With help from STEP, this May I traveled to Ingolstadt, Germany where I worked on a project for MediaSaturn, Europe’s leading consumer electronics retailer. Travel in Europe is relatively cheap, allowing my group travel to different cities on the weekends.
Personally, Germany had always seemed similar to America. Aside from the language barrier and cuisine changes, I was not too nervous to travel abroad; nonetheless, I found the reactions of my peers peculiar after I told them my summer plans. In most American history books, we briefly discuss Germany. Typically, they are only discussed in the harsh light of World War II. Our news outlets allow us to gain some information about their current political climate, but we mostly focus on our own. I came into this project with an open mind and I was surprised when I started talking to the German people and hearing about their experiences. After this trip, my view on country’s identities has become even clearer.
A few coworkers traveled to America during our stay in Ingolstadt. When they returned, I asked their opinion on cultural differences. I was stunned to hear that they were jealous of our American pride. I had always assumed that everyone loved their home country. Everywhere they traveled they would see the American flag draped in lawns or talk to waitresses gushing about our country. Even though our political landscape is divided, it seems that most people still hold pride in being American. They told me that the German people typically never act in this way. One employee told me, “You will never hear a German speak highly of their heritage.” Although there were truly terrible acts committed years ago, it is important to realize the separation of individual people versus their country’s entire history. America’s history is not clean, nor the rest of the world’s. I do not believe that people should continue to feel ashamed for a wrong that they have tried for decades to right. By this time, they have paid their dues and our textbooks should show how they have transformed to aid in less ignorance.
At lunch one day, a fellow colleague struck conversation about the social differences between our cultures. He was worried that my fellow coworkers were being distant and antisocial. This tends to be the stereotype of German business. People have friends at work and separate friends for after work, compared to American culture where it is common for work friends to bleed into friends after work. He mentioned that even American strangers were friendlier than most Germans. For example, if you are lost in the U.S. nearly any stranger will give you detailed instructions to your destination while most Germans will give you enough instructions to make you leave them alone and nothing more. He mentioned that German people can be overly direct compared to Americans where we give a positive twist to any negative feedback. This can sometimes be construed as curt and rude. MediaSaturn is the anomaly to these stereotypes. Everyone I met was incredibly cheery and helpful. This showed me once again that it is impossible to categorize a large mass of people into a simple sentence or phrase.
On our last weekend, we decided to stay in home city and attend an event hosted by the local university. We knew a few of the students already. They are also participating in the program and will be coming to OSU in the fall. Every German student could speak English relatively well, making it easy to strike up conversations. This is where I met my friend, Alex. She was telling me of her time spent at an American high school. One of the teachers had asked her if she would come in to their class and discuss what it was like to live in Germany. After a brief speech, she opened the floor to questions. This is where, adolescent unawareness becomes harmful and hurtful. One student asked if her dad was a Nazi and if he had ever killed anyone. I understand that this was only one student who was ignorant of the disrespect they were showing toward my friend, but this student was not the only one who asked a question of this nature. A few questions were less accusatory, but still oblivious. There were limited inquiries about any topic that did not follow a stereotype. This not only repulsed me when I heard, but then I heard that these were high school students in a wealthy neighborhood and I became confused. Shouldn’t these people have more knowledge on this topic than those with limited access to information? This discussion put back into perspective, that not every person around my age gives much thought to other cultures. I do not resent those who do not understand, but I wish that we would focus on our current society as well as their histories, otherwise people believe topics blend over decades when they do not.
What I have drawn from these experiences is that every country has a predetermined identity. There will always be stereotypes and after talking to people from those areas, you may even see similarities. Before this trip, I had one goal that trumped the rest: Beat my personal ignorance. This will be a lifelong battle, because there will always be topics that I do not understand; nonetheless, it is important to be able to look at everything and everyone with an open mind and ask thought provoking questions. You cannot assume to understand a culture based on one person or one historic event. This trip has helped me better understand the global landscape which is a helpful skill for my future career.