Perception vs. Reality

There are so many ways that living abroad is universal regardless of your location or home country. It takes a while to assimilate into any a new place and learn a new language, but some places are just naturally magnets for expats like Shanghai. As a foreigner here, you are in good company with several hundred thousand other people. And in daily life a lack of mandarin can be challenging, but there’s a whole network of “expat-friendly” places that speak English to help you feel a little less like an outsider. All our doctors speak English, the teachers and staff at my son’s school speak English, and my gym classes are all taught in English. We are also spoiled for choice when it comes to finding friends with whom we can easily communicate here in Shanghai.

But what about when you are an expat in a country that doesn’t have this secondary system set up? On the surface, you might think it would be much easier to be an expat in Germany than in China. As a westerner, you are much less likely to stand out in Germany, and you assume that Germans learn enough English to communicate with you, right? Well, a friend of mine from the US, Kellie, can tell you otherwise.

Kellie, what brought you overseas, and when? “We moved to Germany with my husband’s job. He works for a German chemical company and he wanted to learn the work culture in the global headquarters. We lived in Mannheim, Germany for three years. It’s a small university city about an hour south of Frankfurt.”

How did your initial expectations live up to the reality of life abroad? “I expected to be lonely. That was the main word I had heard from former expats. The isolation was the biggest warning I had received. It was true, in a way, but not how I had expected. The first year in Germany was like a dream. I sought out friends through an English-speaking play group and that couldn’t have turned out better. Every Tuesday I knew I had an English-speaking haven waiting for me. I made friends through the play group, through my husband’s work, and with my German tutor. It was not lonely.

It was, however, isolating. People think Germans speak English. But Germans studied English. We, Americans, studied math. Algebra. Pre-calc. Can you do fraction multiplication if someone on the street asked you to? Most people, I expect, cannot. That’s how it was with English in our part of Germany. Asking a stranger to speak English is asking them a big favor. Could you please struggle with grammar you haven’t practiced in many years so that I can very comfortably speak my native language? Thanks. I learned quickly to speak broken German and lost a lot of my ability to communicate. And that was isolating. And it snuck up on me. At first, I anticipated loneliness but didn’t feel it. And then I expected to be comfortable and never was. Eventually I got used to feeling uncomfortable and then after more time got used to feeling foreign.”

So, with the idea that you might be lonely in the back of your mind, what goals did you have for your time away? “I had very clear goals cut out for myself before we left. They were four-fold: find good doctors for my son; make friends; learn German; have a second child.

Regarding the first and most important goal: my son had some fairly serious health problems diagnosed about six months before we moved to Germany. They were both being managed (not very effectively) by medication. We were very often at the doctor and the emergency room. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find good doctors that would take his conditions seriously in Germany. I was terrified he would have an attack before I had found a doctor, so I was really worried about finding a doctor straight away. So, the third day I was in Germany I tried to make my son a doctor appointment. In German. The receptionist spoke no English and so I used a translator to tell her what I needed. She seemed to understand alright, but then. Then! She asked a question. Well, what now, Kellie?!? I hung up. Eventually someone from my husband’s work helped us find a team of great doctors. I mean, just great. They REALLY helped my son. Way beyond what the very expensive experts in the US had done. He has grown out of his health issues now. But I’m certain those German doctors saved us years of being in and out of the emergency room.

And as for goal number two, I didn’t just make friends, I made a good friend. Really good. I can’t imagine what life abroad would have been like without her and her family. She’ll be moving back soon, as well. So, I’m glad to have a buddy to go through the “transitioning back” part with.”

It appears you checked all the boxes for your time abroad. So, what did you like about your time living in Germany? “I got to see the German parenting style in action. I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere, but German parents are positive parents. Everything is explained in a friendly voice. Kids are allowed a lot more freedom to roam and explore. Kids climb everything outside. And strangers are expected to watch out for other people’s kids. If your kid goes crazy in a bank, someone will hand them gummy bears. No joke. Kids over two are expected to go to preschool, and the German government subsidizes the schools so that they are affordable. It makes parenting more relaxed. You can get something accomplished in the morning and let your kids run around the park in the afternoon. If they try to run into the road a stranger will stop them. On the flip side, you WILL get yelled at if a stranger deems your child’s clothing weather inappropriate.”

I’m glad when all is said and done the experience was a positive one. So, if you liked living away from home so much, what was your initial reaction when you found out you were finally going back? “Americans are shallow, why is everyone so friendly if they don’t want to be my friend? I’m going to lose German very quickly.”

And now that you’ve been home for a couple months, what do you miss most about living abroad? What are you happiest to have now that you’re back home? “I miss the slower pace of life, the great parks and playgrounds, the proximity to other European countries and the six weeks of vacation for my husband. I’m super happy to be around friendly people that speak fluent English and feeling like a native.”

Kellie, thanks so much for telling us about your experience as an expat in Germany. There are so many universal experiences that foreigners go through when settling somewhere new. For me, having a best friend to go through my first two years of expat life with was invaluable. I agree with you—I cannot imagine what it would have been like without her.

Final question—what would you say to someone who is considering live overseas? “The experience was amazing. I am glad I lived abroad. I got to learn a new language and embarrass myself with it every day. It’s hard at first, but so rewarding you won’t want to leave.”

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