An American in America

Even though it’s the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall I won’t be addressing the relevant and memorable occasion in this post as fellow blogger Hyde already has. Instead I will be addressing the other side of the Wall. Far west of East Berlin in fact. I’m talking about the west of capitalism now.

It had been eighteen months since my last trip to the US, the longest stretch that I had ever stayed away from home since leaving the United States in 2000. The last time was March 2008 when my older daughter Vera was 15 months old and I was newly pregnant with my second daughter Stella. My pregnancy and the anticipation of relocating to another country (that ended up not happening) prevented us from planning a trip any sooner, but I was determined to celebrate Stella’s first birthday, a big milestone in Korean culture, in the US with my family this October. This expat entry is about culture shock in reverse. It’s about all the things I miss and have forgotten about life in America.

Consumer Gluttony. My husband and I have spent the first week of our trip on a shopping spree thanks to the strong euro, the lack of sales tax on clothes and shoes in Pennsylvania, where my family lives, and our compulsion to make up for lost time. After about four straight days of getting into my mother’s SUV and spending lots of dollars at the various outlet malls in central Pennsylvania and the likes of other retailers such as Ross, TJ Maxx and Costco, we started feeling a bit queasy. We had to relearn the skill of deciding on which store credit card to open or use for a 30% discount and keep track of the various coupons and discount opportunities for each store.

Wir trennen für Sie.” Maybe some of you are familiar with this sentence on the rubbish bins in Munich Airport. Unlike Deutsche Bahn or Frankfurt Airport or your house in Germany, you don’t have to put your “packaging” (i.e. Gelber Sack waste) in one bin, paper in another, glass bottles in another and the rest in yet another.  Instead you can just dump it all in one place. My second day back home, I rinsed out my yoghurt container and then asked my mother where I should put it. She looked at me baffled as she pointed to the one and only rubbish bin under the sink.  My husband disposes with glee in America. While I am committed to living greener, I realized the relief he felt in not having to think about everything we throw out. I also realized that our system in Germany did indeed make us think more about how much we used and wasted.

Language barrier. Just like not having to think too much about your rubbish, it is relaxing to not have to think too much about what you want to communicate once back in the country of your native language.

Junk food heaven.  My older daughter has been living the American dream. She gets to watch TV  every day from a TV in nearly every room in the house. Her grandfather sneaks her potato chips and cheese puffs, and they overcome their own communication barriers.

Cable TV. I don’t have enough time to catch up on Project Runway, Iron Chef and Supernanny, and discovering shows like Dallas Divas and Daughters. Life is too short.

No Queuing for the Loo. Wow! There are many toilets in an American house! Vera was so impressed when her papa suggested she use the toilet that there was not one, not two, but four in the house.

Come to Mama. We’ve been pigging out non-stop on Korean food. The best part is of course enjoying my mother’s homemade Korean cooking.  But what a luxury to supplement all of that by BUYING fresh kimchi in a huge jar from the local Korean grocery store along with other side dishes, plus being able to buy and cook with fresh ingredients that are harder to source in most parts of Germany (i.e., not in the large cities) such as soy bean sprouts (the yellow kind, not that watery stuff that is more common), parilla leaves, Korean squash and tiny anchovies.

I don’t think I could make a grand judgement about which country or culture is better. I like how much greener Germany is in general. But sure, it is sometimes a pain in the backside to sort one’s rubbish all the time, parking is stress-free in the Free World and filling up the SUV’s tank is almost a pleasure at $1.83/gallon. On the other hand, buying organic is much more affordable (and often tastier) in Germany. I don’t want my daughters to watch TV and eat junk food on most days, but I can’t deny my own pleasure in grabbing a 12 oz. of Coke from the 24-pack in the three-car garage and vegging out to Food Network. My jury is still out on whether or not I am ready to move back to the US, but sometimes there is no place like home.