The Expat Trap

I’ve been living in Germany for about two years. From time to time I meet up with other English speakers in cafes or restaurants just to get that “fix” of speaking my native tongue at full speed complete with cultural references and a chance to drop my guard. Being in a foreign culture you tend to be guarded with respect to things you say and expect simply because people behave so differently in your host country.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed something. Generally speaking, there are two types of expats. Integrated or potentially integrated are the first type. The second type are the non-integrated. The first group are difficult to pick out of crowd, by their very nature of blending into their host society.

The second group are more obvious. First off, they speak very little German. The next thing you notice when you engage them in conversation is that they tend to bond over the negative aspects of their host country. “Germans are rude” or “Germans have no sense of humor” are two popular refrains.

I tend to think these folks are reluctant expats. In my experience these are people who made the leap to live in a new culture because they are following an employed spouse, have been given little choice by their employer or career demands, or perhaps made the leap willingly and lovingly just to have their relationship fall apart before they could establish their own friend network.

Now here is the thing… where I live in The Eifel, a rather remote part of Germany, there are nearly no foreigners from English speaking lands. There are plenty of Russians around here, but we don’t share a common language so there is not a lot of bonding going on there. Thus, I have been thrust into the most immersive of “learn through immersion” environments that are possible. I must speak German in order to do my daily chores. The ladies at the bakery speak no English. None. The people at the hardware store know a few words, but not enough to convey anything more intelligible than “the lights are down there.” Asking for advice on insulation in an attic prone to mold just cannot be done in English.

My German language skills have grown immensely. My German cultural skills, something I had never given any thought to prior to coming over, are also pretty respectable. I take part in the local Carnival festivities, the Saint Martin’s Day parade and bonfire and even in the regional “cultural specialities” such as Kindchenpissens. Carnival is the big Catholic holiday season with lots and lots of parties and Saint Martin’s Day is a special day to commemorate Saint Martin who was a particularly generous man; those are German traditions that all Germans know about. The Kindchenpissen is specific to The Eifel and is just a small party to celebrate the birth of a new child.

The English speaking people I sometimes have a drink or dinner with up in Cologne (the nearest large city with a population of 1 million) sometimes know only about Carnival. Their knowledge of things German is often limited. “Germans have no sense of humor” could not be farther from the truth, but the humor is different than in English cultures. How many Americans remark derisively about British humor, after all? Humor is context sensitive to the culture it is in. Jokes about Prussia, The Eifel and the former East Germany abound… but if you don’t know the culture they fall flat. Why would a German find a sarcastic remark about Chicago politics to be funny?

And here is the problem. Some expats tend to stay in their safe expat circles. They gossip and commiserate about how different and hard life is here in Germany. Enough Germans speak some English in the cities that the expats can actually get by without learning much German. But how are they going to know about the Saint Martin’s bonfire when everyone else is talking about it in German? And really… it is a lot of fun.

I am fortunate enough to have been unofficially adopted by another family in the village (in spite of the fact that I am in my late 30’s). They look out for me at these events and tell me what to expect and call me over if I am going to miss something. They are looking out for me because we have bonded over similar life experiences. Although they have never lived outside of Germany, the fact that I am obviously going to great effort to try to integrate myself into their community has garnered goodwill.

When expats spend all of their time whining… or just talking to each other in English over a beer, or watching English TV on DVDs, or reading newspapers and websites in English on the computer, they give their German hosts no opportunity to include them in the good things that make German culture.

If I have one piece of advice to other expats, it is to limit your English language exposure and put yourself out there in Germany using your German no matter how limited it or your time is. You have nothing to lose but you have a whole new world to gain.


One thought on “The Expat Trap

  1. I totally agree. What a VERY nice testament to EXPAT-hood! I´ve been in Germany close to 9 years. AND while not fluent in the language I have tried to exclude myself FROM the whining EXPAT from any country. I often wonder “what keeps them here?” The bond with others who whine and complain amazes me. I used to tell my students who wanted the green grass on the other side of the fence … remember when you get to THAT greener grass, you have taken yourself.Good insights here Geoff. BRAVO for having the courage to speak up!

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