Embracing the foreign: On (not) fitting into German culture

Photo by Zoltán Vörös /  CC BY 2.0

Photo by Zoltán Vörös /  CC BY 2.0

A friend recently asked me a question:

"Berlin and generally trying to live in Germany has been on my mind lately. I've spoken to some people that are growing disappointed with it or ever really fitting into German culture and you came to mind since it seems that you're set on staying ... [I'm] curious for your thoughts."

I quickly fired back some thoughts but then realized this is a topic I'd like to meditate on a little more thoroughly. 

I've lived in Germany now for 3.5 years and counting. I speak German at what I would say is a very fluent level for a foreigner (whatever that REALLY means). Germans routinely ask me for directions on subway platforms (so I must not stick out too badly). I have picked up a lot of German culture (I know many, but of course not all, of the pop culture references a German is likely to make), and I've more or less mastered the cruel mistress that is the grocery store checkout line. You get the deal: I'm assimilating.

And yet, I still often feel like a round peg in a square hole. Or, to take the metaphor entirely too far, a round peg that fits inside of the square hole, but which doesn't quite manage to fill every corner of it. I get by, but I'm not a perfect fit -- and I don't know if I ever will be. 

Given that at this point in my life, I'm pretty certain I will be staying in Germany (and hopefully Berlin) for the foreseeable future, this is sometimes a distressing thought for me. It's one thing to spend a few years living that glorious expat life in some hip, foreign (but worldly) city and experience culture shocks and the struggles of immersion. In that case, there's always the comfort of knowing the situation is temporary; whatever struggles you're experiencing will instantly be washed away whenever you decide to return to your home country.

But it's quite another thing to consider spending the rest of your life in such an environment. What if these feelings of never quite fitting in don't go away, no matter how long I live here? Does that mean I've made some sort of mistake -- that I didn't try hard enough to integrate, or that I simply chose the wrong place in the world to live?

In these reflections, I've settled on two facts that you simply have to accept to proceed with these kinds of ruminations:

1) Making friends in any culture significantly different from your own is simply difficult, even when you speak their language. 

Germans are stereotyped as being particularly difficult to form meaningful friendships with. I can agree that forming deep friendships with Germans here has not been easy, but I'm not convinced it's any harder here than it would be in, say, France or Italy or Sweden (or of course, anywhere else beyond the European continent).

It's easy to bond with individuals from your own country because there's already so much common ground that you don't have to fight to find: you both use the same words and language to describe thoughts and experiences that the other either shares or is familiar with, and all the while you both operate according to your culture's unspoken norms of behavior. 

You tend to lose all of that when interacting with someone from a foreign culture. In my case, sure, I speak German well, but there are still plenty of words I don't know and sentence structures that baffle me (curse you, Konjunktiv). I'm here in Berlin studying what is a fairly Americanized field, so most Germans I interact with have no familiarity with my studies (limiting possibilities of talking casually about it), and since I didn't go to high school here and have only lived in Germany a few years, we have limited common experience to build off of. And while I've learned many of the social norms, there remain many more that are still unnatural to me (man, I hate having to individually hug/acknowledge everyone when I arrive at a social gathering) or just not things I think to do.

None of this means I have absolutely no chance of interacting at more than a superficial level with Germans. But it does mean interactions with me are a hell of a lot less effortless for Germans than interactions with another native. And to the extent that that is true, I think I just have to accept that there will be plenty of people with whom I never manage to form more than a surface-level relationship. The people I do tend to form meaningful relationships with are usually those for whom interacting with a foreigner is not an unnecessary challenge but rather a refreshing change of pace -- unsurprisingly, these tend to be Germans who themselves have spent at least a few months living outside of Germany. 

2) Living abroad will simultaneously strengthen and dull the influences of your home culture, for better or for worse.

You'll experience moments where you revel in the superiority of your adopted culture and wish your home culture would catch up already (example: Germans and recycling), but you'll also experience moments where you wonder why it's so hard for the adopted culture to live up to standards that are so basic and uncontested in your home culture (example: the hot dumpster fire that is German customer service). 

The culture of the U.S. is distinctly bundled into my personality, and fitting in "perfectly" into Germany would mean changing who I am on a fundamental level -- something that I don't think has to be a prerequisite to settling into another country. 

A classic example I like to cite is how stiff and formal Germans can be interactions with people who are not part of their friends or family. German is a language that has an informal and formal "you" (du vs. Sie), with the general rule being that du is for friends, good acquaintances, and people generally your age or younger, and Sie is for professional contacts, strangers you meet as part of your everyday life, and people older than you (this is all a bit roughly approximated, but you get the idea). Not only is it not uncommon for people to use the formal Sie form when addressing their co-workers and superiors (people you see every day!), in many classical German offices it's normal to refer to people by their last names rather than first. 

For me as an American, this is all far too much formality, and I don't like the distance it creates between me and the people I interact with. I want everyone to call me by my first name ("Frau Dykes" has a ring to it that just makes me shudder), and I would hate to work in an office where most everyone I interact with is held at a figurative arm's length as a result of having to only address them formally. It's worth noting that as workplaces become more international in Germany, office dynamics are changing and becoming less formal, but still, traditionally German workplaces would be at odds with American informality. 

If you had asked me prior to moving to Germany if I expected to someday feel so strongly about topics like these, I probably would have just stared at you blankly, wondering where you came up with such an idea. But after spending so much time here, I've learned that I don't want to blend in perfectly. I don't want to force myself to shed all vestiges of the culture that formed me the first 23 years of my life. 

And so I accept this part of myself. I accept that there will be Germans who think I am too casual, who think I am too quick to "duz" people rather than "Siez" them, and who think I am strange for insisting whenever possible that I be called Tori and nothing else (though of course I pick my battles). And I accept the countless other American quirks that I choose to maintain in my daily life that will mean that I'm always somewhere on the periphery of entirely German circles, rarely connecting meaningfully with people.

I choose not to see that as my failure, or as any sort of signal that Germany is not the place for me. Instead, I choose to embrace it. I am a mishmash of cultures that not everyone understands or wants to understand. But those people who get it -- and there are plenty out there, German and foreign -- they form the backbone of exceptionally fulfilling personal relationships, and they make the struggles worth it.