Culture shock USA - 6th and last installment
I came back to Germany. Since I moved here last in 1992, Germans have been asking me why I stay and whether I even like Germany. Usually, the question almost seems to insinuate that it must be hard for any foreigner to like this Germany. Sometimes, it seems to me that Germans have so many complexes because of a 12-year period that they unjustifiably feel that they have nothing to be proud of. In contrast, Americans expect everyone to like it in the US. Maybe that's why I feel so strange when Germans ask me if I don't want to go home.
One night, I was talking to the US soldier I dubbed Manta in part V (Love it or leave it) to protect his identity. I'll now give his wife the pseudonym Sandy in honor of the man behind Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders, who earned his fortune only after retiring at 65 with a measly monthly Social Security check.
Sandy and Manta wanted me to tell them how they could emigrate so they wouldn't have to work all their lives like all the other Americans without having anything to show for it except a bit of consumerism. I warned them to be careful.
"Why?" Sandy asked. "Don't you like Germany?"
"Of course I do," I assured her, "it has little to do with Germany itself and everything to do with the status of foreigners. Germany is definitely just as good as 30 or 40 other countries, but I don't speak all of the languages in those other 30 or 40 countries that are just as good. Do you speak a foreign language?"
"A little bit of Spanish," the two of them said.
"Good, that will help. So you want to go to Spain?"
"It doesn't matter. Italy would also be nice," Manta said. "Or France," Sandy added.
"It certainly does matter," I said. "If you don't speak the language at all, you can't be yourself. You won't be able to show your humor and your personality for years. You should be going out and spending time with the natives so you can learn their language, but you'll get a headache after talking to them for 10 minutes at a party. A whole night in the foreign tongue will feel like a college admission test. Pretty soon, you'll be spending all your time with all the other foreigners who are suffering the same fate."
"Us Americans have it even harder in a way, because everyone all over the world wants to speak English with us. You might not get much of a chance to learn the local language. But we're actually pretty fortunate," I explained. "I know a refugee from Iran who lives in Freiburg. This guy witnessed a state-sponsored mass murder on the way home one evening. He didn't even bother going home after that; he went straight over the border. He spent years in makeshift barracks in southern Germany with other asylum-seekers. None of them spoke German, and the Germans didn't teach them any German, because it would just cost money, and in the end you didn't know who was gonna be sent home. Now imagine having to prove to people whose language you don't speak that you are on the run because you witnessed something that didn't even officially happen..."
"It's easy to criticize the natives because foreigners are not well integrated, but foreigners also put themselves in ghettos," I continued. "At some point, you find yourself surrounded by nothing but other foreigners, who also don't have any friends that aren't foreign, and then everybody starts complaining about how hard it is to make friends with these cold, unfriendly natives. I saw that go on for years in Germany and also thought it must be true because all the foreigners thought the Germans were not interested in us.
"Then I spent a year in France. You think the foreigners in France spoke differently about the French? The Germans I met in France loved spending time with me because they could tell me exactly how they felt in their own native tongue. You wouldn't believe how these Germans talked bad about the French! You can never make friends with them, they're not interested in foreigners anyway, and so forth. Real integration is almost impossible even when the conditions in the country of your choice are good. Both sides have to give it their all."
"But you made it, didn't you?" Sandy asked me. "You are integrated in Germany?"
"You know, sometimes I don't know myself. I'll always be a little bit different. Let's face it, nobody in the States asks me how I like it in the US. But even 17 years after I first arrived here, the standard icebreaker in Germany still goes basically like this:
Nice new acquaintance: What was your name again?
Nice new acquaintance: So where are you from, Greg?
Me: From the US.
Nice new acquaintance: And what are you doing here?
Me: I live here.
Nice new acquaintance: Why is that? Do you like it here? I mean, most Americans...
"I am then entertained with an informative lecture about the nature of my countrymen, accompanied by perplexed looks and repeated questions about whether I can really stand living in Germany."
"So what gives?" Sandy asked. "Germans don't like Germany?"
"You bet your pumpernickel they do," I said, "they just can't admit it because of Hitler and all that. They look down condescendingly upon us for walking around with the Stars & Stripes everywhere because they know that they are better than we are because they don't act like they're better."
"Fascinating," Sandy said.
"Wacko," said Manta. "But not half as bad as all of these idiotic Americans who don't want to have the theory of evolution taught in schools. We are all supposed to learn that God made the world 6,000 years ago!"
"I know what you mean," I stated. "I was really furious back in 1994 when California decided to block access to the welfare system, schools, and other public facilities not only for illegal immigrants, but for a lot of legal aliens. Everybody knows that we have lots of illegal immigrants. We need them. Nobody else wants to do the work they do. But if they need us, we deny them public services."
"Unfortunately, it's not any different anywhere else," I continued, "just the other way around because then we are the foreigners. You are right to be upset about all the hypocrites who call themselves Christians in the US, but it's still our country, and we still have rights. As a foreigner, you don't have any. And then, the hypocrites are out to get you."
"Even in Germany?" Manta asked.
"Oh yea," I said. "In the 1990s, the political party that calls itself the Christian Democrats declared 'The boat is full' when they were trying to reduce the number of foreigners entering the country. And under the Christian Democratic government of Helmut Kohl, foreigners had to wait 15 years before becoming eligible for German citizenship. The left-of-center government that took office in 1998 shortened that period to eight years. Having said that, Germany's immigration policy is not that bad compared to the rest of world outside the EU. I just don't understand why it always seems to be the people who call themselves Christians who are so strict with the foreigners. But that's the same in Germany and the US."
"But then you should be able to get German citizenship after more than 11 years. So what's the problem?" Sandy asked.
"I would have to give up my US passport. Officially, Germany says it does not allow double citizenship, but in practice this only applies to foreigners. When Germans get their passports renewed, nobody ever checks whether they've gotten a second passport in the meantime. In the US, foreigners can get US citizenship after five years of residency, and they don't have to give up their other passport. Don't expect to be treated like that abroad. Then you won't be disappointed."
"So do you have access to social welfare and all that as a foreigner in Germany?" Sandy asked.
The Dream Green Card that wasn't
In 1998, my five-year position at the University of Freiburg ended. I resolved to try my luck in Freiburg and not go back to the States. Strangely, in 1997, when I signed the last extension of my contract, there was a clause stating that I intended to return to the US. The reason was simple: the University didn't want a lawsuit. At the time, people from the rest of the EU, who by that time were considered citizens everywhere within the EU, were going to court about such temporary positions because they claim they were being treated like foreigners.
Although a certain amount had been deducted from my paycheck as an unemployment contribution for five years, when I lost my job I was not eligible for unemployment benefits because my residency permit expired on the same day as my work permit and my contract with the University. The people at the Labor Department told me they were more than willing to give me unemployment benefits, but first I had to be living here legally. Then, when I went to have my residency permit extended, I was asked how I was going to pay my rent. 'Unemployment benefits' was not the right answer.
Back then, Germany did not have a green card like the US or a carte de séjour like the French, but only separate permits for residency and work. Every time I was offered any work anywhere, I had to go get a work permit from the local authorities. If I got a job working for four hours a week in a town 15 minutes north of Freiburg, I would have to go there to apply for a work permit for just these four hours. The Labor Department there would then first try to find an unemployed German who was willing to do that work. If they hadn't found one in a couple of months, I would get the permit. And just because I had a work permit for those four hours just outside of Freiburg didn't mean that I could work another two in Freiburg.
In the 1990s, I repeatedly spent hours waiting along with all of the other foreigners to get a German official to talk to me. But this time was not a complete loss. I learned that the only people that German authorities treat better than Americans are EU citizens and "blood Germans" from Eastern Europe. Foreigners from developing countries are treated the worst as they are generally suspected of being up to no good. They probably want to stay in Germany! (Unimaginable, I know, what else could they want but social welfare, the best that Germany has to offer... what else is there to like here?)
I resolved to tempt fate. The friendly, understanding officials patiently explained to me one last time what the law said. I explain to them that I wasn't even going to consider waiting months to get a permit for each and every little job that was offered to me. I demanded a combined work-and-residency permit à la green card or carte de séjour. They could give it to me for a year, I told the officials, and I assured them that I was not planning to live off of welfare. I was not here for free ride.
The officials put on their saddest faces and regretted to inform me that what I was asking them to do simply was not possible in Germany. Their hands were tied.
"Then you'll just have to deport me," I said, "for I have never heard such nonsense and I am not about to obey the law."
The poor officials had also never heard such nonsense. They asked me to wait and disappeared for a moment. A few minutes later, I was asked to talk to their superior in the next room. He was curious to know why I wanted to live in Germany so badly. Why did I like it here so much? He himself would love to live in the US, like most Germans. (Keep in mind that this was in 1997, before Bush took office. Today, I am not so sure that very many Germans want to live in the US.)
I rattled on at length about culture versus consumerism, intellectual values versus materialism, social bonds instead of individualism -- the latter probably being exactly what no foreigner should ever say when applying for a residency permit.
Something impressed him. It certainly wasn't my sermon. It must've been my hard head.
He pulled out a piece of scratch paper and a pen and issued the "Green card" below, which, if push had ever come to shove, would never have done me any good, but at least the man got me out of his office for the next few months until I had a right to a permanent residency permit. (I got my a permanent work permit to a half years later.)
"I was thus very disappointed," I told Sandy and Manta, "when Germany came up with a combined permit for residency and work a few years later and even called it in German 'Green Card'. They wanted to get IT specialists from India to come work for them, but the Indians didn't fall for it. They knew what the differences were between the American and the German green card. The Germans wanted the Indians to go home no later than after five years. Why would anyone bust their butt to learn German if you can't use it later because you get kicked out of the country?"
"Wait a minute," Sandy said with a sarcastic look in her eye as she stood in front of a shelf full of history books, "why should these Indians benefit from such a boss welfare system? I mean, their forebears weren't even there when German workers sat down with employers to demand their hard-earned rights; instead, they were probably off somewhere not doing jack in some European colony..."
12 September 2001
Since 1998, I have often asked myself whether it was really such a good idea to subject myself to life as a foreigner just so I could get away from... what? What don't I like about the US? And is Germany any better?
Back in 97-98 when I decided for Germany and against the US, I was very disappointed in my country. Bill Clinton had basically done away with welfare starting in 1994. And although an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted to have a state health care system, the Democrats proved incapable of setting one up against the opposition of industry lobbies.
As a lecturer at the University of Freiburg from 1993 to 1998, part of my job had been explaining my country's political system. Republican Senator Jesse Helms was appointed chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1994. He wasted no time making clear that he didn't want to waste any American money in "rat holes" in Africa. So much for my country's development policies.
I also introduced my German students to the longest-serving Senator (48 years): Republican Strom Thurmond. Back during the civil rights movement, this man even switched parties to protest racial integration -- three decades after he had gotten a black woman pregnant.
I asked my German students what parties such people would be members of in Germany. They all agreed that such people would be 'Republikaner' in Germany: neo-Nazis. And if a German politician ever said that German development aid should not be wasted in some African rathole, but that taxes should be lowered, my students felt that lots of Germans would take to the street to protest.
Americans never demonstrated against Jesse Helms; they made him chairman of the committee responsible for development aid.
Among other things, it was such highfalutin political issues that kept me in Germany in 1998, but starting on September 12, 2001 everyday matters took over the spotlight again. In 1998, I withdrew my application for a position as Director of the Center for International Studies at a good university in the US. I probably stood a good chance of getting the job: the professor who had been my first reader for my bachelor's thesis had become a deacon at this university. From 1998 to 2001, I often asked myself if I had made the right decision.
After September 12, 2001, I felt sure that I had. From Europe, Americans seemed to be blind with patriotism. Organisation like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) published studies like "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It", in which they railed against all professors and students who did not support Bush:
Rarely did professors publicly mention heroism, rarely did they discuss the difference between good and evil, the nature of Western political order or the virtue of a free society. Indeed, the message of much of academe was clear: BLAME AMERICA FIRST.
ACTA was founded in 1995 by Lynn Cheney (wife of the current Republican vice-president) and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, who made history in 2000 when Al Gore chose him as his running mate, thus making him the first Jewish candidate for the White House.
At the end of 2001, blacklists like Campus Watch began popping up so people could list the names of professors allegedly critical of Israel and hence pro-Arab, i.e. pro-terrorist. On the website of the Students for Academic Freedom, people can still denounce professors who misuse their classrooms to propagate their own political beliefs. This website is not, as the name might suggest, the product of concerns students, but rather the brainchild of David Horwitz, author of the book "Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left".
Mercy, mercy me
"They would have made life hell for you as the director of the abroad program," I thought as I drove from Austin back to New Orleans. As I went through the radio channels, I found several Christian stations preaching hate. I kept thinking of talks I had had back when I lived in the states with "conservatives" who were against abortion, homosexuals, etc. I listened to these people back then and took them seriously. I asked them if it wouldn't be a good idea to concentrate on preventing violence in heterosexual marriages before we prohibit functioning relationships between homosexuals.
I asked them why an omnipotent and omniscient God needed humans to punish sins. And I tried to make it clear to them that the whole point of the New Testament was a rejection of the Old: "Those without sin throw the first stone."
I don't know if I made anyone back then more compassionate. Today, my countrymen seem to all be upset at each other. Conservatives are persecuting liberals, and liberals are bad-mouthing conservatives. Is anyone out there still able to have a calm, respectful discussion?
There is also a lot of confusion. The people who call themselves conservatives seem to be able to decide what is moral and what is not. Environmental protectionists who literally want to "conserve" the earth are at a loss when it comes to getting their message across because their opponents are already called "conservative". But the so-called conservatives are the ones who want to use up the resources of the earth as fast as possible because the end of the world is near. They have even come up with an Pindex to forecast its arrival.
Suddenly, a song by Mose Allison came on the radio. Mose, my guru -- white bread from Mississippi, just like me. A man who doesn't let his lack of a real, booming blues voice like Willie Dixon's stop him from singing the blues about the absurdity of the world. As I cruised down the highway in southern Louisiana, his words from the days of the Vietnam War accompanied me:
I can't believe the things I'm seeing
I wonder 'bout some things I've heard
Everybody crying mercy
But they don't know the meaning of the word
A bad enough situation
Is sure enough getting worse
Everybody crying justice
Just as long as there's business first
The road trip was relaxing. No Germans raced up from behind doing 120 mph and flashing their headlights for me to get out of the way. In the US, we flash our headlights to tell oncoming traffic that there's a cop ahead, not get a fellow traveler our of our way. I wasn't in anyone's way. We were all driving 85 mph. Maybe the speed limit was 70, maybe 75, I wasn't sure. Who knows, who cares. As long as we all drive too fast together, we are safe because the police can't stop everybody.
An 18-wheeler even passed me up on the left; it must've been doing 90. Nobody was in more of a hurry than anyone else. We all drove together. Why do Americans limit their cooperation and their civil disobedience to speeding?
The country has always been splintered. Whites used to be told that blacks were subhuman. Open season on niggers! Racism was fostered so that poor whites and poor blacks would never even think of working together to defend all of the many interests they share against the rich people who run the country. Better to let the white trash lynch a couple of niggers than have them vote us out of office...
Every four years, politicians pull all of the old smoke and mirrors out of their hat: gay marriage, abortion, the fight against crime, etc. They distract voters with issues that are controversial everywhere. They divide voters up into little groups to prevent them from defend the most important interests they all share. It is a scheme designed to get people to vote against their own interests.
Who shows mercy? Mose, can you help me here?
Everybody crying peace on earth
Just as soon as we win this war
At the airport in New Orleans the next day, my head began spinning even though I hadn't had anything to drink. I said goodbye to my brother and walked to the terminal.
Passengers were soon being called to board by section: "Now boarding passengers in sections A and B." I got up and walked to the end of the line. A group of some 20 Germans aged 30-45 was standing in front of me. They were all holding boarding passes with a large letter F on them. I overheard them discussing in German whose English was the worst. They wanted to send that person up to the front of the line to try to get on board right away. The others said they would follow along behind.
"You bastaaaaards!" something screamed inside me. My head, already spinning, was now dizzy with outrage. "How dare you come into my country and not respect our ways! Ever heard of integration?! You know exactly how things work here, but you can't wait like everybody else, no, you have to sit in the plane longer than everyone else!"
"Don't get on board," I suddenly heard a voice say in my left ear. I turned and saw a tiny creature floating in the air. "Lucifer!" my Bible Belt soul gasped. But then I seemed to recognize the creature. Mose, is it you? Have you finally come to tell me what to do?
But no, it was Ralph Nader.
"Stay here, Craig. You've done your best over there, but they are not your people. You haven't bought a book in a store in years if you could order it online because you can't stand the elbow mentality of Germans. Germans will never be able to stand in line, Craig, forget it. And they drive you crazy on the autobahn! You are constantly looking in the rearview mirror to make sure some environmentally conscious German is not coming up behind you flashing like a Christmas tree doing 120. And what do Germans say when they want to get by you? 'Achtung!' (warning!) or 'Vorsicht!' (careful!), but not 'Verzeihung' (excuse me). You are just in their way. So get outta there.
"Craig, your country needs obsessive weirdos like you who spend their leisure time looking into the lies the government tells and shouting the truth from the mountaintop. I am 81. Chomsky is 76. If all the Americans who have been thinking about leaving since November actually do so, who is going to be left behind to keep the neoconservatives in check? And don't forget the good food here! We have more than bread!"
"Get in the plane!" I heard two voices shouting in my right ear. Two tiny creatures were floating in the air. It was my four-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son in Germany.
"Daddy, you've been gone too long. Don't listen to that idiot! You're just having delusions of grandeur. Mom's never gonna play along with that, and you know it. You belong here with us. Stop thinking it's better on the other side -- you're just making excuses! Only you can make you happy, and no one can make you unhappy if you don't let them -- isn't that what you're bringing back with you from New Orleans (Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?)?
"Daddy, the Germans are meister complainers. Come back, and bring the frontier spirit from Texas with you (Die Definition von "Pioniergeist")! Forget all those highfalutin goals; learn do deal with what life doles out - like a real frontiersman! You just spent 30 days in the States trying to show Americans what the Germans do better. Come back, and bring the best from the States with you. Take the best from both worlds!" (Craig Morris)