Not long ago, a German friend gave me a stern warning that I was in danger of teaching my children that all things German are bad. I was perplexed at this perspective, for it certainly doesn’t reflect how I feel.
“If you tell them negative things about Germany, you will eventually build a mindset in them which is negative to their own culture,” she explained.
My only response was to laugh, because not two weeks prior to this conversation, my mother had accused me of having an anti-American household.
“I feel as though you are rejecting your culture, and your family along with it,” she had said.
Almost the entirety of my adulthood has been spent abroad. It may well be that I have rejected parts of my own, American, culture and it may also well be that I am occasionally critical of my host culture. In fact, I’m sure both of those are the case. How is a bi-cultural, bilingual family expected to deal with cultural differences? With humor!
Reaching farther back in time, I recall my first experiences in Europe. I was a student at a renowned British university, where the hour after lunch was spent sipping coffee and chatting about rowing or politics, lounging in plush leather chairs in the parlor. Early on I recognized my vast failings in knowledge of events, both current and historical, and was utterly unable to keep pace with political debate. Being a quick learner, I listened closely and began reading periodicals, and soon enough I was able to participate in these parlor conversations, if still somewhat pathetically.
Fourteen years later I have plenty of practice in living abroad and engaging in political banter. And after twelve years in Germany, I have some clear opinions about the relative strengths and weaknesses of American versus German culture, along with a smattering of experiences in other European countries. I work in a highly diverse international environment and am exposed to a cross-section of global cultures. How do I cope with the constant differences, the America-bashing, the Germany-bashing, my own personal likes and dislikes in my host country, and the likes and dislikes I feel for my own country? With humor!
Cultural differences are exciting to explore but can be difficult to navigate, especially if you are unused to the experience. In our German-American family, we make regular jokes about both cultures, pointing out idiosyncrasies, laughing at oddities and occasionally seriously investigating the roots of cultural peculiarities. What makes this fun is the knowledge that we appreciate and respect the differences. For the most part, this is extended to my workplace, where the best way I have found to bridge the cultural gap with colleagues is to poke fun at our differences. I have learned to separate the person from the culture: nobody is the sum of all stereotypes!
Having grown up with the admonition to never talk politics in polite company, it took me awhile to learn the art of laughing at my country and at myself. Thanks to the British and to fourteen years abroad, I now have plenty of practice. To those close to me who don’t yet possess this faculty: What I hope to give my children is the ability and confidence to laugh at themselves and at both of their cultures, understanding that humanity is bigger than borders and that laughter is universal.