Before I left Texas in March, I read up a little bit about culture shock. I’d also learned about it before in the study abroad prep class I took in the fall, too. I honestly didn’t think it would be a bit deal. I mean, I understand dealing with culture shock when traveling from the US to, say, a third-world country, or somewhere like Saudi Arabia or China where the traditional Western values to which we are so accustomed do not reign supreme.
But coming to Germany, I didn’t really think too much would be different. Sure, there’s the language barrier, but as far as cultural norms go (you know… values, styles of dress, social behavior, even food), I figured not too much would be different. Both Germany and the US are large, industrialized, Western countries with relatively-large immigrant populations. Plus, a lot of German culture has been fused into American culture because German immigrants make up a huge portion of the people who came to the US at the beginning of the last century. As for the little cultural idiosyncrasies, I’ve studied German culture for 6 years, so I’ve got a bit of an advantage there.
However. I have learned that there are things from your own culture that you just get used to and take for granted that they are “normal.” Things that you wouldn’t normally think would be a problem. Like the business hours of stores. Everything is open in the US all.the.time. All the time. Here, stuff closes! Restaurants, between meals! Stores, at 8 PM! And on Sundays! Now, I can understand that, to some extent. And I do appreciate that Sundays are treated differently here. But sometimes I just want to go to the store when I have to go to the store. Or eat lunch at 3 PM.
The worst encounter I’ve had along these lines is with the Rektorat at the University. That’s where I had to go to matriculate and it’s also where I’d go if I, as an international student, ever had any sort of question or problem. Their business hours are as follows: Monday-Thursday. 9-11:30 AM.
“Wait. I’m sorry. I think I misunderstood that,” you say. “You mean this very important office is only open 10 hours per week? That can’t possibly be right.”
Yes. Yes, that is absolutely correct. And if you walk in with, say, all your matriculation paperwork completed, requiring only a signature to become officially complete, at 11:32, you’re just out of luck. Because the nice man at the desk, although he is still, in fact, at his desk, will not sign it for you. Because he is off the clock. (See discussion of time below.)
It’s just freaking ridiculous.
There are some things about German culture that I anticipated that I’d really like. Perception of time, for instance. I am a very prompt person, and my idea of time mostly aligns with the German model: if something is supposed to begin at 5:00, I’d like for it to begin at 5:00. And if it is supposed to end promptly at 6, I think it should end at 6. If it drags until 6:05, I start to get antsy, because, for me, that activity has been over for 5 minutes. In the German culture, and apparently in my brain, it is rude to waste someone’s time by keeping them past the appropriate hour, whereas in other cultures (such as most Latin cultures, hence the ever-popular “Chilean time” on which SUW events run) time is much less rigid.
For the most part, this cultural norm has held true. Trains here are rarely late, and sometimes they are early. It’s wonderful. (I was in for a rude awakening when I went to Italy, where most of the time they don’t even bother to tell you when the next train is expected to arrive, probably because they know it’s going to be late anyway.)
However, there have been some glaring exceptions to the rule. I mentioned the other day that the Mündliche Übungen II instructor was 15 minutes late to the second class after outright missing the first class. Her excuse was that she wasn’t aware that she was supposed to be teaching the class until someone called her at the beginning of the hour. That really doesn’t make very much sense, but ok… I’ll chalk this occurrence, along with the insufficient number of instructors and the piss-poor level distribution, up to poor organization and the fact that this course is not technically offered by the university, but rather by the affiliated Sprachlehrinstitut.
But then, only two days later, I found myself sitting in yet another lecture hall, waiting on yet another tardy professor. And this was for a real lecture offered by the university! When the professor (who is really very sweet, I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture here) arrived 18 minutes late, she then sat at the front fiddling with her computer for probably another 15 minutes because she couldn’t get the projector to work. Can I first point out the fact that a lecture hall full of 100 German students just sat for over 30 minutes waiting on the professor? I guess the fifteen minute rule doesn’t exist here. Anyway, once the lecture started, it really was very interesting (it’s an English lecture on bilingualism!), but I couldn’t help but wonder whether this is a regular occurrence.
The cultural difference that’s caused me the most stress, though, is the differences in university structures. This is something not many people probably think about. But EVERYTHING is different here. Degree plans. Majors. Time it takes to graduate. These things don’t matter to me so much since I’m only here for a semester, but when it comes to things like course selection, existence (or non-existence) of syllabi, types of classes, and how frequently they meet, I am quite immediately affected.
I am currently enrolled in 12 hours of foreign exchange credit at UT, and so I need to actually get 12 hours of credit. Also, several of my scholarships, my insurance, etc. are dependent on my being a full time student. So the 12 hour thing is quite important. I figured I could just sign up for 4 classes (the standard US 12-hour equivalent) and be good to go.
Not so simple, friends. Upon looking at the Vorlesungsverzeichnis (directory of lectures… love that German allows that to be encapsulated in one word), I quickly realized two things:
- Standard German lectures only meet once a week in 2-hour blocks
- There are 3,402,426 types of classes here, some of which only meet like 5 times per semester and some of which literally only meet once.
How in the world am I supposed to make any combination of these classes translate into an equivalent of 12 hours??!?!?!?! I figured I’d just stick with the “register for 4 classes” plan, so that’s what I did. I didn’t want to get too trigger-happy and get stuck with too many classes and too much work in German, because that’s just not good for anyone, especially my GPA.
But then, upon attending all of my classes and realizing that a) I’d have to be in too simple a level of German, b) two of my classes are going to be finished by July, and c) if I don’t get 12 hours somehow, life will not be very pleasant, I decided to ask my study abroad advisor, whose job it is to tell me such things. But then there were all these changes in the UT study abroad office and, the very next day, I was stuck with a brand new advisor. I am still planning on asking him at some point, but I figured I’d just go ahead and add another class.
I found an English class (the aforementioned lecture on bilingualism) that just happened to meet the very next day! So I went, without registering. Because pre-registration for this class was not required. The mysteries of the universe just continue to pile up.
(For those of you keeping score at home, that puts me at three normal lectures and two weird seminar-type things. I’d say that puts me in a pretty good place, hours-wise.)
Everything about the German university system is just so different. One of the most annoying differences for me is the lack of the concept of “liberal arts” here. German education is very career-focused. If you’re going to be a lawyer, you study law. If you’re going to be a doctor, you study medicine. As an amorphous Plan II major (which, let’s be honest, most Americans don’t understand… scratch that, most Plan II majors don’t understand it either) it’s pretty tough to explain to a German what I’m studying. So I mostly just go with, “Well, here I’m studying German. Because as you can tell, my German sucks.”
I guess as far as culture shock goes, this is pretty mild. I’m not witness to extraordinary levels of poverty, I don’t have to haggle with merchants when I buy food, and I’m not required to wear a head scarf or anything. But I definitely did not anticipate this much change. I guess that’s because we get so used to our way of life and just assume that certain things are universal.
But one thing is fo sho: I will put up with confusing course schedules and weird business hours if it means I get to buy an ice cream cone every day without fear of judgement. Because that is one Freiburger cultural norm that I vote we bring back to the States. It’s awesome.