Category Archives: New world

The — almost — ubiquitous German wannabes

No wonder I have been running into “Germanness” and Americans who proudly tell me of their German ancestors at almost every turn. I know the immigration history of the United States enough to remember that Germans came in large numbers in the 19th century for religious and political freedom, peace and work opportunities.

But the neat map above shows a nuance of the outcome of this history that I had not been aware of. Almost all of the Northern states have counties with large ethnic German groups. While having jumped between four states and one district in my almost eight years of living in the United States, they were all situated in the Northern half of the country (except for a couple of months living in Atlanta, GA). That is, they are covered in the bright orange blanket in the upper part of the map. German heritage everywhere! 46 million Americans claim German ancestry — making them the biggest ethnic group in the United States. It shows in names, in people’s stories, businesses, in small stores and tourist traps, where German references in image and text are often adjacent to Austrian and Swiss products and landscapes.

Americans are happy to point out to me their connections to Germany, often claiming that they are German, too! It is the most frequently used marker that people pin on me: the German one. My accent serves as a reminder to ask: “Where are you from?” My response usually goes one of two ways depending on my energy level on a given day to indulge in American-style excited small talk about superficial commonalities referring to Germany, or not. I either play along with a smile, succinctly explaining that yes, of course, Leipzig is near Berlin. Or I am bluntly shooting back saying that I do not know their (fill in the blank for town) in West Germany where their friend/great-grandmother/father was visiting/living/stationed. Exceptions of true interest beyond small talk exist but remain rare.

I know and feel my being German everyday. It is a huge part of me and will always be. But that does not mean that I am only German. I am also a reader of novels from all over the world, a professor, a hobby runner, an Arabic learner, (and I guess a blogger)…. You get the idea.

One of the luxuries of life is not to have to explain oneself. As an immigrant this becomes even more treasured. For one, the explanation load to new friends, acquaintances and colleagues with references to strange cultures, pasts, and childhood products, TV shows etc. from abroad is way higher than within a given country and/or culture and might remain incomprehensible to non-natives. Second, albeit well-meant, confusions with Austrian and Swiss vacation visits make small talk even weirder. Why would I know anything about Salzburg or Vienna? Even the otherwise smart Economist starts its article on the German silent minority with an example of an “Austrian chalet.” ???

Many Americans think they know Germany, and most of them only West Germany anyway, but they don’t. They only mangle, albeit mostly positive, stereotypes with re-hashed fourth-hand stories. Beer, cars, Autobahn, Bavaria, pork, engineers… I am sure you got some of your own. We all do.

But it is okay to not always know, to not always connect, to endure silence.

The German heritage might be very visible in the map as a yellow carpet of assumed familiarity but day-to-day encounters show that few Americans know anything about the real Germany, let alone the current and former East.

Perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the United States this February 9 will help. As an East German, childless woman with a Ph.D. in physics she is a quadruple anomaly in politics but a great symbol for Germany’s past and present. Surely some of that will find its way into the more observant U.S. news media, perhaps bringing some of Germany’s realities to the many Americans who like to fantasize about their ancestors’ homeland.

What does the SuperBowl have to do with Germany?

IMG_3546Until yesterday the answer would have been not much. But since the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl yesterday, Germany has now been linked to this most American of American all-men games. Naturally, it is a man who connected the two.

Sebastian Vollmer, a German national born in Düsseldorf, played for the Patriots and is the first German to win a Super Bowl title.

German news media spread the message to such an extent that my dad, who usually does not watch any kind of sports, German or American, noticed the news. He remarked that even Germany’s most watched newscast, die Tagesschau, found this worth airing, along with the remark that “violence, concussions, and deflated balls made for a hard year in American football” [Gewalt, Gehirnverletzungen und zum Schluss noch Bälle, denen die Luft ausging. Der amerikanische Football hat ein hartes Jahr hinter sich.]

The Tagesschau also reported that few German companies sought to use the overprized ad space of the Super Bowl; among German car makers only BMW was propagating its electric car as the wonder of the future.

Other German news media highlighted that Vollmer did not touch the ball once but served as bodyguard to another player and that Vollmer gave his first interview barefoot; most news media included Vollmer’s quote after winning: “I have no words. It’s insane.

The generally optimistic magazine Focus commented: “Germany has its SUPER-BOWL-HERO! Sebastian Vollmer writes football history.” [Deutschland hat seinen SUPER-BOWL-HELDEN! Sebastian Vollmer schreibt Football-Geschichte… ]

What do I make of this?

Simply, in the asymmetrical distribution of attention around the globe, German news media and people pay a lot more attention to U.S. sports and culture than vice versa. Luckily, Germans are also aware of the problematic sides of U.S. sports culture, see violence and injuries.

Moreover, German (and U.S.) news media like to declare heroes, especially men. And no matter, which nationalities are involved, it goes unreported that the Super Bowl as THE sports-entertainment-consumerism orgasm of U.S. culture is an all-men event when it comes to players and commentators. Of course, women are invited to stand on the sidelines, watch and dance half-naked in between.

So you have a white German dude as part of the men’s fest this time. Big deal.

The more interesting story is to find an event with all-women athletes and all-women commentators in the United States or Germany (or any country for that matter) that would rival such a nationalist-capitalistic über-celebration regarding viewership, hyping, and dollars.

The Secretary of State in the Strip Mall

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It is was one of these days. I should have known when I stepped outside my house. It was gray, rainy, cold. It reminded me of Seattle in the fall (and winter and spring). But at least in Washington state the inside works efficiently, for instance when I got a driver’s license in seven minutes.

Not so in Michigan. While it offers sunshine often, its bureaucracy clouds the day.

The cute thing in the supposedly “United” States of America is that each state issues its own driver’s license, car registration and title. With each move, you have to get fresh documents. I am living in my fifth state now. Imagine the fun.

First, the nearest office for the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) showed two different addresses online. In the drizzle I directed my car to address number one. I arrived at a run-of-the-mill strip mall with dollar stores, nail shops and beauty salons. One bigger gray building looked official but turned out to be empty. I asked in the dollar store; the cashier hadn’t heard of a DMV office there.

I checked again online; off to address number two. I arrived at another strip mall. Same kind of stores; another small gray building at one end. Many cars sat in front of it, people streamed inside. Confidently I headed toward the building. A man in front of me held the door open. I rushed in…and landed in something else. Women with head scarves and some men with turbans sat at desks quietly reading. Beautiful rugs, book shelves and paintings decorated the room. The polite man at the door said: “This is a mosque.” He added the DMV used to be here. I sped outside and laughed hard in the parking lot.

Back to square one. I called a colleague who had visited the mysterious local DMV office before. He sent me back to address number one. He advised to look for a store labelled “Secretary of State.” He also mentioned he waited for an hour and a half.

It sat between LaVita Massage, L.A. Insurance and The Beauty Department. Announcing itself in glowing neon-letters like the other stores around it, a government agency did its best to hide from the residents who are forced to use it.

Inside women with toddlers, bands of young men, and older folks were waiting – in line, in seats, at booths. Warned of the waiting time, I had brought work. I drew a number and sat down. After a while a voice shouted people who need licenses need to come over to pick up another sheet. Did that, sat down again. After 45 minutes I reached a service booth with a person.

I had brought all my identification documents from this country and Germany: passport, green card, my still current Washington state driver’s license/ID, and my German driver’s license. In addition, I brought a rental lease, car registration, car title, authorization by the co-owner of the car that I can act on his behalf, copy of the co-owner’s driver’s license/ID, cash, check books and credit cards. Oh yeah, and the application form.

These were not enough.

No, a rental lease is not enough to prove residency. Another piece of paper with the address is needed.

No, all the identification documents were not sufficient. The real printed social security card needs to be brought! Unheard of. Never in my seven years as an immigrant did I ever have to bring my U.S. social security card anywhere. Usually you just have to memorize and give the number. Not even Homeland Security, otherwise quite demanding when it comes to documents, ever wanted to see it, or a copy of it. In fact, the social security card is not allowed as a means of identification as Americans feared a national tracking system could lead to Nazi-like persecution. (Remember each state issues its own IDs, hence my ordeal.)

No, not any car insurance but one in Michigan is needed to do anything about switching over the car. This includes getting new license plates. Yes, you have to change license plates in the same country when you move to a different part of it.

I keep telling friends and anyone who complains about German bureaucracy that U.S. bureaucracy is just as burdensome and annoying. In fact, it is enhanced because each state wants to squeeze its share of Benjamins out of you. The only redeeming, merciful gesture this unfriendly process offered was a pink slip. When I return with my additional documents, I don’t have to wait in line. Bottom line: it’s all about the Benjamins. That makes a strip mall a fitting place.

PS: It did not help that when finally driving to work, a bus that ran by kept flashing “Have a good day” on its digital display board.

Update: With the power of the magic pink slip my second visit a week later went more smoothly. The sun was shining. The Secretary of State was still in the same strip mall. Within about half an hour I got the paper work for my new driver’s license, registration and title. I’m officially a Michigoose now. Hooray!

Halloween decorations: 2014 photo edition

IMG_2350They are spooky, cute, tacky, creative or natural, the decorations for Halloween that Americans place around their houses. It’s this time of the year again, when we make fun of our fears of darkness and death.

I tried to join with a natural take but suffered several serious cases of what J. calls “custom carving by squirrel.” I put a colorful squash the size of a soccer ball on the stairs. After the first day, I noticed that someone had nibbled on it. It still looked pretty. The next time I checked, the squash showed a fist-big hole. The day after that, the squirrels had gutted the squash, yellow and orange shreds were sprinkled all over the stairs.

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I thought the smaller size of the squash had made it such a desirable squirrel snack. So I bought two large orange pumpkins. I brushed off the dirt; their smooth skin shining in the sun. I added a smaller, third pumpkin to complete the trio. Alas, after only three hours, I opened the door to catch two black squirrels in the act! They already had dug deep into the small pumpkin; I took it inside. I hoped that the bigger pumpkins could survive the squirrels’ sharp teeth with their thicker skin. Oh no, an hour later two black and grey fur balls scurried away from the stairs when I yanked open the door. They had nibbled off a hand-sized part of one of the two big pumpkins. That’s it, I thought. I took the pumpkins inside.

Other people are luckier. Their pumpkins (and unpalatable plastic pieces) sit peacefully outside to spread the Halloween spirit. Without much further ado, you can see my 2014 photo edition of neighborhood Halloween decorations below.

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Small but colorful: Gasworks Park Seattle

The third installment of my series of industrial sites around Seattle is Gasworks Park. The park is small. Its greens are framed by colorful machinery and the popular kite hill which offers a pleasing overview over the skyline of Seattle over Lake Union.

My favorite spot is the row of “hidden” benches that overlook the lake, where the duck tour ships cruise by, some actual ducks paddle along and brave rowers make their way across even in what feels like sub-zero temperatures. Best of all is enjoying the sunshine on one’s face on one of those rare sunny days.

When I first “discovered” Gasworks Park, a group of knights practiced their fighting. More commonly, kids, dogs and joggers hang out in the park. But the drum beats of the medieval group and the clinging of swords provided an unusual welcome.

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Homeschooling is “verboten” in Germany but embraced in the US — a conundrum solved

The case of the German family Romeike has been ongoing for several years and has being covered in German and U.S. news media for a few years now. I’ve seen it popping up now and again. But thanks to a kind forwarding gesture, I got to read the latest, well-written summary of the Romeike’s case in the Economist. Moreso, the Economist does a good job of comparing the homeschooling situation in Germany — it is “verboten” — with the situation in the United States where it is embraced.

Indeed, homeschooling is “verboten” in Germany. I have never heard of any kids being home-schooled. Everyone I ever encountered among my friends in college or elsewhere has gone to a German school. The article does a good job of reflecting the German situation, also that Germany overall features a very secular society and more so than in the United States where one has to be more cautious to make jokes about believing people.

I would say the case of the Romeike family has been so prominent in the U.S. and German media not only because of their unusual asylum request to the U.S. on the grounds of fleeing Germany as refugees of “religious and social persecution,” but because it is a very unusual case in Germany. I don’t know how many other parents want to home school their children, but this is usually not part of German discourse. Everyone just goes to school, and more so than in the United States, attends a public school. Currently, there is an even greater push to make schools models of “lived tolerance” by using the concept of “inclusion,” in which children with different (dis)abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and levels of achieving (9th, 10th or 12th aims) learn side by side.

Upon hearing of the story, J. commented: “Germans don’t let their kids be brain-washed. They’ve had bad experiences with that in the past.” Indeed, the article also refers to the Nazi time, and German angst toward groups that threaten societal consensus.

But I also think Mr. Romeike’s comment about “the German mentality” is quite appropriate, that “things have to be a certain way.” I explored a similar theme in a study on why political blogs are not flourishing in Germany compared to the United States and France.Broader German society believes in institutions which are recognized as authorities. If individuals want to stick out of that community, for instance individual bloggers or in this case individual parents, they are viewed with suspicion by society-at-large and are not recognized as doing official business. Especially since, except for some schools, nothing is really wrong with German public schools on average. For the most part, only if you have an official stamp and permission, broader German society recognizes something as legitimate. German parents fashioning their own permissions is usually not part of it.

Welcome to your routine health care disruption

It’s been churning in my head for days. Again. It happens every time I move: the pharmacy-doctor-health insurance triangle got me trapped for just trying to cover basic needs.

This is nothing new for people living in the United States with a U.S. health insurance. It’s an unfortunate situation that haunts those who live here longer than just for an internship or for a study-abroad year during which most typically people carry along a health insurance from their home country.

If you live in the United States for real and are not super rich the health care disruption will get you, again and again. It’s daily (non-)news that the unsystematic system is broken. It’s frequent talk among colleagues and friends. It’s always good for a rant to share the latest absurdity. By the way, this has little to do with Obamacare; it was broken before and still is because of some fundamentally weird ways it has been set up. These are my two cents on the issue after having dealt with it from a patient perspective, or rather consumer perspective. After all, you have to remember it is all about the money, not the human.

So to my German or otherwise non-U.S. based readers, I want to offer a current sliver of experience with this strange arrangement. Alas, it differs so much from the German system (the only other health care system I have experienced) that it will be hard to explain all its kinks. Before getting to my most recent adventure in this bureaucratic jungle, here’s a quick primer on some fundamentals (flaws):

For starters, most typically you only have health insurance if you are employed, i.e. the employer picks your health insurance. If you’re out of a job, you are out of insurance. But while you are employed AND your spouse is employed you can also be double-insured.

Within the plans that your employer offers, you can choose between different alphabet soups of HMO, PPO, HSA, etc. I won’t even go there; it’s a mess to understand that is usually explained in a brochure as big and thick as a Spiegel magazine. A big dividing line runs between, most often, cheaper plans in which you are only allowed to visit pre-approved doctors in your state and those in which you can freely choose a doctor across the entire country (yeah, land of freedom!). You better think hard which one you pick because you’re only allowed to switch your plan once a year during a pre-defined, short period (unless you have a birth, death or wedding or other “life-changing event”). Otherwise you’re stuck.

Second, insurances do not necessarily cover all body parts. In my wallet, I currently carry 5, yes, 5 cards to “insure” the health of my entire body: 1 for my mind, 1 for my teeth, 1 for the rest of my body, 1 other one for the rest of my body (second insurance via J.), and 1 for prescriptions.

So you would think I am good to go. It’s in fact the best combination I have had so far in the country. Before, when I was only a student in Ohio, the university as my employer would not offer dental insurance. I shelled out about $100 each time I saw my dentist. When I was an intern, my employer did not offer me insurance but I had to look for an alumni insurance for recent graduates on my own.

Now with 5 jokers in my pocket, you would think it does the trick to be covered. But the thing is, you never know what is covered for how much until you visited your doctor. Which is the next thing that differs.

To find a doctor you first call the insurance to ask which doctor is covered. Then a robot-like human of the insurance tells you on the phone in legal language (after you work yourself through an automated message system and wait on hold for at least 15 minutes) that you still need to check with the doctor’s office if they work with your insurance. Then you call the doctor’s office and ask if they are working with your insurance. After they say yes, you cross your fingers that this is true, and you can finally make an appointment.

This still does not mean that everything routine you do is covered, e.g. yearly check ups on teeth, eyes or a standard physical. I had to pay over $100 for a routine eye check (which I hadn’t had for about two years). I had to pay over $400 with insurance to get my wisdom teeth removed. I had to pay over $100 for my routine dental check up. You get the idea… Almost every time you visit a doctor you pay a co-pay (Praxisgebühr) or a fee afterwards, or both. For each visit, at any doctor’s office, you either get a bill right away or an “explanation of benefits,” which tells me that my doctor’s office will send me a bill later.

I know Germans pay a lot each month in health insurance fees. While the monthly fee here might be sometimes lower, this is not always the case. Especially with Obamacare many people pay way more and get less and/or were forced to go to a new doctor (yes, call your insurance again to make sure the new one is covered.) My old dentist dumped me because of Obamacare and the university forced me to take on another insurance from their “wide” menu. Others pay thousands of dollars more for their family and still have to pay co-pays, fees and bills in addition.

So, now that we warmed up and considered these simple rules as the fertile ground for happy interactions with your insurance, doctor and pharmacy, we can dive into my current adventure.

Since I moved recently, I found myself a new doctor (remember lots of calling to figure this out). I had to ask the new doctor to write me a prescription for a routine medication I take regularly. Nothing extraordinary, something millions of people take all the time.

The doctor wrote the prescription. This does not mean that you get a neat little slip to take to the pharmacy of your choice. No, it means the doctor’s office calls in to a pharmacy that you need to pick in advance. Pharmacies here are usually at the back of any bigger supermarket. Imagine that inside your favorite supermarket, not far from the butcher’s counter, is another little counter or set of windows. That is where pharmacies are typically located. (Of course, also big drive-through pharmacies exist so you don’t have to leave your precious rolling metal cage.) Luckily, I already knew where I get my groceries most often. I gave the doctor the name of my supermarket.

I discussed with the doctor if I can keep using the brand I have been using. She said she did not know but that the pharmacy can tell me which generics I might be able to use instead. She said she cannot give me any medical advice on that. Brand v. generic plays a role again for what your insurance might cover or not. In my case it supposedly only covers the generic, not my brand. Hence my question to the doctor which effects a generic might have on my body. My doctor advises me to “shop around” at different pharmacies to get the brand I want.

In the supermarket pharmacy, I show them my shiny prescription insurance card. The assistant says the insurance covers the brand and the generic. Mmh, why did my insurance tell me they only cover the generic? Who is right? Happy that I can continue with my preferred brand, I learn I need to return to the supermarket the next day to pick up my brand.

The next day the pharmacy calls me, which is nice enough. But they tell me, oh no, they do not have my brand after all. Just the generic. I get the name of the generic. The pharmacist says it has the same active ingredient as the brand. I google it. Lots of horror stories pop up on different sites. Luckily, it just takes me three more phone calls to other supermarkets to “shop around” in the area. One supermarket tells me they don’t have a pharmacy albeit it says so on their website; the second also does not carry my brand, but the third does. After waiting on hold on the phone for another 10 minutes I get to talk to my new lucky chosen pharmacy. The assistant there cross-examines me quickly and starts a profile on me. Now my shiny new prescription joker gets activated; I give them all sorts of numbers they want to know. The pharmacy says they will send me a text message when my brand is delivered.

We’re not done yet. After finding the new lucky pharmacy, of course, I need to call my doctor’s office again to tell them to call in to this new pharmacy now with my prescription information. And by the way, also that the doctor needs to change the prescription so that I can pick up several packages at a time as my insurance allows. (Something my original pharmacy told me.) Otherwise, I have to go back to the pharmacy (which happens to be about the furthest distance as possible from my address in the same city) every so often just to pick up something I use all the time.

I just wait for 10 minutes on the phone of the doctor’s office to relay that I found a new lucky pharmacy. They say they will call in to this new one, adding the new information about several packages at a time.

Now I am only waiting for a text message from my new lucky pharmacy.
If I am super lucky my prescription insurance will cover the routine medication.
But who knows… I am yet to hold the right brand in my hand after working on the issue for just four meager days. And to see if a bill will follow.