Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The shock of no culture shock on arriving in Germany

When I first moved overseas to Japan, I definitely experienced a degree of culture shock, as anyone who's been to Japan can understand - they do lots of things differently there. I soon adjusted and loved living this different life, and when I moved on to Slovakia I found another complete set of things that were different, mostly centered around the remnants of socialist days which had not been gone that long when I lived in Bratislava in 2003-2004.

The culture shock lessens each time as I move from Japan to Slovakia to Germany
Then I moved to Germany. I had wanted to live in Germany for a long time - probably since my high school trip there in 1990, when I fell in love with the country that gave me such amazing experiences as being at the Berlin Wall for the reunification of West and East in 1990, and also gave me my first experience of being really away from home and family, at the age of 14.

But when I got to Germany, to my new home of Heilbronn to be precise, I was a bit disappointed. A lot of it was just like being at home in Australia (or at least what I remembered of life in Australia after being away for a few years already). There was a similar standard of living. People did similar jobs. The Germans travelled as much if not more than Australians and knew similar things about the wider world. I could understand them all, more or less, unlike in Slovakia or Japan where the language was a significant (and in retrospect, interesting) barrier.

The list went on. Germany seemed boring in my first weeks there. The work was similar to what I'd done before. The rubbish collection system was relatively easy to decipher (a bit more complicated than at home, but logical, at least). I could get around. I even had a car, for the first time since Australia. Where was the challenge in this supposedly "new" life?

Yes, it took a while to dawn on me, but I was actually suffering from a lack of culture shock. The modern western German culture was not all that different from Australian culture and I was disappointed. Japan had been incredibly different, Slovakia had been different enough to keep life interesting, but here was Germany, modern, normal, boring.

Autumn (or fall!) in the vineyards near Heilbronn
Or so I thought. The reality was that I just needed to dig a little deeper to find the differences, and took me longer to learn to love the experience of living in Germany and to appreciate the interesting differences between it and my home country. Of course, it turned out that there were a lot. I even got to experience proper seasons and found immense joy in something as seemingly simple as that. And now that I'm married to a German, and particularly since he's been transplanted back to Australia, I discover regularly that there are even more. Such a long list that they are definitely a subject for another post.

But on a related note: I used to think that people who moved to another English-speaking country and then said they'd lived in a foreign country were kind of cheating. For example, lots of young Australians move to the United Kingdom for a year or two, taking advantage of the working holiday visa provisions, and consider they've lived abroad. They have, of course, but I felt like it was not a "real" overseas experience. But that's what Germany felt like to me, and then I learnt that moving countries, even to one where they speak the same language, is still a way to learn a lot about different people, different cultures and different ways of life. All of which is definitely a good thing.

12 comments:

  1. Hi Amanda, I think I am going to get a culture shock when I go to Hong Kong and enter ever so slightly into China. Your post makes me think of us Kiwis moving to Australia, yep, no culture shock there either.

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    1. Ah yes, good point, not too much here in Oz to shock a Kiwi! And it'll be really interesting to hear what you think about China. Could indeed be some culture shock there! And lots and lots of bloggable moments.

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  2. I know exactly what you mean Amanda. Going abroad has to be to a totally different culture to be meaningful for me in the sense of having been somewhere totally different to home. But as you say, when you dig a little deeper, everywhere is different - culture shock is relative. You could get culture shock I reckon in the UK if you moved from the south to the north or Scotland!

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    1. Or maybe even by moving from Perth to Bunbury? Haha probably not. But yes, "real" culture shock for me should be in a completely different culture and that's the most "instant" fun but it's important to do that digging too.

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  3. Comparing Australia to Germany I should think there would be a massive period of adaption and acclimatisation, and experience of "culture" shock. The food, landscape, German mentality including the German humour (or lack of it, *tongue in cheek*) is completely different. Not to mention a language difference - it's wrong to make the assumption that the average German can speak decent English, go out of the major cities and you'll find this is not the case.

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    1. Oh yes, you're absolutely right on all of that Anon - and I think if I had moved directly to Germany from Australia I probably would have felt more culture shock. But compared to, say, Japan, the differences are much more subtle. (I must say that though that my German husband is actually quite hilarious - but then again, he's not really a typical German in many ways!)

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  4. geremany is one of the great country to visit.

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  5. While I understand your premise that going to a country of non-Caucasian ethnicity (if you're Caucasian) would be more of shock due the differences of appearance, foods that are eaten, method of greetings, customs etc - I often think people assume because they're traveling (or migrating) to a country that speaks the basics of the 'same' language that its going to be a home from home -
    As Jo said, even regions within the UK are Oh so different - the most hidden being 'sense of humour', which isn't at all visible but can lead to offence, discomfort and misunderstanding when things, for example are said tongue in cheek - but taken literally!

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    1. Absolutely true, Linda. I just used to think (back in my 20s) that these people were "cheating"! Of course, they're not. The challenges still exist but are just not always instantly obvious. I know I've had my fair share of misunderstandings with English speakers from other countries (what immediately springs to mind - my American stepfather who always told me "You lucked out!" and I thought he was being mean, but it turned out that's a positive way in US English to say you were lucky whereas we think of it as the opposite!)

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  6. What an interesting post! I've been to Germany a few times, but I've never lived there. To be honest, I didn't fall in love with it, even though one of my experiences was in the home of a German family (my German flatmate in Sydney who had returned to Germany (in the burbs, about an hour from Frankfurt). Besides the language barrier when they spoke German, I didn't really feel like there was much of a difference in cultures. But, like several others have commented, I don't think you have to visit, or live in, a culture that isn't Westernised to experience 'difference' – you can even do that in your home town if you look hard enough! Great post!

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    1. Thanks Rachael :-) I suspect that a village an hour from Frankfurt is probably not the most exciting part of Germany, especially if you don't speak German, so that probably didn't help - but I know what you mean, it's not a country I feel passionately about the way I do about places like Japan or Estonia or other places where I had really amazing experiences. Although Berlin does truly excite me!

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