Sunday, December 20, 2009

To Be an American

Somehow when preparing to come to Germany, I failed to realize that people would look at me...well, as my country. It's hard to explain, but many times I feel simple questions I answer are taken as what my country does, and not individually what I prefer. This being said, I feel as if there is quiet a difference being an American exchange student as opposed to any other country (that came out sounding really egotistic). My country produces an enormous amount of media-from movies, to books, to news, to songs. We also speak the world language as our mother tongue. And here's where my confusion lies:

the people I've met have assumed that they already know my culture. What frustrates me is that the films you watch are exactly that : a story. They aren't fair representations of real life. We don't all live in NYC or LA, I don't own my own car, I don't wear designer clothes every day, I don't live in a mansion. I similarly don't personally know any celebrities. But here's where I am lacking. See, I obviously always want to share that that view of America is not the typical life of 95% of Americans, but then I'm always asked, "Then tell us what is typical American"...what? I'm caught. Because the thing is, there is absolutely no such thing, and it took me until getting here to realize it. We are all from different backgrounds, we have different ancestry, every state has a distinctly different mindset/culture. So how do I ever say what's typical? My outcome of this whole problem: I can't. It puts an awkward stamp on a conversation, when they are expecting me to clarify what my cultures really like, but now I realize I just have to answer that there's nothing typical. We are America. Every single one of us is different. It's just the way it is.

I've also had to come to the realization that the horrible stereotypes of my country are not going to go away by me being angry inside. Lets just say that it's not rare that someone full-out insults my country. When I'm angry, I think about the hypocrisy; that you insult everything my country does and yet you watch our films, listen to our music, read our books etc. etc. When I look at it calmly, I realize that I just have to be the best representation of America that I can be. Some of my most fulfilling moments here have been those when I have changed, even in a small amount, peoples view on Americans. Whether it be from my ability to speak German, the fact I'm not fat, or getting high grades in Math- these things have been ones where teens have gone, "Perhaps their different". I only hope that someday Americans don't have so many insulting stereotypes to beat.

In my time here, I've also managed to find out small insider things about Germany that I know I would never read in a textbook.

1. Army or Community Service? Every male, I believe once graduated from high school, has to either do a year in the army or a year of community service. This depends on what health your in. If there's anything hindering your ability in the army, you are given community service. Women don't have to do this. When I asked why, it was simply replied that "that's the way it is".

2. Teen Parents. During the days of the DDR, and I actually believe still, for every kid you have you were given 250 Euros a month. Great, takes care of the kid, right?! No. Instead, teens had kids so that they could drop out of school and not have to work. Then their kids did the same. This then became normal, at least in East Germany. To this day, kids have kids. Those kids are left to fend for themselves as their parents are too young to know what to do with them. When I still lived in Forst, we lived across the street from the town supermarket. The kids of young parents were always together outside of it, drinking alcohol, breaking bottles against our store window. Once, when walking into the supermarket, I saw a kid who looked no older than 8 smoking with his dad who looked College-aged. Though Germans in general seem to have kids younger (my host parents are about 45, my old host mom was 39), in the former East Germany it's sort of a big problem.

3. East Germany. Most assume that the two sides were re-united after the fall of the Berlin wall. Not so. There is a HUGE difference between east and west Germany, and I really mean huge. When taking the train out of Berlin, into East Germany, it looks like two different worlds. East Germany is gray. All the old, cracking, graffited DDR buildings with broken windows are still there, and gone unused. There's a gigantic amount of unemployment ( anytime I came home from school there would be tons of people shopping or hanging around on any given day). And also, the mindset is much different. It's always about "the good old days of the DDR". People threw parties themed on the DDR. And this confused me until I talked to a West German about it. This is what they told me, " You see, when the DDR was around, everyone had jobs, everyone had great education, everyone was taken care of, even if they were closed off. When the wall fell, they lost everything. They weren't able to get back up when they had been relying on the DDR giving them everything for so long" and that answer finally cleared it all up.

4. Drivers License. I hear these words every day. And there's a very good reason as to why. For one thing, a German teen has to wait until the age of 18 to get their drivers license. But more importantly, the cost of achieving this is absolutely outrageous, and they know it. Take for example, my older sister Linda who is almost 18. She has 2 hours of driving school twice a week, if not three times a week. Every set of 2 hours costs 85 Euros. You do this for a year...nough said.

5. Turkish Relations. When coming here, I had heard that the Germany-Turkey relationship was much the same as the America-Mexico relationship- aka the whole "we want them out so they stop taking our jobs" mentality. But I am lucky enough that I am in the capital, we have the largest Turkish population, at least a quarter of my school is Turkish. No one has any problem with them or expects them to leave. I have a feeling this is very different in other areas but Berlins open to anything. What I like best about the Turkish population here, is that I not only learn about the German culture, but the Turkish as well.

6. Arranged Marriage. Never thought I'd run into that in Germany, but indeed its here. Many days we talk about it in English class, about how another girl has been taken out of school and moved back to her home country to get married. It's mostly the girls from Turkey, but yeah, totally new concept for me. Lots of girls don't come back after Summer break, so I hear.

Just thought I'd actually share some of that with you. Let me know of any questions you might want answered!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Christmas Time in Germany

Pictures: The first is of an epic battle between America and Finland in Brandenburg. Or as I like to call it- the Brunettes vs. the Blonds. The second is of the American exchange students attempting to reenact a patriotic photo. The third picture is my advents calendar (made by my Host Mom). The 4th is my host sister, Caro, trying to master the art of cotton candy making at a school Weihnachtsmarkt.

By the way, I'm posting this on December 16th, so don't look at the date. It lies.

Let me start off by saying that Christmas season starts in like September here. But starting the 1st of December it's in full blast. Which is strange for me, because absolutely no one in my school celebrates Christmas because they are either Muslim or Buddhist (interesting fact: the other day our history teacher took a poll of how many languages were spoken fluently in our class. We came out with 9 languages in our class of 22 people: German, Turkish, French, Afrikaans, Sorbish, Thai, English, Polish, and Russian). Guess that leaves more Christmas for me!

This word meant nothing to me in America but everyone celebrates it here. I assumed advent just meant the chocolates I eat out of a calendar : D But its actually when you celebrate the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas. You light a candle for each Sunday and have a nice lunch such as duck. Other than that, I'm not aware of the significance.

So I woke up on the first of December. I turned on my light, stumbled to the bathroom, washed my face, walked back. And what the hell? There a GIGANTIC mobile hanging over my bed that I absolutely failed to notice in my first-minutes-awake-grogginess. It has 25 gifts hanging from it just for me. This further proves not to demand any mental activity from Claire in the morning.

WEIHNACHTSMARKT: These are a gigantic part of xmas in Germany, and they assume that everyone has them. They are set up in town centers, with hundreds of huts selling hand made items. I've gone to three different ones, although I believe theres about 20 just in Berlin. Some are so large that they hold legit rides such as ferris wheels, roller coasters, and much more. I went with other exchange students to the Alexanderplatz one and went on a GIGANTIC chairswing in the middle of Berlin, we could see the whole city from the top and tried ignoring the -1 degree weather.

St. Nikolais- I spelled this wrong. Whatever. But this is on the 6th of December. You clean your shoes the night of the 5th, and put them outside. Then in the morning you wake up, and they are filled with small gifts and candy delivered from not-your-parents. I, unfortunately, missed this holiday due to the fact I was in Brandenburg for the weekend with AFSers, but magically my shoes were still filled with candy...freaky.

Random Quotes:

Claire: Alright, goal: not have the guy taking my order talk to me in English.
Jasmine: Alright, go!
Claire: " Ein Grande Choco latte bitte"
Starbucks Man: With cream?
Claire: Fucking shit.

Claire: I actually need grades in your gym class Frau Butke.
Frau B: Oh, well I didn't give you a grade last time cause it was really horrible.
Claire: Well...thanks.

Grandma: These truffles are very special.
Host Sister: Whats inside them? Marzipan?
Grandma: No, it's Irish cream!
Host Sister: What's that?
* everyone turns to me *
Claire: I'm not Irish, by the way.

English Teacher: In the dictionary, it shows whether its Australian, British, or American English.
English Teacher: So Claire, could you please pronounce the british pronunciation of this word for us?
* thinks of objecting for a second and then pulls her best accent based only off of what she's heard in Harry Potter*
English Class: Wow!

Host Sister: What's relish?
Claire: It's like pickles and salad.
Random Woman: No, it's like ketchup.
Claire: Sure.

Math Teacher: Give me real life examples of parabolas
Kid 1: a tongue.
Kid 2: a bridge.
Quiet boy in class: A tampon!!

So, yeah. I'm spending Christmas break in Stuttgart with my blood aunt, uncle, and cousins. School lets out the 18th and I go back on the 3rd of January. Christmas is actually celebrated on the 24th in Germany, which means my Christmas day (spent on a 6 hour train to Stuttgart) will be sort of...lame, for lack of a better word. They also all put up their trees on the 23rd...crazy amount of work for nothing?! Yes, I think so. And shortly, things I'll miss from xmas at home:

1. My father and I gorging ourselves with the "special Christmas cheese"<---this makes it sound like it has pot in it or something, but its just good.

2. My place on our couch where I sit every xmas.

3. Spanish christmas music mixed with a little Elvis.

4. Using my gifts immediately after finishing opening them.

5. My father napping on the couch after the excitement of Christmas morning.

6. Some exchange of bras as awkward gifts either to me from my older brothers (in size EEE by the way) or from me to my older brothers (in the brightest colors and smallest sizes available)

Happy Holidays everyone!

P.S. Thanks Colin for the Christmas card, it made my day : D