We pulled up in a small car to a set of apartments in the outskirts of Munich. Lisa, my host sister, who spoke fair English for an 18-year old German citizen, helped me carry my overweight suitcase up a tiny staircase to my temporary bedroom. I was finally settled into a home of strangers, feeling quite surreal at that moment. The program applications, the money and the preparations were finally forming into something tangible. This was going to be different.
Culture shock overtook me swiftly like a fast moving storm. Things tasted weird. People around me weren’t speaking English. It felt like I was being pulled into a whirlpool that I couldn’t escape. I felt so uncomfortable and distant. The “foreign-ness” was everywhere. I thought, “what sort of feelings had compelled me to spend my summer in here?”
For several weeks I believed that the United States was superior at everything. I ignorantly turned up my nose to anything that I didn’t perceive to meet my high standards. But on my fourth week I began adapting. I was finally tired of complaining. I was finally tired of crying to my parents back home because I wasn’t comfortable. It was at this moment that I decided to be an observer. I decided to stop what I was doing and let Germany do the talking. What I observed was absolutely stunning.
As I sat back and watched, I noticed about the people I met that the love for family and friends was radiant. The three-hour dinner and conversations I initially thought wasted my precious time, were now cherished moments of intriguing chatter. The scheduled movie and ping-pong dates with my host sister that initially annoyed me (because I would have rather been out at the bars with my American friends) were now appreciated. For so long my life had revolved around what I possessed, what I wanted to do on my time, who I made time for- not when I could spend time with loved ones. But the Germans are different. They treasure friends and family because those are the people you should appreciate most in your life. The peace and comfort I felt was like being at home in Small Town, KY.
One conversation in particular was moving.
“So do you live with your parents?” Lisa asked me over coffee on a Saturday morning.
“No I actually live in my own place about 15 minutes away,” I responded. The puzzled look of Lisa’s face is forever in the back of my mind.
“You mean you live right down the road from your parents and you have your own apartment? Do you not love your parents?” I was completely and utterly speechless. I love my parents. But why do we pay to have another place 15 minutes down the road? Why do I have an SUV that seats seven when I am by myself? I’ll never forget that embarrassment. Many college students in America don’t live with their parents. They have houses and apartments. Many drive their own cars. It’s almost like we can’t wait to get up and move out at 18. In that moment I realized that much of what we deem as “necessary” in America is purely unnecessary in Germany. It took me 18 years to realize that I didn’t give my family or friends the time of day, and made me wonder, “What else have I been neglecting?”
If I could tell you more about why living in Germany transformed my perception on life, I would. But my most important piece of advice, is embrace the differences you face. Go abroad seeking cultural differences that challenge your views on living. Then I promise, you won’t want to come back so soon after all.
Laura Jane is a sophomore at the University of Kentucky studying German.