aspects of German culture worthy of emulation, their penchant for telling other people what they should and should not do is NOT one of them.

    Here's an interesting blog entry ("Another German Stereotype fulfilled...") from an American who is married to a German and living in Germany with children. Before reading the entry, you should know that she calls her husband "the German" and her two children "Thing1" and "Thing2" -- Americans will laugh, although Germans may be puzzled by these labels for her offspring. Anyway, I think you'll enjoy it:

    So today we were dashing off to make a visit to friends in Dahlem, which is in itself a very funny story for another post. So the Things are dressed in parkas, and Thing2 is running down the street with her usual lack of gloves and with her hat hanging down (it's a constant struggle) when I note the German is speaking with an older German man. They seem quite congenial and after they parted I asked my German what the discussion was about. Seems the passer-by felt that he needed to help us out by saying "Your daughter needs to wear a hat." My husband answered, "That would be our business, I believe" to which the passer-by reponded, "If you can't figure it out by yourself, then I need to tell you." I personally would have handed the man Thing 2's gloves at that point and suggested he try himself, but the German is more polite and just ignored him.

    It's amusing because just yesterday the German came home and told me that while walking down the street he saw a man leave a soda bottle by a tree next to his Audi preparatory to driving off and that the German stopped, stared at the driver and said "I assume you want to pick up your bottles", provoking the driver to ask if the German watches out for the whole world. He said, "Yes, I do", the man picked up his bottle and drove away.

    Not quite the same thing, but perhaps in the neighborhood.

    German and American culture have many similarities, but also a few differences, as this anecdote illustrates.


  16. CN- I am also feeling the love and the hopeful sense with Obama's win. Isn't it grand? Here's hoping that Nov 4 was the beginning of many more good times to come!

  17. Jeffrey,

    I'm thoroughly impressed and would love to read more of your thoughts (your blog perhaps).

    The question is: where is it?


  18. Jeffrey, I'm from rural western Iowa. The Other Side. ;) I'm with Jimmy, where is your blog? You seem to have a lot to say and since I don't have very many readers you probably won't get much response putting it all on my lowly blog.

    Mike B, I don't know about those govt jobs...wouldn't they just get cut again when a Republican gets in office again? ;) Anyway I don't think we'll get double taxed, but I thank you for having more realistic concerns than some of the other stuff I'm hearing out there!

    Diane: I like when there is cause for international partying!

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Are you kidding? Government jobs never get cut, especially, at least it seems after watching the ramp-up under Bush the Decider, under Republicans.

    BTW, I've experienced a roughly 90-10 love-hate America split among Germans before The Wall came down, and have watched that go to something closer to 50-50. I joke about the Germans feeling their oats now that they think they don't need the Amis to face off the Sovs any more. So feel the love now, but don't be surprised when it fades away.

  21. CN and Jimmy,

    I don't have a blog on German-American understanding and misunderstanding. I do, however, follow both German-language and English-language bloggers that discuss this subject and try to add my thoughts to the debates. You'll see my name here and there. I've been known to cause trouble -- as the loyal contrarian, of course -- over at German Joys, among other sites. Anyway, I thought that CN's blog entry was excellent and worth discussion.

    Four and a half years ago I started a blog -- Iraqi Bloggers Central -- that focuses on the English-language Iraqi bloggers, both those living inside and outside Iraq. It's been a moderate success, getting blogrolled at the NYTimes and other major media outlets. My latest entry, if you're curious, takes up a few responses from the Iraqi blogosphere to Obama's electoral win (Sandmonkey is from Egypt, however).

    As I said earlier, having lived in Germany back in the 1980s and having returned several times since then, the country and its people continue to fascinate me. Sadly, German anti-Americanism waxes and wanes, but never goes away.

    Mike B.

    BTW, I've experienced a roughly 90-10 love-hate America split among Germans before The Wall came down, and have watched that go to something closer to 50-50. I joke about the Germans feeling their oats now that they think they don't need the Amis to face off the Sovs any more. So feel the love now, but don't be surprised when it fades away.

    I also lived in Germany before the Wall came down. I would gauge the love-hate ratio at something more like 70-30 or 60-40 back then, among those that had any strong feelings about America. But I agree that the current "love-fest," for those of us who have lived there for extended periods of time, will come to an end probably sooner rather than later. Envy and then resentment of our "cool" new president are not far away, I'm afraid. Instead of Obama, Germans got Steinmeier, a politician in the sehr Deutsch mold, not exactly a "transformational figure." The German need to complain will find new outlets and eventually they will re-focus on different aspects of America to castigate. But let me be clear, there are far more positive elements to German culture than negative. Living in Germany is a great way to learn about the differences between our two cultures, as we can see by reading CN's blog.


  22. Jeffrey,

    Funny enough, I used to read your blog for quite some time.

    Sandmonkey was one of the few moderate voices I could find back then.

    Keep up the good work. Now that I use Google Reader, I have subscribed to your feed.


  23. Jimmy,

    Hey, thanks! We don't blog as much as we used to, but we try to update what's going on the Iraqi blogosphere regularly.

    Sandmonkey has a unique voice, to be sure. At IBC we've linked to him many times. Here's just one entry from October, 2005, that features Sam:

    Speak Wise Sandmonkey!

    Sam's sense of humor is killer.



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