On Being Altruistic vs. Being “American”

A couple weeks ago, I met a friend for lunch who was debating what her next life steps would be. She’s American, having a rough time of it in her life, wondering if she should stay in Germany or move on. And no, there’s no “home” to “go back to.”

I’m not usually one to bash zee Germans … although things are done differently here on this side of the pond than what I am accustomed to from my childhood, I don’t like to think of something as being normal or abnormal. I’m fond of saying Typisch Deutsch and Typisch Ami as a way of getting around the problems of pigeonholing an entire culture based on the actions of some of the people who represent those cultures. Most of the time, I try to keep a sense of humor about it. After all, Germany is my Wahlheimat and it would do no one any good — especially not my daughter who had no choice about having Germany as her home — to hate the place in which I live and bash it because things don’t work as I’d like them to.

That disclaimer in mind, this conversation was not one of bashing but more one that bordered on nostalgia. Friend said, “I just feel like there’s part of me that’s missing when I’m in Germany,” and “There are some parts of my personality that I like that are dying while I’m here.” Lest this sound too melodramatic, she gave me an example that I could fully relate to: the problem of niceties.

For example: a frequent complaint I hear among Americans is that Germans, especially Germen, don’t hold doors open for other people (except train doors, when they see people running to catch the Bahn). I didn’t think much of this until I struggled to get a door open while carrying groceries and pushing a stroller and spilled the food all over the front stairs. Sometimes it’s the little gestures that help make a person’s life easier. And it’s gestures like these that my friend said were failing her, making her day-to-day life less rich. So while life in Germany is okay, it’s not as good as it could be. Not as good as it might be in other places.

I feel this. I really really feel this.

I read an article a few months ago in Brigitte where the author was raving about how wonderful and friendly Americans are and she cited the example of the pay-it-forward coffee movement in Berkeley. Someone at Starbucks paid for her coffee before she’d even bought it. What a lovely gesture, she thought. It made her day so she did the same and before you know it, the entire line had bought each other’s coffees. “Why can’t we be more like this in Germany?” she asked and I nearly lost my shit. Not only because this movement originated in India or Sri Lanka and was adopted by Calis as a form of “karma yoga” but also because have you ever been to Berkeley? Have you seen the way the homeless are treated there? Sure, they’ll buy you a $4 cup of joe but that change the dude out on the streets is begging for is not going to come into his possession anytime soon.

As the bumper stickers say, people in California are fond of these “random acts of kindness.” The problem, however, is one of altruism. What are the intentions behind these gestures? Is it to make someone’s day better? To clear their own conscience? Or to make them look good in front of their peers? Is it the pressure they were feeling because everyone else was doing it? Or was it just meaningless goodwill because really, only one person donated that cup of coffee and everyone else was already planning to be for his or her own and no one wants to be the asshole who says, “Yo, free joe here. Sweeeeeeet.”

I’ll be honest here: I do nice things for people. Sometimes. When I can. And partially this is because I’m altruistic and have good intentions. Partially because I think the kind of place I want to live in is one in which other people help each other. Partially this is because I know how hard it is to be in a place where no one cares about the problems you’re having. And partially because this is how I was raised. If it’s because I’m American, I don’t know. If it’s because of my age or my midwestern upbringing, I’m not sure.

I also do shitty things to people. I can be a real dick. Sometimes. When I want to, and sometimes when I don’t even realize it. Partially this is because my everyday life is tough. Partially this is because I live in a place where no one cares about the problems I’m having. And partially because this is how I was raised.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is intention is everything and although these niceties commonly accepted in the US are missing from our lives in Germany, it’s not necessarily because Germans are “bad” or whatever. That doesn’t make their absence any less difficult for expats to bear but remembering that there are assholes and nice people in every culture is really important to me at the moment for getting through life. And concentrating on the nice ones is the key to well-being. Not paying for somebody’s overpriced coffee. I just wish we could all be a little more altruistic. Doing nice things for the sake of the community and not because it makes us feel good.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m nostalgic for Zizek’s communism — the one in which the Starbucks system, where you can pat yourself on the back for donating 1 cent for every $4 cup of coffee to some poor starving kid in Africa — is replaced by people motivated by a greater love for others than for themselves. Whether that be in Germany or America.

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How to Parent Like a German, According to Time

1. Hang your children off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit.

2. Huddle with all the German parents drinking coffee and don’t pay attention to your kids.

3. Ignore Amis screaming “Achtung, Nein!” like the lunatics they are.

4. Do not be stereotypically strict (whatever that means) but instead “place a high value on independence and responsibility.”

5. Do not join the free range parenting movement because you’re already free range (tell that to the local news media here, which has just discovered the free range trend).

6. “Don’t push reading.” Or, in other words, let your kid’s teachers teach them how to read at school.

7. Don’t freak out when your kid gets two (two!) breaks to play outside during 4.5 hours of instruction (well aware of all the studies saying kids’ concentration levels dip after 45 minutes and are at a bottom after 90.)

8. Let your kid light off  fireworks on New Year’s.

9. Let your kid walk to school without you. Worry about traffic and not kidnappings.

10. Celebrate the kid’s first day of school.

11. Go outside everyday (see 1).

How’s your ranking on this list (condensed from and based entirely on this truthful bullshit in Time Magazine)? I failed miserably. Those Ami lunatics screaming Achtung get me every time.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch, du Arsch?

Another day, another expat writing about her inability to fit in in Europe. If she were a Mexican writing in Spanish but living in the U.S., there would be an uproar. If she were Tunisian writing in Arabic but living in Germany, there would be people calling for her to go “home.”

Because this immigrant on a spousal visa in The Netherlands speaks English as her first language, however, she regards herself as “cute” and her readers — worldwide but for a website based in New York — see her life as exotic, unique. It’s not.

It’s not cute to not be able to speak the language of the people around you. These people whose lifestyle you’re proud to be adapting to are not exotic. You are not unique. Your life is not enviable.

I know because I’ve been there, been through all the stages of being a foreigner in a country I’d always fantasized about living in. I thought I was cute. I thought Germany was exotic, my life unique. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Unlike many “expat” women, I did not come here for love and have the great German-language-speaking husband waiting for me here to handle the bureaucracy. I am not a traveling spouse. I did not get a shit ton of money and offers of language courses because my (ex-)husband had made some brilliant career back home and a three-year stint abroad was the most logical next step in a globalized world.

Although we arrived in Germany right after the integration courses became mandatory for immigrants, I somehow managed to talk my way out of them (likely because I spoke mediocre German, studying for a year before I arrived). By nature of his German citizenship, my ex wasn’t allowed to attend them, although he knew less about the country than I did and could barely order in a restaurant when we arrived.

I’m saying this because the opportunities for language learning were not handed to us in the way that they are to many English-speaking immigrants and yet both of us managed to become fluent in German. We managed to learn not only how to speak but also how the culture and society works and though some things — like the necessity of wearing slippers indoors and keeping your kidneys covered at all times — still baffle, it broke down a lot of barriers here. Barriers in our own minds.

I’m saying this because the level of willfulness that many English speaking immigrants who come here willingly show in their refusal to integrate has reached its peak and its getting frustrating to read.

Despite having a load of German journalists on hand in the country, the Wall Street Journal has its English-language correspondent tweeting about an inability to understand the concept of airing out your apartment. EVERYBODY IN GERMANY UNDERSTANDS LUFTING, JUST ASK A GERMAN. Their expat blog published a bit on the Sunday quiet rules. THIS SHIT HAS BEEN COVERED ALREADY, THANKS.

Get out of your expat bubble. Take a German course. Talk to a German. Stop bragging about your inability to speak the language and therefore fit in.

I’m not saying don’t keep up with your English. I’m not saying don’t hang out with the other ladies from the American Women’s Club nor am I telling you to stop watching your movies in English. Some things need to stay as they are, and we all know the dubbing in those movies is terrible. But at least fucking try. Enroll yourself in one of those ueber-cheap, over-filled classes at the VHS. Get yourself a tandem partner. If you have kids, have them teach you the language they can more easily pick up. Stop telling yourself that you are “genetically unable to learn a second language.” There is no such thing.

And for heaven’s sake, stop assuming that just because everybody speaks English to you that they don’t think you’re an asshole. It’s cute when you’re a tourist but not a permanent fixture.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

I once admitted to my aunt that I felt like I was a misanthrope.

“I just really can’t with people sometimes” I told her, referring to no one in particular at that moment. But it was a feeling I have a lot.

Crying in line at the bakery because the cashier has asked me three times to repeat myself because she can’t understand my accent. Or cursing out the well-meaning ticket collector attempting to explain why the ticket I bought is the wrong one and how I can do better next time I buy it (a cursing which he reminded me was unnecessary since he wasn’t going to fine me).

These feelings, I realize now, come from my own insecurity, an insecurity that exists in all countries and at all times but which has definitely increased since being in Germany. Because in Germany, I get a lot more attention from strangers and the things that I know to be true about how the world works based on my childhood in the States are not the truths in Germany. Sometimes, even after nine years, I am amazed by how different things are here. And by things I mean people. Attitudes. Habits.

I still get annoyed at the bum rush to the cashier who’s opened a new checkout line. I still fucking hate that people can get drunk to puking at the street fairs but I can’t vacuum on a Sunday morning. And I am still unable to handle condescension, which is what I view anyone trying to tell me I am doing something wrong until I realize that really, they’re being helpful and I am the one practicing condescension.

I will never forget the time my mom came home from work and said her boss told her she had to stop being so condescending, to which she replied, “I can’t be condescending because I don’t know what that word means.” This. This is exactly me.

But part of growing up and my attempting to be a great role model for my kid has required that I drop that habit. That I learn to smile and nod and thank people for their help. That I start to accept that in all communications two people are required and pay closer attention to that other person and his or her needs before I tell him or her to fuck right on off.

I forget this a lot but having a kid helps. I have had to learn that temper tantrums are not about me being a terrible, horrible “bloede” mama and not take those words personally. They are about Diva. About her disappointment at not getting another damned princess dress. About her being hungry or tired.

I will admit that I am a horrible communicator. I will admit that I don’t do it right all the time. But it has been a watershed moment to realize that often in these discussions that make me angry or draw me to tears are not entirely my fault and that cursing and crying doesn’t change things.

Whew, glad I got over that already. It’s exhausting to go through life thinking that all these unsmiling, unhappy people are that way because of you. It’s not me. It’s you.

Why You Hate Kids: An Addendum

So last week, @JacintaNandi wrote on her Exberliner blog, Amok Mama that people in Germany hate kids. Or, in her words:

“In Germany in general and Berlin in particular, it is really, really cool to hate kids. Kids are loud, kids are annoying, kids are stressful, kids are kind of disgusting. People complain about kids on the U-Bahn, people complain about kids at the lake, people complain about kids in the supermarket and people complain about kids in the Hinterhof. People complain about Prenzlauer Berg yummy mummies, those smug slags with their Kinderwagens bigger than an SUV. People complain about bad parents, those useless losers whose kids are totally out-of-control on public transport. People complain. About kids. A LOT.”

This, I have to say, is not a statement I disagree with. There’s a lot of hatred toward children going on. But it’s not a phenomenon limited to Germany, nor to Berlin. It’s rampant in the Western world, and has been for generations. It’s just taking on new forms. And becoming more obvious in major metropolises.
There’s a good reason for the hatred: kids are narcissists. And everybody hates narcissists. Especially the grown-up narcissists. You can’t appreciate anyone else’s narcissism when you’re totally wrapped in your own, now can you? And a kid screaming at the top of his lungs because he hasn’t gotten his own way is a total intrusion on your well-earned god-given right to silence in the supermarket. Verdammt nochmal!
Kid hatred’s grown because our privileged culture’s sense of entitlement has grown. We have rules and expectations for how our lives will work and kids come shrieking across the stage on which our lives are being acted out and destroy fucking everything. Because they’re living their lives in the only way they know how: totally self-centered.

In Germany, especially in these examples Jacinta’s given above, this is more visible because we live in a culture of silence. People here are like fucking librarians — me included — shushing everyone in sight, at least until they get drunk. Kids shatter that silence, and we don’t notice this in the Anglo-Saxon world because English speakers are the loudest people on the planet, always walking dramatically into a room and begging for attention with our booming voices. Ever see anybody get a stare down for using their mobile phone on the subway in the States? No, because everybody does it. A couple years back, on a post-rush hour commuter train, an American next to me mused that it must be illegal to use your cell phone on the train because she could see no other reason why the commuters wouldn’t be using theirs. Um, respect? I told her. Because Germans will tell you you’re being an asshole if you do? It’s the same with kids. If they break the golden rule of silence in Germany, they are going to get tutted. It’s how the culture here works, like it or not.

I think what Jacinta gets wrong in this article is narrowing this kinder-feindlichkeit to Germany. It’s not an exclusively Teutonic hatred. Hell, I think German kids are waaaaay better behaved than some of the monsters I saw in the States. No wait, I take that back. The kids act the same — it’s the adults who are way worse behaved in the US. When I got on a Lufthansa flight from Germany, not a single person batted an eye and the flight attendants were phenomenally helpful. When I hit up a cross-country flight in the US a few months later, I got, at the end of the flight, thank yous from other passengers for, “controlling my child” and therefore making the six hour journey less hellacious than those around me had anticipated. Never mind that I had just left my husband and was about to have a nervous breakdown, of course I am totally fucking aware of YOUR need for peace and quiet to read some shitty romance novel you’re about to tuck into the seatback and forget every word of. The difference is that Americans and Brits passive-aggressively seethe about the kids around them and then go online to bitch about it. Or the parents try and avoid the confrontation altogether by handing the kid an iPad and making it suck down some Benadryl. The hatred is there, it just takes a different form.

Which is unfortunate, I must say, because kids are generally pretty awesome. I don’t believe that all children are inherently good, just as strongly as I believe that there are some parents who need to learn how to parent. But I also don’t believe that I’d have the same response as Jacinta would to a woman who’d asked me to quiet my kid. I wouldn’t, or we wouldn’t, as she says: “cringe and we bow down, we say sorry, we shrug our shoulders apologetically, we whisper to our kids to be quiet. We basically try to take up as least space as possible. Because we know we’re the most worthless people in society. Because we know we don’t ‘deserve’ to be here.”

This seems a very Anglo-Saxon response — the same one that has Americans apologizing at every bloody thing, and one that I’ve worked hard to minimize without being arrogant myself. Instead, I’d tell the lady to fuck right on off, as I’ve done in the past, on more than one occasion. Assholes are assholes, wherever you are in the world, and if someone can’t handle a bit of noise in her space, then she’s got every right to high-tail it on over to another one. Maybe there, there won’t be any kids.

Thanksgiving, or My Gratitude Journal

So my therapist (of course I have a therapist. I’m American.) told me I have to stop thinking so negatively. She said I have to start sitting down with a journal every night and write out five things I’m grateful for that day. A gratitude journal it’s called. It doesn’t have to be much or extraordinary — just a few words to remind me of the things that made me happy that day.

Do you know how fucking hard that is?

Or how absurdly American?

When she said this, I kept thinking the Little Orphan Annie was going to tap dance into the office and start singing about looking on the bright side of life and I was going to have to smile and nod and pretend that I do not want to strangle that silly little bitch. But then I remembered the song’s from Monty Python so my raging inner fires calmed down and I agreed to this nonsense of trying to be more positive.

Thing is, I’d much rather take out my notebook and curse the dude who would not stop hitting on me at the bar the other night even after I pretended to be married (it’s dudes like him that make me limit my bar visits to once in a blue moon). And I would rather write about the racist bitch at the bakery who refused to serve the black Frenchman standing in line behind me so I had to order his daughter’s goddamned sweet roll for him. These, my friends, are the things that occupy my days most of the time — at least when I leave my house — and so my gratitude journal has been almost entirely comprised of childish notes like: “I’m really glad I cooked something that wasn’t noodles tonight” and “My cleaning lady came so now my toilet is spotless” and “I went for a run.”

It’s the little things, I guess. And I guess I need to start focusing on those things, giving them and not the assholes around me all my mental energy if I want to be in a better place (and I don’t mean Copenhagen).

So to keep myself from further morphing into an ornery old cat lady who considers yoga pants the height of high fashion and snaps at every motherfucker I meet on the street, I’m going to try my hand again at a Thanksgiving post and tell you about all the things I’ve been thankful for this year. Because although the things I was thankful for last year still apply, maybe there’s something to this whole idea of being grateful for how fantastic life can be. Maybe having gratitude can make it even better? Someone get me some rose-colored glasses, please.

1. I love that I have friends who indulge my desire to get the fuck out of dodge and then don’t strangle me when I spend our weekends away in a crappy mood because the hotel room’s too small and the kids are getting on my every last nerve. You know who you are.

1a. Also extremely grateful for my friends who lead interesting yet stable lives that could be a role model for mine whenever I stop using the word stable as a curse. People who let me into their lives in mad ways that I never would’ve expected — like taking me to both the French Riviera and to the doctor when I most needed it.

2. Speaking of doctors, I’m thankful for my health because even after spending a good deal of time fretting about it over the last year, we have finally come to realize that there really isn’t anything wrong with me that a bit of positive thinking and patience can’t fix and this amazing body of mine and its healing powers is something that needs to be appreciated. Also, I can run again. Bam.

3. The Diva. Never not going to be thankful for that. Even when I have to pick her up around the waist and carry her kicking and screaming through the otherwise quiet yet crowded cafe and she wipes her chocolate-covered face on my new white sweater and tells me she hates me just because I want her to use the toilet so that she doesn’t pee her goddamned pants on the train ride home. Grateful.

3a. Also grateful that during this very trying Princess Phase that Diva is going through, I do not live in the US, where a real-live Barbie can come to your birthday party (my sister did this once, dressing up in an old bridesmaid’s dress for good money) and advertisements promoting toys that turn toddlers into miniature Ms. Worlds are on heavy rotation. We have a crown collection, thank you very much, and no, my four-year-old does not need her own make-up set and high heels.

4. Being in touch with my materialistic side has meant I’ve been splurging on shit like sauna visits and massages and fresh cut flowers and cute bras and knee-high boots and candles and pillows for the couch. I can decorate my apartment in what is otherwise known as “cock block deco” and not give a shit. I am also overwhelmingly thankful that I no longer live with a non-aesthete who thinks it’s okay to repair his bicycle on the white rug in the living room. And thankful for my cleaning lady who can keep said rug white even with a chocolate-loving terror in the house.

5. My therapist. Of course.

Happy Thanksgiving, all you Amis. Drink wine, stuff a bird and curse your family for me.

America, a 4-year-old’s Perspective

The diva’s been to the States many, many times, but our most recent visit back to my hometown is the first in which she actually started to make observations about the place. Someone asked me once what it’s like to fly back and forth so often and after this trip, I was like, “You know, it’d be nice to land somewhere new and interesting after all the hassle that comes with a transatlantic flight. But it’s just the same as always.”

For her, though, being in the midwest was like being in a whole new world. It didn’t help that she got to meet nearly a hundred members of my extended family so there were all these new, strange people around. She also got to see and do a bunch of new stuff. Like kayaking. And hiking through a real forest. And sit in the car for hours. She talked her way through a lot of this strangeness, and it was fun to listen to a four-year-old’s thoughts on this place that’s so familiar to me, yet so alien and new to her. So without further ado, a few random observations on America, courtesy of DiT:

1. Toilets there flush too loudly and are super scary. Sometimes they even flush while you’re sitting on them. More scary.

2. It’s weird that people can a) look through a crack in the toilet stall and see you pee, and b) that when you’re done using the toilet, you can just crawl out beneath the door without unlocking it.

3. There are too many cows to count.

4. Tractors are huge. HUGE. Much bigger than this one.

tractor5. Random strangers talk to you and it is not okay.

6. Choices. So.many.choices. (Discovered in the Barbie aisle at Target. Fuck that store.)

7. You can buy noodles at just about any restaurant, but they call it macaroni and that name makes it taste bad.

8. Adults go swimming in their clothes, not in bathing suits, which is strange.

Along with these hawk-eyed observations also came a bit of new vocabulary auf Englisch that was kind of fun to hear. All those sayings I’d tried my darnedest to eliminate so that people would never know where I was from are now popping out of Diva’s mouth. Sometimes when she speaks now, I think, oh wow, that’s my mother coming out right there. Like when she said, “Oh my garsh.” Or even better (and not from my mom), “Oh, what the hell?!?”

It’s kind of cute and sweet, but as I’m all Americaed-out, I’m really looking forward to the days when I can send her on over to visit the grandparents all by herself — then we’ll see what new vocabulary comes back with her.