After living in Germany for a little over 3 months, I recently traveled “home” to the US to defend my thesis (spoiler alert: I passed!). It was honestly a little bit strange going back after having largely adjusted to life in Leipzig. I took notice of things that were once completely ordinary to me. Call it reverse culture shock or maybe just a heightened cultural awareness, but here are the things that made me think twice:
1. Americans really are louD
After I flew into the US, I took public transit to my hotel. Finally being back in an English-speaking country, I would have LOVED to eavesdrop on the conversations of others nearby just to hear my sweet mother-tongue again. Only, I didn’t need to eavesdrop. From across the tram I could clearly hear a loud, desperate college boy in the midst of a futile attempt to impress his uninterested lady friend. “ARE YOU EXCITED FOR THE VIKINGS GAME?” “DO YOU WANT TO TRY MY BEER?” (Mind you, public drinking is illegal in Minneapolis, but it did remind me of the glorious lax drinking laws of Germany.) “I REALLY LIKE YOUR BOOTS. AREN’T YOU, LIKE, SO EXCITED IT’S FINALLY FALL?”
My two thoughts were, “Holy crap, I can understand them,” and then immediately, “SHE’S NEVER GOING TO LIKE YOU IF YOU KEEP SHOUTING AT HER!” So I think it should suffice to say there is a reason behind the loud American stereotype.
2. Small talk caught me by surprise
I got to my hotel somewhat early in the day, so when they didn’t have a room ready for me when I arrived, I had to wait for a little while in the lobby. I was fine to just stand there and wait, minding my own business, but then a hotel receptionist approached me and started talking to me about nothing in particular, as if I couldn’t possibly bear to be in silence for 15 minutes. As a self-proclaimed awkward person, I have never really enjoyed small talk. I’ve always found small talk to be simultaneously superficial and invasive, and therefore it’s difficult for me to engage in this seemingly mundane activity. When you encounter strangers in Germany, the most you need to know is “Guten Tag!”, “Bitte”, and “Danke” which is right in my comfort zone. But in America, I suddenly had to turn it on and feign polite interest in this stranger’s musings.
Many similar instances of small talk occurred during my stay in the US, and they made me feel thankful that I’m spending my time abroad in a country that is so much more straightforward. I mean, I struggle as it is to understand the grocery clerks when they ask me if I want a receipt, or a bag, or if I carry a rewards card, but at least all of those conversations are somewhat predictable. I can’t imagine the awkward panic that would ensue if they started asking me about the weather, the items I’m purchasing, or if I caught the latest RB game (Leipzig soccer/football team). Don’t get me wrong, I definitely need more outlets for casual conversation, but to try to compose an intelligible German response while counting out exact change in Euros while the customer behind me taps his foot impatiently – even the hypothetical situation stresses me out!
3. Toilets are so wasteful (toilet pun?)
What’s a blog without a little toilet humor? But seriously guys, why do Americans need ~5 gallons of water to dispose of liquid wastes? It’s ludicrous! We are basically flushing water with water. Why are we so afraid of a little sterile, yellow excretion that we damn it to the drains with 5 whole gallons of clean, drinkable water? (Sorry, is my inner enviro-hippy showing?) In European restaurants I’ve paid as much as €7.50 for a liter of that toilet water, true story – except that it was obviously filtered and bottled and the price wasn’t listed on the menu.
Not to get too political or bathroom-personal, but I’m a fan of the beautiful two-option flusher. Big bar = big flush, little bar = little flush. I save the fishes every time I pee! I think it’s time to get on board, America.
4. I felt the need to recycle everything
While I’m on my enviro-rant, I might as well run away with it. Germany is famous for it’s incredible recycling programs. So, after living in Leipzig for 3 months, I had grown accustomed to sorting and composting my refuse. (Seriously, can we take a moment to enjoy the rancid-smelling splendor that is city-wide composting? No personal trash heaps to tend to, no worries about scavenging animals, and a significant amount of trash diverted from landfills – it’s a glorious thing.) Anyway, my dad is a gardener, so my family has always composted, but when I spent a week with my parents, I took one glance at their trash can and was nearly mortified by the plastic containers within. I may have even spent some time picking out used yogurt containers and such and tossing them in the recycling bin, only to realize later that their city only accepts certain types of plastic for recycling. Woops! Consider those yogurt containers as a message sent to the recycling facilities to step up their game.
5. No one greeted me at the doctor’s office
I scheduled a routine doctor’s visit for when I was home in the States, and I sort of missed the German custom of greeting and acknowledging strangers in your vicinity. No small talk, of course, but just a simple “Guten Tag” as you enter a waiting room that makes you feel slightly less like cattle waiting to be chauffeured to slaughter (or something much less graphic). I mean, I get it. If you say “hi” to anyone in the US, it’s basically an invitation for small talk, and a doctor’s office is not exactly the place to be inviting others into your personal, probably medical, problems. Still, it’s always nice if at least the receptionists acknowledge your presence with a welcoming, “hello.” (They seriously didn’t say a word to me; I just signed in and sat down. Rude.)
At this point I feel like I’m bashing on the American culture too much, so let me just take a moment to list the wonderful things about the US that I was so happy to experience upon returning:
- Free drinking water!
- Not feeling like a moron in everyday life
- Reese’s peanut butter cups
- Fast-operating washing machines
- Visiting friends and family
- Not feeling like a moron
- Speaking English
- Not feeling like a moron
- and sweet, sweet validation! I graduated!
Do you have any experiences with reverse culture shock? Share your stories in a comment!