America is still recovering from a horrible slump in international relations, and Americans have a (sometimes well-earned) reputation for being loud and obnoxious tourists. I can definitely see how this stereotype exists; even though most people back home tell me to speak up, I still notice my voice carries in hushed German grocery stores or cafés. So, whenever I find myself blundering through German culture, I simply joke “I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I’m American!” This statement acknowledges that I probably committed a social faux-pas, indicates that I’m trying to learn, and puts my European friends at ease with a little chuckle. It definitely diffuses any tension and lets people know that I understand the problems of Americans abroad. It’s true that laughter is the best medicine!
Despite the American reputation, whenever people learn that I’m American, their reaction is usually “Oh, cool!” I attended a meet-and-greet function with a Christian college group, and the hostesses hadn’t been warned that I was a foreigner. When they found out I was an exchange student, they were completely thrilled that I had come to their house.
I still haven’t gotten used to being a novelty. Even a professor in one of my classes recently referred to me as “exotic” (and anyone who truly knows me knows I’m far from exotic…). This wasn’t the first time I was referred to as “exotic”, either. Another exchange student, Sanja, found out that I was from Florida and that another American, Dominic, was from Mississippi. She started laughing, and when we asked her what was so funny, she said “You’re both from such exotic locations!” I told my parents about this exchange, and they also started laughing. “But she’s from Serbia. That’s way more exotic than Florida!”
All these experiences have helped drive home the maxim: “The grass is greener on the other side”. Everyone else’s home is more “exotic” than your own, and is full of people who fit into categories. I’ll admit I had a much more idealized view of Germany before I came here. In many ways, my assumptions about Germany have been confirmed, but my understanding of Germany is now much deeper than the crust of first impressions. It’s not just beautiful houses and beautiful landscapes. The mundane exists here too, and it’s easy to get caught up in everyday rituals and forget about the mountains and the different culture. Germany is a normal place full of normal people, who don’t exactly fit the German stereotype. Some do, but most don’t; instead, they belong in a complicated and diverse spectrum of personalities, just like America.
Being in Germany has definitely made me appreciate my own home. I hope when I get back, I will be less focused on the banal and more aware of the beauty around me.