Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Craig Morris on Expat Life

I found this set of articles by Craig Morris, an American living in Germany, several months ago, and I just rediscovered them now! I've been meaning to post them.

This article is my particular favorite, and some parts of it are all-too-familiar. (Bolding mine.)
. . . "It certainly does matter," I said. "If you don't speak the language at all, you can't be yourself. You won't be able to show your humor and your personality for years. You should be going out and spending time with the natives so you can learn their language, but you'll get a headache after talking to them for 10 minutes at a party. A whole night in the foreign tongue will feel like a college admission test. Pretty soon, you'll be spending all your time with all the other foreigners who are suffering the same fate . . .

. . . It's easy to criticize the natives because foreigners are not well integrated, but foreigners also put themselves in ghettos," I continued. "At some point, you find yourself surrounded by nothing but other foreigners, who also don't have any friends that aren't foreign, and then everybody starts complaining about how hard it is to make friends with these cold, unfriendly natives. I saw that go on for years in Germany and also thought it must be true because all the foreigners thought the Germans were not interested in us.

"Then I spent a year in France. You think the foreigners in France spoke differently about the French? The Germans I met in France loved spending time with me because they could tell me exactly how they felt in their own native tongue. You wouldn't believe how these Germans talked bad about the French! You can never make friends with them, they're not interested in foreigners anyway, and so forth. Real integration is almost impossible even when the conditions in the country of your choice are good. Both sides have to give it their all."

It continues to be interesting from there, but the above was all too familiar. Integrating is really hard and takes years and years and years and if you don't spend every one of those years working your ass off at integrating, it might never even happen.

There has recently been a little more negative attention on foreigners around here, and even though people may tell us we are the "good kind" of immigrants, whatever that means, I don't really feel all that comfortable with it. I haven't totally integrated and don't know if I ever would. I still speak English with doctors, for example. I just find my health way too important to botch that communication with my shitty German, and every doctor I've had was excellent in English. Are these doctors, in the back of their minds, thinking poorly of me for being foreign and not being 5 billion percent integrated? That possibility does cross my mind.

Of course this talk is always going on in the US too. To my surprise, when I was home earlier this year, my own father asked me if my husband and I speak German at home. Of course we don't (except for some little bits for fun here and there), and I was pretty shocked that he would even wonder about that. But, I think he was thinking of immigrants to the US and whether they should be expected to use English even at home, even if the whole family speaks a common native language that isn't English. Personally I find that way too much to ask! You could easily destroy a family by taking away the nuances of their communication by forcing them to do it in a language they are just learning. But, I think there are people (not my dad - he was just curious) who really believe that should be done. We've had people comment to us in public that we should be speaking German when they overhear us speaking English to each other. I don't think talking to my own husband in English is really imposing an imperalist language on anyone else or failing to integrate at an appropriate level.



  1. "A whole night in the foreign tongue will feel like a college admission test." I so totally get that. It might also cause a migrane.

    In fact, I understand most of this. Integration in Italy might be worse. The key is language, of course, but even that doesn't guarantee true acceptance here. But you HAVE to learn the language. Many people in the American community do not, so, obviously, they do not successfully integrate. How can they expect to know the natives without speaking the native language? What, should the natives all learn English?

    And why would anyone ever think it's acceptable to tell people which language they should speak to one another? It's no one's business but my own which language I speak to my daughter or my husband. That's just plain silly.

    I have many thoughts on this . . . but I'll stop there.

  2. Do you know what? I had the whole "headache after several hours of German" thing for probably the first six months. Then I was fine. I think people really should immerse themselves. I refuse to speak English with someone unless they can't speak German. That pretty much limits it to my friends and family from the U.S. Everyone else gets German and somehow we get by. I also make it a point to read German every day, eat German food, and if someone insists I meet a fellow countryman, I insist back that I only will if we speak German while we are in Germany. So there you go.

  3. Dana,

    And why would anyone ever think it's acceptable to tell people which language they should speak to one another? It's no one's business but my own which language I speak to my daughter or my husband. That's just plain silly.

    Germans view these kinds of issues differently. To them, it's not silly. In general, Germans do believe that it is within their rights to tell other people how to act and what's proper. Now, listen, to me this isn't a matter or right or wrong. It's just how Germans are. Americans are different.

    Two summers ago I was riding a bicycle at dusk in Berlin when an elderly woman flagged me down to tell me that I should already have my light turned on. Of course, at first I was stunned, but then I just had to laugh. Germans.

    Germans have an inner-schoolmarm that comes out in a variety of situations. Germans are used to controlling each other; they are no different when handling foreigners. Again, I don't think it's necessarily bad. It's just how German culture works. No elderly woman in the US would ever flag down a stranger to tell him to turn on his bike-light; in Germany, it happens. Having lived in Germany before, I could give many other examples.

  4. Headbang: awww.

    Dana: Language is definitely key, but complete acceptance in any country might only come when you get citizenship. During the World Cup I read an article with an anecdote in a shop - a German dude bitched to the clerk about Oezil being Turkish (despite being born and raised here - if he were it would be mere technicality), and they were at least able to shoot back that he has German citizenship.

    Michemily: What are you talking to me in English for, then? We're both right here in Germany.

    Jeffrey: I'm so used to the telling each other what to do thing that I have started to have the urge to do it when I'm in the US....

  5. Actually one of the best ways to get into speaking a language is to use your own humor.. translate one of your favorite jokes and try it out on the "natives". Even if it doesn't get the response you were hoping for at the punch line, they will appreciate it that you tried. Much preferable to sweating a grammatically perfect German sentence (even the Germans have trouble with this).
    And funnily enough, in the new language one develops a new personality... you have opportunities you might never have had in your own language. I can express certain ideas much more powerfully in German than I can in English. In my teaching (I work in English, French, and German) I realized with a shock that I was most effective in German, followed by French and then English. I have no idea why that should be, given that English is my mother tongue and I did my university degrees in English. It is an curious phenomenon that should be investigated sometime.
    My German is fluent (well, I have been here for a while) but far from correct. Fortunately my colleagues have gotten used to it and they only laugh at it about once a day.
    The habit of little old ladies screaming at you for jaywalking is indeed quite typical (although more prevalent in southern Germany and Switzerland than in the north). My girlfriend (who is German) is not immune to this behavior... I had to physically restrain her when we were working in China recently because she was in the habit of loudly berating car drivers who she thought were violating the driving rules, in German.

  6. I'm not so sure that some — or even most — native Germans accept their colleagues/friends/neighbors/in-laws of foreign origin as wholly German, even after acquiring citizenship.

    Case in point: I was describing to some colleagues in the Frankfurt area my little group at our design/service center in Romania, and I explained that that department was headed up locally by a German.

    Germans: "Oh really, OK. What's his name?"

    cliff1976: "Turkish-named Turkish-guy.*"

    Gs: "WHAT? That can't be a German guy."

    c76: "Uh, he grew up here, worked in our department in Regensburg for 4 years, took a foreign assignment to Romania, enjoys Catholic holidays as much as you would, if you lived in Bavaria or Ba-Wü. What else do you need?"

    Gs: "Klar, er hat einen deutschen PASS, aber..."

    These sentiments were not expressed with malice, but it became clear to me at that point that if you have an outwardly non-German appearance (in this case it was only his name; they'd never met him or even spoken with him on the phone), even carrying a German passport doesn't qualify as German among some Germans.

    Let's take me: my last name is German and if I am introduced only as "Herr 1976**," and I don't have to talk too much, my impression is that I'm passing. I look European, have a German last name, and my accent doesn't immediately raise the Foreigner Alarm.

    I do, of course, have a much more formidable fashion sense, but that's often lost on the locals anyways.

    *Not his real name, but you knew that.

  7. I just interviewed a woman here in San Francisco who was born in Hamburg but moved here 20 years ago (she was mid-40s) and got the funniest response (btw, Der Spiegel had a great pie chart on immigrants, showing that last year, immigrants to Germany from the US outnumbered the immigrants from Turkey and Arab countries to disprove some of the recent discourse). Anyway, the funny response:

    "well, I think you can't compare the immigration situation in Germany with that in the US. In Germany, the Turks just make it miserable -- and I don't want to sound like a NaSi or something -- but they just don't ever try to speak the language. I guess they say the same about the Mexicans here in California, but I just think it's so different. You know, because the Mexicans, well, they do the shit work that no one else wants to do here so why not let them in."

    Needless to say, I couldn't use the quote... there was just sooo much disconnect; is there not a separation between the illegal immigration debate and the integration of legal immigrants debate?

    Anyway, you might check out the documentary Endstation der Sehnsüchte if you like this topic. It was incredible and I wrote about it here: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,6165978,00.html

  8. I find this so interesting, because so many venues I am in are discussing this with different levels of vitriol.

    I totally agree with Cliff. I say that as someone who can't pass- too short, too "Ruthenian" looking- but I am treated much better as a white Anglophone than my short, Eastern looking peers who speak Russian.

    @Michemily. Interesting concept. So you prefer to speak incorrect German with other foreigners in the attempt to speak only German? My teachers, and my childrens' teachers, absolutely disagree. That's why I speak only English with my children, as they strongly recommend: they learn correct German in school from actual native speakers.

    I'm enjoying that series of articles, btw, thanks for linking them.

  9. One strange thing I've noticed is that the expat-typical bitching about local customs is really really hard to do in the local language. Thinking/talking through your concern in the other language often makes you realize you were getting all worked up about completely arbitrary stuff.
    That might be one argument for speaking the local language at home. (We're German expats living in the US.)

  10. I'd like relay a message from a non-German speaker: “I speak German to people but they always respond in English because they assume I don't understand.”

  11. Vailian: I've heard that different personalities thing before. Someone told me they had a friend who they liked so much better in one language than the other!

    Cohu: Funny, my husband's most common use of German-for-fun is to bitch about the locals... Perhaps German is just the best langauge for bitching. ;)

  12. Quite a lot said here!

    I have work friend from the former Yugoslavia - speaks 4 languages, great (but accented) German - but he's been stopped on the street for his ID by the police multiple times.

    I've never had a problem, and while my German is decent, it's far from perfect and occaisionally, I can't say exactly what I want to.

    There are places where cutures rub against eachother. To pick, what I hope is a more harmless example - I am not a fan of having to wade through a large group of men standing around - whether they be German, Hispanic or Turkish. There's nothing illegal about it, it's just not my favorite thing, but the groups aren't usually German (teens are an exception).

    I am sure my ex-boyfriend's neighbors could have done without his (ethnic) music. In other words. it isn't necessarily language that makes people react negatively to their neighbors.

    You benefit from being well educated and unobtrusive (or do you wander HD in shorts and sneakers?) and being white doesn't hurt. You also travel a lot locally and take a real interest in German culture, which is probably a plus. -- Expecting people to speak the language when they are at home is silly, although I see a point to it at school.

    Blending and being true to yourself is a delicate balance. If it were up to me would work hard at the one, but still bake brownies every once in a while and revel in my verweigerung der integration!

    The business with the passports is still truly new in Germany (10 years?). We will probably need to give it a generation til people really get used to people with migrations-hintergrund having German passports. Not saying it will change, but it could.

    all the best from down south!

  13. A subject I have lived with in recent years.

    Regarding the issue of speaking your native tongue with your spouse ... Relationships are challenging enough without adding the element of possible misunderstanding into the equation.


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