Thursday, June 10, 2010

Culture-Shock for the Seemingly Un-shockable

It's breakfast time. I grab a jar of jelly from the fridge, but pause to examine the hand-written date on the front. Only the year (of jarring) is ledgible, and that happens to be 2008. I open the jam for a smell, but my hostess sees me and looks slightly turned off by my gesture.

In German, I ask whether she has another jelly. She heads dutifully into the house, returning with three jams, which collectively hit the teak table with a soft thump. She adds in German, "I have nothing more to offer you.", before heading down into the garden.

As I eat my jam on a warm croissant, I am left wondering about this odd exchange. It's one of hundreds I've have had during our (on and off) time here in Germany, but since this particular discussion was with my mother-in-law (with whom I actually have an excellent relationship), it prompted a bit more reflection.

Cultural exchanges like these are inevitable. My German language skills may be decent and my husband a native, but that doesn't prevent misunderstandings from arising.

Here are a few additional examples of some confusion-causing incidents from my past:

-The tools can be toys conundrum: My 4-year-old son has a small and very sharp "children's saw" at his grandparents' house. He is also allowed to use hammers and nails while there and to help Opa mow the lawn. Bottom line: while I think he's too young to be handling tools like that, my in-laws think he's too young for television and any form of computer games. Fortunately in this case, I think the collision of cultures can help promote to a balanced upbringing.

-The "kids can do anything" philosophy vs. the "kids should be playing" philosophy. Back in the States, most people believe that - if their child is determined enough - s/he can move moutains. Case in point: Lukas wants to build a lemonade stand, and I am totally willing to help him in any way possible, given he find a worthy cause. Tobi, on the other hand, seems to have this internal statistical tool that makes decisions based on the probability that a given project will succeed (even with our kids). I can only guess that anything with an assigned probability below 20% is deemed unworthy of being performed. And besides, here in Germany, the common belief seems to be that young children shouldn't be attempting to do grown up things like read, write, or complete mathematical tasks. They should be playing! And yet, if your child says that they want to do something meaningful and charitable, shouldn't you encourage that?

-The "I don't know you, so why are you speaking to me" look. This is particularly hard to handle for U.S. expats, as back in the States people are sometimes overly friendly to passers-by. Undoubtedly, this contributes to the stereotype that Germans are "cold". I've even observed it at the Kindergarten level when picking Lukas up from school. Lukas seems to have inherited my need to greet people wherever we go, so it's only natural that he want to say "Tschüss" to those whom he considers to be his "friends" at school. Take, for example, the following exchange on the school playground. Lukas says, "Tschüss Analina, Tschüss Analina, Analina... TSCHÜSS!" And little Analina acts as though she doesn't hear us until the last attempt, at which point she looks directly at Lukas with a blank stare. A minute later, inside of the school, the same thing happens with a boy from Lukas' class, but his mother is there and prompts him to say "Tschüss" back by the third try. Whether it's a refusal to talk to someone you don't consider a friend or a case of kids from the countryside resisting that which is different and/or foreign will remain a mystery, but I certainly do find it interesting!

When all is said and done, it's our differences that make the world interesting. Afterall, if life abroad was the same as life at "home" what good would it do us to travel? And, since my views have changed tremendously since we've begun to travel, I'm certain that there are are many incredible lessons that we can learn from one another, but none more important than that of tolerance.

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