"Define cultural differences…."

“What’s the biggest difference between Country XYZ and the US?”

This is a standard question posed to all Americans living abroad. Everyone has been asked it at least once. On the whole, I have a hard time with it. There are the obvious differences: language, currency, and vacation time all spring to mind, but for the most part, most of Europe has been Westernized enough that living here doesn’t really strike me as that different from home. 

But sometimes you have a conversation that really throws you for a loop. Something will pop up that I really cannot even begin to fathom as an American… and it might get awkward for a minute. In the spirit of sharing awkward moments, here are a few of my favorites:

  • A student and I were discussing the Czech resistance movement during World War II. He had a family member that was employed as an airplane mechanic, and was forced to work on aircraft for the German Luftwaffe. He was accused of tampering with the planes, and was going to be tried for the crime, but luckily then the war ended. Thankfully WWII is pretty far removed now and this was a pretty mild story, so only slightly strange to hear.
  • Another Czech student was telling me about traveling during the communist period. Apparently you were only allowed to travel across the border with a certain amount of money, so he would try and hide Deutsch Marks around the car. The cars were searched at the border, so it was quite difficult to hide money in the car. He said the most effective way he hid the money was to hollow out butter, and put money inside it. This doesn’t quite compare to people driving from Wisconsin to Illinois to buy margarine back when it was illegal in the Dairy State.
  •  In one recent class, we were talking about fire drills. One of my students is originally from Russia, and I’m guessing he’s about 4 or 5 years older than I am. He asked me if we had nuclear drills in school. I laughed, and told him that we hadn’t had those in the U.S. since the 1950’s or 60’s. The rest of the class laughed at him for being old, whoops. He thought about it for a minute, and said that he remembered having them in school around 1986. Whoops again. I guess at the end of the Cold War, we weren’t all that concerned about Russia anymore. But they were still worried about us. 
  • Another student comes from part of the former U.S.S.R. The topic of the class was life changes. She said the biggest change in her life was moving from her home country to Germany in 1988. I asked what was the most difficult part (perhaps insensitive, I know, I was just following the book), thinking about the standard answers you’d get in the U.S.: leaving family, friends, having to go to a new school, and so on. She responded that the journey was the most difficult. Again, thinking of long drives and lost luggage, I asked why. She went on to tell us that after the paperwork was processed for her and her mother, they were escorted from the train station by soldiers with guns and large dogs. They were made to walk five kilometers down the stony train tracks, with their hands cuffed, and trying to carry their suitcases. They were put on the train, handcuffs taken off, and then off to Germany. The other two students in the class looked just as taken aback at this response as I was, which made me feel slightly better.  

These are just a few examples. Every American abroad I know can name at least one instance that they were bushwhacked by. So while the day-to-day seems standard, sometimes you get these glimpses that you can’t even pretend to understand. People say that in the US, we don’t really have freedom, or that it’s being taken away from us, and I wonder if they realize what they are saying. We are a long way from hiding money in dairy products or armed police escorts to public transportation.

East Side Gallery, Berlin.

Honestly, it makes me feel pretty naive sometimes. Wars, poverty, famine, and disaster were things we saw on the news while we ate dinner. They were abstract concepts, compared to the reality of homework assignments and scraped knees on the playground. Now I think about things that were happening while we were sitting safely in our schools, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, learning to write in cursive and racing bikes around the neighborhood.

Wandering past the East Side Gallery, Berlin 2009. 
Photo via my old flatmate.

So what do I do when these situations come up? 

Listen. Sometimes, that’s really all you can do. 

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