It is a terrible cliché that one travels abroad (or embarks on a post-graduation “experience”) to “find themselves” or “learn about life.” Mostly because… those aren’t things you can wake up and do, as if you were checking them off of a checklist. As life happens, the finding and the learning are found in the everyday, gradual things.
That’s one reason I’m glad I’ve gotten to live abroad rather than just traveling for a short period of time. These things take time, and they take reflection. So, here I am to reflect. In the style of 21st-century journalism, of course. I have learned a good number of things this year–about the world, myself, what I believe, what I want… and I thought I’d share some of them as I attempt to parse through them 🙂
Listed in no particular order:
1. People are people. This is a huge one. No matter your ethnicity, nationality, or main place of residence, most people are fundamentally the same. I have experienced many incidences of people from various places assuming things about people from other places, ranging from harmless to vitriolic: all German people like beer, all people who travel or live abroad are enlightened, all people who can’t speak a second language are ignorant, all Europeans are lazy, all Americans love guns and hate all other countries… and the list goes on and on.
However, this year I have also had the opportunity to get to personally know many people from many different backgrounds, and have usually found more exceptions to these stereotypes than people that conformed to them! Yes, national or ethnic stereotypes are usually rooted in some fragment of truth about what a society values in general, but rarely does such a stereotype describe any particular person within that society. On several occasions, I have gotten very angry about people (Americans and non-Americans alike) letting their prejudices get in the way of truly learning about people and places that are foreign to them.
The only way that we can move past the “othering” of strange people and places is to experience them at a personal level… to really know another person and to have a relationship with him or her, rather than defining them based on vague and ineffective categories. This is one of many reasons why I think that everyone would benefit from living abroad at some point in their lives. The people you meet will definitely have annoying habits or attributes, and because they come from a different culture, they may do things you don’t understand or believe things you don’t agree with. But they are people. They are people like you, with likes, dislikes, dreams, ambitions, and feelings. The things we share as humans are more fundamental than the cultural things that divide us. We all have so much to learn from each other, because at the core, we all have so much in common.
2. That being said, there is one universal truth: all tourists, no matter their age or country of origin, are fundamentally aggravating to all non-tourists. 😉
3. Hospitality = Gastfreundschaft. Those two words are technically synonymous, but “Gastfreundschaft” literally means “guest friendship,” and I think it’s important to think of hospitality in those terms. It is really hard to be new in a different country, city, school, church, workplace, or group of friends. The friendly and hospitable thing for the “established” people to do is to extend a hand of friendship to people who are new. This is especially important when we’re talking about being new to a country, because often there is some degree of a language barrier, and there is a new culture and new social cues and structures for the new person to navigate… so, from where I stand, the “established” people need to be the ones to act. And to act beyond just a “hello” and a handshake… an invitation to come out with everyone later, an exchange of phone numbers and a follow-through with a call or text, a real conversation. And for goodness’ sake, at the very least a greeting or acknowledgement when you see them later at a party, meeting, or event.
Without getting too much into it, I’ve met people who were lovely and hospitable and open, and people who were very, very not. Let’s just say that there is a reason why many “international” people in any given place stick together: because, more often than not, the existing group or community doesn’t offer an adequate point of entry. (They are often not aware of this.) Thinking back, I’m not sure that I have been the best about this when I have been in my own little comfort zone at home; I have probably come off as cold or closed off when I thought I was simply being friendly enough and going about my day. But new people need your hospitality, and they need to be included and regarded as “friends” in order to feel at home.
4. We are truly blessed as Americans to have contact with so many diverse people, opinions, and lifestyles within our own country. It might be (incredibly) annoying and aggravating that Americans are 50/50 divided on just about every political and social issue in existence… but I have realized that the, ahem, lively variety of opinions and values in the US has made me acutely aware that not everyone agrees with me, and in many cases has given me a reason to really, truly know what I believe and why I believe it. I’ve encountered people from more homogenous countries who, until meeting me and discussing whatever issue or opinion it happened to be, seemed to have no idea that people thought differently than they did! Just because most people where they are from generally agree, and they haven’t had contact with anyone who was much different from them. It’s easy to get stuck in our own little “bubbles,” but the liveliness of American public and private life is a gift we should cherish, as it helps us to better understand others and ourselves, and to live in (relative) harmony with people who are different from us.
5. Personally, my diligence is only matched by my laziness. I had a very loosely structured life this year, and there were absolutely days when I sat in my apartment and watched TV all day, and there were even more mornings where it took me 2, 3, even 4+ hours to get my butt to the library. Then again, I wrote 20 pages of my report in the eight days before I left for Spain in February, and wrote a total of 60 pages (a whole Plan II thesis!), over 14,000 words, about flood management, with little to no supervision from anyone, for better or for worse. And I’ve been told that it actually makes sense! So, although I could definitely improve in certain virtues regarding my “down time,” I can get things done when it comes down to it 😉
Besides those “big picture” things, there are small nuggets that I’ve been chewing on, as well. Like…
Even though it’s sometimes annoying or inconvenient that stores in Germany close on Sundays, it’s a welcome reminder to take the Sabbath seriously. I hope to keep up the Germany-enforced habit of not shopping on Sundays in favor of more reverent, less frantic activities.
In a similar vein, the chance to live more simply this year with fewer clothes and possessions, a small but sufficient monthly stipend, no car, and a disincentive to buy much (namely, having to bring it all back to the States somehow) has been a good practice in living the kind of life I want to in general. [Have less; love more]
However, I will be glad to have a bit more wardrobe variety upon my return, not to mention easy access to black beans (a staple of my diet that I basically had to cut out this year) and new music on the Internet that is not blocked by GEMA.
Finally, I am excited for my next adventure: graduate school. I think that, in the end, I will be very glad that I took a year off to decompress from my four years of college, and I am ready for the more structured, disciplined life that Master’s student life will provide, as well as the many opportunities ahead!