Toe Dipping

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Today a new friend came over, and I told her about this blog.  (I’ve been keeping it relatively secret at the moment in case someone actually reads it before I’m ready to “go live.”)

She and I can relate to the topics I want to explore here on multiple levels. For one thing, she used to teach English at the school I currently teach English at.  We’re the same age, we both came over to Heidelberg a long time ago with the idea that there was no other city on the planet we’d be happy living in, and now we both have children and very little chance of being able to move back to the States any time soon.  I think we’re also similar in that this fact confuses us, emotionally.

It’s funny, this stage of life that we’re in.  Both of us worked so hard to establish ourselves as long-term expats.  But, now that we’re married and have young children there’s this whole new slew of questions, doubts and stress that accompany that.  I think it’s a given that mentalities/dreams/etc. change when you have children. And, that’s true a million times over when you live 4,000 miles away from family in a culture that, no matter how long you’ve lived there, still isn’t quite your own.

Anyway, in our three hour, animated conversation an interesting question came up—what type of expat did we want to be at this point?

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but there really are “types” when it comes to the German expat experience.

So, first there’s what I’ll call the all in expat.  This is someone who moves here and immerses completely in the culture.  We’re talking someone who speaks German more than their native language (sometimes to the point that their native language gets rusty.) They have mostly German friends, send their kids to German school, join German clubs, and take up wearing matching, head to toe ‘official’ biking outfits with their partners.  They shrug off their birth citizenship without a second thought. (Or at least that’s how it looks on the outside.)

Then there’s the halfway expat. I’d say this type has a genuine interest in the language and culture, and really takes the time to learn what they can. They have friendships with Germans—and speak German when they’re with them. They maybe take on some aspects of culture—like making their main meal lunch, rather than dinner, or setting off fireworks in the middle of the street on New Year’s Eve. But, they also have a close connection to their home culture. Perhaps they speak English at home, work in an English-speaking environment, have a partner from their home country and plan to move home after a certain number of years.  They are here to learn, but not necessarily to stay.  Or, they’re here to stay, but not necessarily to ‘become.’

And, finally, there’s what I’ll call the toe dipper.  These are people who definitely like to enjoy everything that Germany offers—from travel, to drinking liters of beer, to skiing, or visiting all the Fasching parades.  They might learn a few key phrases, like “danke” or “noch ein Bier bitte.” But, they don’t necessarily have an interest in becoming fluent in the language or in being true Germans, themselves. They gravitate towards people from their home country and live on the fringe.  They might live here for a few years and build up a collection of cuckoo clocks and bier steins before moving on to the next adventure. Or, they might live here for forty years.  But their culture is still the dominant one for them.

FYI I realize this is a completely simplistic way of defining people.  I’m not saying one type is any better than another.  But, suffice it to say, I do think there are levels of involvedness that people who come over here take on. And, ultimately it’s a choice.

When I first arrived in Germany back in 2002, I was truly in that first category.  There was nothing more fulfilling to me than a night out with German friends and actually understanding everything they said (or at least enough to feel part of the conversation.) I practiced the German “r,” nonstop, determined to master it.  I was even willing to take on the requirement of treating others to dinner on my birthday.

(Yes, this is one aspect of German culture that has always intrigued me.  On your birthday, rather than being treated like a king/queen, you invite all of your friends over or to a restaurant and treat them to food and drinks.  On one hand, I can’t imagine no longer having the expectation that everyone is going to spoil me on my special day and that it will be, in fact, the other way around.  But, rather than being treated just once a year—you’re treated any time someone you love has a birthday! It’s a lot less selfish that way, I guess.)

Anyway, I couldn’t get enough of Germany in the beginning.  I think I drove people insane because I’d come home to visit and talk nonstop about all the ways that Europe was, in my opinion, superior to the States.  I literally was so consumed with learning German that I had those weird moments where I suddenly “forgot” English words and had to sit there waiting for my brain to recall, for example, words like coffee, or bank account, or tired.

But, it’s 2016 and I have to say that my expat type has hovered somewhere between halfway and toe dipper for a long while.  I still love ‘successful’ German conversations, and have a good knowledge of the language.  But, I don’t seek out opportunities to speak it nearly so much.  Reason being, all of my German friends speak better English than I speak German, so I just can’t be bothered.  (Isn’t that terrible? I’m just trying to analyze myself, honestly.)

I married an American who teaches for the military, so we’re deeply connected to that community. Our pantry has German bread and fresh cheese from our local Rewe, but also Cinnamon Life cereal and Macaroni and Cheese from the commissary.  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t consider watching TV unless it was dubbed in German.  But, fast forward to just yesterday, and my husband brought home a box to get AFN (American TV only available through the military) and I couldn’t have been happier. I get to watch ‘The Voice’ now! And, ‘Ellen!’ I love Germany, but I also love the States and have one foot firmly anchored in the American community within Germany.

So this is where the question comes in.  What type of expat do I want to be at this point? 

Because, life has changed.  I have a daughter now (named Laken, who is eight months old and makes what we call the ‘dragon face’ when she’s about to crawl over to something strictly forbidden to her.)

And, despite the fact that life has changed in this monumental way…it’s also going to stay the same, in many senses, for a long time.  We aren’t moving back to the States any time soon.  We just can’t.  So, it’s no longer so much about how much I feel like being involved.  It has to be more about how much I need to be involved for Laken’s sake and, even more importantly, how much I need to involve her.  So, perhaps the question I actually need to be thinking about these days is what type of expat do I want Laken to be? (Well, technically I can’t even really use the word ‘expat’ because she was born here.)

Honestly, I don’t see myself moving back to being all in.  But I think toe dipping isn’t going to benefit Laken all that much.  My biggest fear is that she grows up feeling like an outsider and/or not fully vested in any certain place .

I don’t want that.  It’s important to me that she speaks fluent German and can interact with the neighborhood kids. I want her to follow German tradition and carry a Schultuete (cone filled with snacks and school supplies) on the first day of school.  And, I want her to roam the neighborhood in January to celebrate Dreikoenigstag.  (It’s a really sweet  holiday, actually.  Children dress up as the Three Wise Men and go door to door, telling their story.  After they are done, you give them money to donate to charity and they put a sticker inscribed with the year and the initials CMB on your door.  The letters stand for ‘Christus Mansionem Benedicat’–or, Jesus Bless This House.)

But at the same time…I don’t see her at a German school (for reasons that would take another whole blog to fill and I’ll do that some day.) I don’t see her primary language being German, especially given the fact that her father doesn’t speak the language.

And, I also desperately want her to be familiar with and at home in America. As a kid, what was better than roaming the neighborhood on Halloween, seeking out the homes that gave out the biggest candy bars? (Yes, they celebrate Halloween here–sort of–but it’s just catching on.) What about holidays with family? What about heading down to the park to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July?

I chose to be an expat, but she did not. So, where do we immerse ourselves?

It’s a tough question that I need to spend some time thinking about and addressing. But, the one thing I feel confident in is that at the very least I need to start ‘upping’ my level of involvement in Germany.  To what degree, I don’t know, yet.  That’s what I’ll continue to explore in life and in this blog!

How about you, fellow expats? What ‘type’ of expat would you say you are, and how do you feel about it? Are there any ‘types’ I’m forgetting about?

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10 thoughts on “Toe Dipping

  1. A very interesting and thought provoking read which has brought to the front of my mind a bug that I’ve bared for many years – my confession as a ‘toe dipper’. I wish I could be an ‘all in’ or at least half, but the truth is that I surround myself with English speaking expats because it makes me feel safe. Conversation is easy, can be witty, funny and I don’t have to try hard. I do have a couple of non English speaking German ‘friends’ and I use inverted commas because how I define a true friend requires full communication. My German friends don’t really know me, I mean REALLY know me and nor I them. We cannot share humour. And to top it all off, I leave feeling utterly exhausted! So I would love to join you in you quest to become more culturally enlightened. Let’s be in this together!

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    • Thank you so much for reading, for replying, and for being the friend you are. YES I would love to be in this together. I definitely identify with everything you said. In the beginning it felt so great to put myself out there (ooh, like in The Bachelor!) and to really immerse in everything. But, as you said, it was difficult to feel like the friendships I made could go deeply enough. And, yes–it is exhausting working so hard to express ourselves! I don’t really know how to make a change, yet. I just keep thinking about Laken and how much I need her to feel like we ARE totally a part of this society….or as much as possible.

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    • It’s funny how we can feel at home here and yet separate. And then I tend to feel the same way when I go back to the States! I have this feeling of reverse culture shock (which is so strange, seeing as I grew up there!) But, it takes me a minute to figure out how everything works. I’ll find it the ultimate luxury when other people bag my groceries, and it seems like everyone is driving soon slowly. 🙂 Anyway, thank you for reading. 🙂

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  2. I’d have to say I’m somewhere around the toe dipper stage, although since it’s the same language in the uk, it’s not as noticeable. I have a mixture of British and American friends, but I can’t see myself fully converting!

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  3. Thanks for your comment! I used to live in the UK, too, and I like what you said about how you’re toe dipping, but it isn’t as noticeable. That’s such a good point. I toe-dipped there, too, but it probably seemed (and even felt?) like I was more a part of things…even if I wasn’t. Anyway, I need to check out your blog!

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  4. Oooh, lots of Bachelor references. Yay! This show is everything I hate and yet I love it. I read spoilers on who wins and I do not approve 😦 Ben is simply precious to me. I love him beyond all reason.

    Where were you when you were in the States? I live in South Carolina, originally from Northern Virginia.

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    • You read the spoilers? You are too funny! Hmm…you don’t approve? Please don’t tell me it’s JoJo? I’m kind of loving Lauren B! But that seems so obvious (i.e. that she’s IT at the end) that I’m starting to think they are editing it that way to trick us.) Ben is an amazing Bachelor for sure. It’s a really good thing I don’t have American TV at the moment–I get so addicted! Anyway, I am from Buffalo, New York (only place I’ve ever lived in the States.) How do you like South Carolina? I really want to know what made you start writing! Have you always loved to write? I want to know the story of your blog. It might be on your blog…as soon as Laken takes a nap, I plan to read more!

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      • I always read Reality Steve and know who wins going in. I can’t help it, even though it’s liking watching a football game when you already know the outcome. Buffalo! Duh!!!!! I get the name now! SC is great. I am from only 7 miles outside DC, so this is another world. Slower paced, quieter, less traffic and crime. I live near the mountain side, not the beach side of SC.

        The only thing that made me start writing a blog is that I used to post these things on Facebook and strangers would come up to me and tell me they loved my stories. At my husband’s work, where I am only actual FB friends with one or two of them, he told me they would take a group into a room once a week and just read my posts. But I am not for everyone.

        When I made a FB post, I would have to think really hard about which people I was going to exclude from the post due to subject matter. People here in SC are super Baptists. I just started posting on my own blog instead of on there. No one can get to the blog by accident. so whatever I decide to post, they literally asked for it. My real name isn’t attached to it. It’s been a steep learning curve for me. My friends and family aren’t very bloggy. They don’t know what to do with it. They CALL me and tell me they liked a post. Ha. Whenever I get a stranger following, I am thrilled.

        Lauren B. seems prissy to me.

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  5. I wanted to write back to this yesterday, but Laken has been a little needy this week and I didn’t have a chance. What an interesting story about how you got started with blogging! I love the idea of people huddled together at your husband’s work, reading your posts. 🙂 Putting together a blog was a very good call. You can be yourself and not have to worry about filtering anything because of your surroundings. And, that’s really what I appreciate about your writing. You are so REAL. I try my hardest, but there’s still something blocking me. However, I’m so sleep deprived right now that it’s helping me avoid writer’s block, completely. I wouldn’t quite say that Laken is the best sleeper. Not the worst, but not the best. I smiled about people calling to tell you they like a post. 🙂 That’s how things have been for me, so far. I hear on Facebook, telephone or private message that people are reading. It always takes me by surprise when I find out someone read my posts (I don’t know why.) I hit publish, but then don’t REALLY think of it as being out there for people to read. Very strange. I can’t believe you just started blogging so recently. Aside from Facebook posts did you write before this? As for Lauren B., damn it–I didn’t see/think that before but now I’m going to go in to the Fantasy Suites episode with that in mind. Now that you say it, I can see that being true!! But I’m not a huge JoJo fan, either! Ugh. I take the Bachelor very seriously, you know. 😉

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