Category Archives: Old 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.

Happy 25th anniversary reunited Germany! Beware of continuing differences

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I’m witnessing the 25th anniversary of Germany’s reunion through the veil of heritage media and social media. The anniversary greets me whenever I check Twitter, click through the websites of German public television, magazines, and newspapers or listen to German public radio podcasts. They report about the details of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unsung heroines and protestors bringing about this peaceful revolution, and the persistent differences between the former East and West Germany.

Among the pieces I saw and read, oddly enough I liked an article in the U.S. press very much. The Washington Post, as one of the U.S. newspapers of record, acknowledged this moment in German history with compelling graphics that outline the ongoing differences between former West and East Germany. This is quite interesting and necessary to update the image of Germany among the wider U.S. public.

The vast majority of U.S. Americans I’ve encountered so far are familiar with the former West Germany. As they are usually happy to share with me, their ties to former West Germany came about because they were”military brats” (their words); had friends or exchange students from Germany; or traveled to Germany for leisure, work or to discover family history. I’ve only met about a handful of U.S. Americans who had traveled to former East Germany. Those who did usually visited either East Berlin or another big city in the East before people brought the Berlin Wall to fall on November 9. 1989. It’s seldom that I bump into a U.S. American who set out to visit former East Germany in the recent 25 years.

I’ve encouraged everyone who has talked with me about Germany to visit former East Germany. I’m happy to report that I’ve done my share to “bring” almost two dozen U.S. Americans to the East, particularly to Leipzig, Dresden, Weimar and other smaller towns in the heart of Germany where the reformer Martin Luther lived and preached. I smile when I realize that I introduced J. only to bigger and smaller cities in the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia — three of the five New States that make up the landscape of former East Germany. (Exceptions are his visit to the Eagle’s Nest of Hitler in Bavaria, airport lay overs in Frankfurt/Main, and must-see stops in Berlin.)

In my experience, most U.S. Americans only know of the differences between East and West Germany before 1989. Few have heard of continuing higher wages for the same work in former West Germany. The graphics on income and unemployment below demonstrate this discrepancy from yet another perspective: income is higher in the former West; unemployment is higher in the former East.

The roles of men and women differ. The overwhelming majority women with children worked full-time in the former East, out of economic necessity for the federal budget. Women with children in the former West most often stayed home or worked part-time. German laws still reflect this and make it difficult for families with children. The graphic on childcare below is a glaring example of what hampers women’s return to full-time work and their career, especially in the former West, after giving birth.

Another discrepancy are internet adoption and literacy which are higher in the former West. The Washington Post did not include a graphic for this but data exist. I also noticed this in my own research. In three separate studies, during which I interviewed a total of over 100 bloggers in Germany, the overwhelming majority of bloggers (women and men), and especially those with a claim to fame, are located in the territory of the former West Germany. This reflects the migration pattern of especially young people (and women) from former East to former West for better opportunities, higher pay and life quality. You can see the problem visualized in the graphic on demographics. This, by the way, also has created potentially more conflicts between adult children and parents in the former East. As these children move to the former West and find partners there visits home in the former East are not as frequent as for adult children who can stay in their home region in the former West.

So I was thrilled to discover an article in a major U.S. publication that acknowledges these differences between former East and West. Below are a few of the compelling graphics from the Washington Post (inspired by the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit). They also touch on the hot button issues of xenophobia, vaccinations (mandatory in schools in former East Germany), and people with migration backgrounds. (It’s not politically correct to call them “foreigners.”)

*This is the politically correct language for former East Germany: New States [Neue Bundesländer]. Former West Germany is now called Old States [Alte Bundesländer]. Since most U.S. Americans are not familiar with this terminology – as the article in the Washington Post also reflects — I will stick with (former) East and West Germany.

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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.

Germans #privacy controversy? Not at second glance

A writer for The Atlantic recently puzzled over the seeming contradiction that Germans register their address in the Einwohnermeldeamt, an office each city runs to keep track of residents, and Germans’ aversion to Google Street View and any kind of census.

Yes, I can see how this is a contradiction that might strike someone with an “outsider” perspective. Just like I have trouble reconciling seeming contradictions in the United States such as its parallel emphasis on working hard with barely vacation days while also stressing entertainment and being with your family as values, its emphasis on the dishwasher-to-millionaire narrative while at the same time suffering from a striking gap between well off and not so well off people connected to structural injustices, or its parallel tolerance for death penalties in certain states and many people’s claim that god is to be the one to call on life and death. Anyway, I’m getting off track.

As people in the comment thread on The Atlantic pointed out, Germans HAVE to register. You need the document of residency registration for example to create a bank account and for other official or necessary matters. There is a fine if you don’t register in a certain period of time after moving to a different city. It might also have to do with Germans’ tendency to recognize hierarchies, authorities, and order — Ordnung muss sein!

But if Germans can avoid bureaucracy without fearing punishment from authorities, they will. For instance, I know several Germans living abroad who have not officially de-registered from their (former) German home towns. After all, it feels weird that remaining a German citizen you are not even allowed to use your parents’ address as an “official” German address, making you on the books homeless within your home country. Ironically, in the United States, official documents often ask me to include my “permanent home address” as opposed to a separate entry for the place where I now live. I would have done the same, avoid de-registration, if the Einwohnermeldeamt would not have forced me to do so. (Here is a good summary about Auslandsdeutsche in different countries by the BPB, in German.) Hence, my trouble with not being able to vote during the German federal election this year (the first time ever as a result of the de-registration).

If you are registered the ballots automatically come to your German address when it is voting time and you opt for voting via mail. That is one advantage. But it is less okay if people come to your home or even into your house, as was done during the census, to ask you all sorts of questions — i.e. a census. It, for example, also included a question on which religion one belongs to — and matters of faith are considered a very private, if not intimate, matter by most Germans. At least it was voluntary to answer this question. The census disturbed Germans also for historic reasons, as Conor Friedersdorf also remarks. But he limits it to the experiences in West Germany. East Germans are just as suspicious, if not more so, when it comes to intrusions of privacy. Just think of the Stasi, the secret police in the former GDR, with its “IMs” (or indirect employees), spying on neighbors, colleagues, and friends (even spouses in some cases.)

Just as certain bureaucratic processes cannot be avoided in the United States, such as showing a utility bill or proof to pay rent at a certain place to obtain an I.D. or driver’s license in many states, Germany is having its bureaucratic hoops in place. They might just be more plentiful in certain situation (I will come back to that in another year or so). Grudgingly, I think, citizens in both countries comply with what they have to put up with to get on with their lives. But it might not change their critical stances toward them or related issues.

My reverse #culture #shock-ish bother list for #Germany

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Public restrooms in Pike Place Market in Seattle.

I returned from my most recent visit to Germany a while ago but the things that I noticed this time are still sticking in my mind.

As some of you might know I am always keen to notice differences in the United States compared to Germany. This time in Germany it rather stood out to me what I missed from the United States. So here is my reverse culture shock-ish bother list for Germany:

To explain the photo I posted along with this text I will start of with perhaps the most annoying item: German cities barely, if at all, offer free public restrooms. Even as a native knowing my way around it is hard to find them. Universities might be one place, if you are familiar with them (Leipzig). Bigger department store chains might be another, again, if you know about them (Berlin). But the rule of thumb is, there are none. You either pay or contract a UTI from holding it back. Paying is the healthier option. The argument goes, you get a nice, clean environment; without money they would be dirty and destroyed. If needed, such “public for pay” restrooms can be found in train stations. Once you find them, psychologically prepare for the price for entering this precious little place (literally called like that in German, Örtchen): 1€ or $1.35 (as of today) on average. But don’t expect the cleaning person to be overly friendly, money doesn’t overcome average German grumpiness necessarily. Outside cities, this might also happen if you drive along the public Autobahn. Even if it is the only rest area nearby, if it’s a fancy looking gas station and restaurant, it’s highly likely their restrooms are only accessible when you have the right coins ready.

Hence, the photo above with its huge inviting mosaic and gender-progressive message — placed in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. How often have I yearned for the ubiquitous restrooms common in the United States, in National Parks, any larger eating places, even small supermarkets, along highways, and in train stations. Restaurants (perhaps New York City might be an exception here) usually let you use their facilities if you ask politely.

Perhaps this is all connected to not serving another fundamental human need: drinking water. In my counting there is exactly one water fountain in all of Germany: in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Berlin, across from the U.S. Embassy. A small elegant water fountain provides fresh, freely flowing water for no charge. (The entire museum is free of charge and I can highly recommend visiting it as well as the memorial.) Not only are there no water fountains, but you also won’t be greeted with a free glass of water at any restaurant. No. You have to order the water and ALWAYS pay for it. Try asking for tap water only — same reaction. You have to order it properly and pay for it. The reasons they give vary, either for health or, more obvious, business reasons. Oh, and don’t forget to extra order your ice cubes. They are also missing unless you ask and pay. Oh, and be aware if you want to avoid being served the standard bubbly carbonated water fizzing up your nose from the inside, order stilles Wasser, literally meaning quiet water. An alternative is to keep your refillable water bottle nearby and make use of the precious restrooms you come across, as most city water is okay to drink, and after all you pay there already anyway.

Just as hard to find are free wi-fi connections OR those bought for a cup o’ joe (well, cocoa in my case.) Even universities don’t offer guest internet access just so by wandering around campus. Cafés and restaurants are also unlikely to offer you access along with food (except for the famously geek attracting Sankt Oberholz in the center of Berlin). After looking around Leipzig for some hours checking for the German equivalent of the friendly standard “Free Wi-Fi” labels on shop windows in the United States, I gave up and — oh the irony — landed in a Starbucks (remember, Seattle, founding place of Starbucks)! For a hot beverage I could finally check my e-mail in a corner extra set up for laptops. I asked a few friends about this. Because apart from the tendency of many Germans to not be tied to the internet 24/7 compared to U.S. users, what holds back shop owners to make wi-fi part of their sales pitch? I learn that German laws suggest if something happens on their connection because of a customer, shop owners would get into trouble, i.e. no internet, no risk. Hmpf.

What on the contrary to missing restrooms, water, and wi-fi is plentiful and easy to encounter is cigarette smoke. Perhaps the comparatively stricter U.S. policies in this regard have further sharpened my non-smoking sensibilities. But this time I developed a headache being trapped in an inner court yard full of smokers. They did go outside as smoking was verboten inside, fair enough, yet it made it hard for me to soak up fresh air after also being stuck inside. Well, I know, I can hear the voices, it was a particular spot and a particularly big crowd as I attended a conference. But beyond, my impression was that on average more people smoke in Germany. And while all the smokers I know are very rule-abiding and polite before lighting up, the rules are handled rather lax and vary. The once intended strict law to prevent smoking in and around eateries and public places has literally — excuse the cheap pun — gone up in smoke.

This relaxed attitude toward smoking in Germany derives from still seeing smoking as a kind of savoir vivre like enjoyment with no social stigma attached in contrast to an often implied lower social status or weakness in the United States. Yet, more rigid hierarchies persist in other corners of German society. Perhaps above all these occasional material annoyances, I missed a certain freedom to think and freely approach and chat up people. It is hard to describe this lofty mental liberty but I know other “Germanican space wanderers” like me experience this similarly. I missed the small talk, the sense that everyone can talk to everyone. Instead, authorities of all kinds exude their power. Be it the temporary power of a person at a cash register or the trickier situations of German Ph.D. students when it comes to earning their living at the bottom of the hierarchy in academia. Somehow everyone has their place, those who stick out are viewed suspiciously. Meaning also that when I arrive for the first days, my U.S. standard mood of positive enthusiasm hits an outward rather hard wall of what Americans might interpret as German grumpiness. But as the saying goes the harder the shell, the softer the core. So I have to reverse my U.S. mode of soft approachable public outside and hard private inner core as it is often falsely interpreted as superficiality by Germans when they meet U.S. Americans or those who soaked up their demeanor.

Thinking about this all, it struck me that all these phenomena have to do with the idea of public and private. Funny, that a country which prides itself on a social market economy and provides so many social services to its citizens (if not necessarily to those of other status living there), public spaces don’t offer free water, toilets, wi-fi, and non-smoking public areas are often still an afterthought. Whereas another Western country built on a stronger emphasis on individual achievement and a pioneer spirit of private autonomy freely gives water, restrooms, wi-fi, and has strict non-smoking areas in public spaces to consider everyone. Perhaps because it offers less social services, health care and higher public education just for steep prices. Similarly, Germany as a supposedly more social society nevertheless is hard to crack for everyone who is considered non-German. Try even as a legal immigrant in Germany or having grown up there all your life (with perhaps one parent having immigrated, let alone both) to say: I am German. It most likely won’t be accepted by many. Meanwhile, I can’t count how many times people in the United States have asked me when I will become a U.S. citizen, wholeheartedly welcoming me and assuming I would want to become one, why not?

The solution, and no doubt privilege, is to enjoy the perks in each place. And to embrace the refreshing muddle in my mind each time when I perform the delicate act of crossing borders, cultures, and restroom thresholds.

PS: Here is a short summary of the theory behind what it means to cross cultures in terms of intercultural adaptation and competence, by Nicolas Bowman, Assistant Professor of Communication STudies at West Virginia University:

Update Monday, October 21, 2013

It just so happens that Germany’s public national radio DRadio just published an entire report dedicated to the lack of public toilets in Germany! Perhaps they read my post for inspiration? Alas, the report is in German only, it was posted on October 21, 2013. (URLP:

Today — German #Unity Day/Tag der deutschen #Einheit

213 Germany May 2013

Today, young people use a long stretch of the rare left-overs of the Berlin Wall in the Mauerpark (Park of the Berlin Wall) for their art.

I almost missed it. But being in touch with my German friends and following German media almost daily, I first got a hint from my brother who said he is off from work today. I thought, well, in Bavaria they have lots of holidays of the religious kind. Then I talked on the phone with a friend who also said she would be off, in a different state. Then it hit me, of course, October 3, der Tag der deutschen Einheit! That is, German Unity Day.

Browsing facebook, I saw two more posts today from friends. One from East Germany, now living in West Germany, posting photos of remnants of the Mauer, the Berlin Wall, remarking “it’s good it’s gone.” Another friend, from West Germany and still living there, wrote she wouldn’t have met many great people without the German reunion.

And I? I literally would not be where I am today without the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coming from East Germany with a grandfather who grew up, learned, and made his career in the former GDR — or as some Americans sometimes like to say Communist Germany — and parents who were born and raised in the other system until their adulthood when it crashed, they all supported me to go abroad to the United States early on. First as a high school student in Nebraska, getting first fascinating insights into what it means to cross cultural borders. Later to study in Ohio and now Maryland Where I could feed my passion for research; Where I met inspiring teachers, wonderful friends, and J. (who I jokingly used to call my favorite American).

I’m often oscillating between two states of mind. One of getting daily stuff done, melting in the routine of never-ending academic work I love, taking care of this and that, worrying luxuriously about the little stuff. The other is the grand feeling of, oh wow, I am actually living this life here that is so exciting and wonderful. I am extremely lucky and privileged.

It is good to switch to grand feeling when small annoyances creep up. After all, they don’t really matter. Following the advice of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who fought the Nazis and was killed because he decided to stay in Germany to keep up resistance. (I read his biography and lived for a long time in a street named after him):

“One must find one’s way through the small thoughts that bother oneself toward the great thoughts that strengthen oneself.”
“Man muss sich durch die kleinen Gedanken, die einen ärgern, immer wieder hindurch finden zu den großen Gedanken, die einen stärken.”

In this spirit, Happy Unity Day, Germany!
Einen guten, freien Tag der deutschen Einheit!