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?