I had to laugh when I saw Beth’s post earlier this week about the Big American Family. For the past couple of weeks, in spite of everything else that’s going on in my life, I’ve been subtly preoccupied with the same balance of being an American abroad. The conclusions I’ve been reaching, both consciously and subconsciously in my thoughts and behaviours, have been at once interesting and embarrassing and, I think, worth sharing in contrast to Beth’s.
Let me explain a couple of things first, though. The first is that I’ve always been the sort of person who wants to fit in- when I moved to Montreal, for example, it didn’t take me long to start turning all my vowels into duck-like diphthongs like all the Quebecois do. The second is that I grew up traveling, which at the time seemed normal but I have since come to realize is a significant privilege. So many of the things I take for granted about how to travel with courtesy, and what time spent in a foreign country “should” be like, are news to a lot more people than I had expected.
Where I currently live is an interesting mix of cultures and expectations. Every day, I learn new things about life on the Continent- that eggs come in packages of ten but are stored in groups of seven, that no one eats Romaine lettuce over here, how long unopened milk containers can stay outside the ‘fridge before you really need to start drinking their contents. That most toilets have different flush functions for different toilet uses. That the German cultural affinity for order and the greater social good means that German drivers, while incredibly fast, are also generally very polite. That buying gas “on the economy” will cost me up to 75€ ($100) per tank for a small car. And I *love* it. As culturally inappropriate as it is to say…it feels exciting because it’s exotic. When my limited ability with German doesn’t give me away, I can blend in and pretend that this new and different-from-what-I-grew-up-with place is my own.
The challenge comes from my job. I might be living in Europe and attempting to blend in, but I will always be an American here. I don’t have a work visa- I have a military ID. All of my off-base transactions, from rent to car purchases, are governed by the agreements set up between the U.S. military and the German government. Having that ID, that particular status, sets me apart from the Germans and from Americans here on work visas in ways that my mispronunciation of “Wie geht es Ihnen?” never will- even if most of the people here never see it. I think that’s because the ID removes me from the German community (or collective experiences) in ways that only Americans can be here. With my ID, I can choose how far to immerse myself in the German economy- do I want to buy Romaine lettuce badly enough to shop at the on-base grocery store? What about milk? It extends to bigger matters as well. For a mere $2.50, I can purchase forms that will reimburse me for the 19% VAT– a tax designed to rebuild East Germany- and potentially save me hundreds of Euro. I can eat at restaurants on base that come from the States, like Chili’s and Macaroni Grill, and never set foot in any off-base establishment. And if I were a member of the military, I could live on-base and do what many military families do- never go off, except to get to the next base.
In some ways, this is a beautiful safety net. When I got tired of our German refrigerator selectively freezing items on its shelves (including alternate eggs in a container- true story!), it was comforting to think that I could buy an American fridge that wouldn’t. And the lure of on-base gas prices is pretty strong (bet you didn’t think that $3 per gallon would ever sound cheap!). But in many other ways, having the option there makes me feel somehow less adventurous, less accepting of my current circumstances, and less prepared to fully immerse myself in southwestern Germany. I seem to feel particularly strongly about this whenever I encounter my comrades in citizenship who appear phobic of anything off-base. And so when I’m driving around and someone refuses to give me the correct right-of-way, my knee-jerk reaction is to think “Ugh! Stupid Americans!” instead of replacing “Americans” with “bad drivers.” When I’m in the market, I’ll use my limited German and nod and smile until someone catches on that I understand nothing- and then I go down pretending to understand more than I do.
I don’t think it’s shame in being an American that incites my behavior, necessarily- although there certainly have been moments that have made me wish I were Canadian instead. No, I think it has to do more with my conception of what it means to travel and really live somewhere else. My embarrassment has more to do with the fact that Americans in this area, myself included, have the dubious privilege of choosing to ignore the social expectations and norms that exist all around them instead of being actively encouraged to engage with Germany on German terms. The fact that I cringe whenever I have to ask “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” points to this- it asks the person I’m speaking to to do what I’m doing and aid and abet me in living in American style outside America. Maybe this could be summed up as a shame reaction to what I believe is a form of cultural imperialism. Regardless, I think the ambiguity of identity is worth a second thought.