Below is my final assignment for the course; a reflection on my time abroad thus far, posted on May 9, 2019
The beginning of May marks two and a half months that I have spent living in Europe and close to two months in Heidelberg, Germany. At this “midway point” in my study abroad journey, I am settled into daily life in this different culture. I can navigate the train systems, find my way around without having to use Google translate, understand common cultural norms and expectations, and have a daily routine that reflects the German University system. If I were going back to the US tomorrow, my time in Germany would have been worth it. As I reflect on this first half of the summer semester, I have already noticed three common themes in my experiences in Heidelberg that I hope will impact my life, long after I have returned to the United States.
Before studying abroad, I knew to expect culture shock as I transitioned to living in Germany. I expected to find the German culture itself to be challenging to get used to, but I have found the opposite to be true. The structure, punctuality, directness, and general values in Germany, sometimes called “der Deutsche Weg,” has been one of my favorite parts of German culture. It has provided me with a clear set of guidelines on what to expect and how to process my experiences. One culture shock I didn’t expect was the language barrier. I knew that I would struggle to speak German at first and would often have to revert to English. Prior to arriving in Europe, I felt comfortable with this notion since English is spoken by most of the younger generation in central Europe. When I arrived, however, I was very self-conscious of the fact that my presence would force the people I interacted with to speak in my language, rather than their mother-tongue. There are two natural responses to cross-cultural conflict and culture shock: fight or flight. I quickly realized that my gut-reaction is flight – to avoid potentially uncomfortable or awkward situations altogether. To overcome this, I have had to be intentional in seeking out conversations and interactions with people in my host culture. Though I may have reservations beforehand, I have never regretted these encounters, be they in English or German. Lastly, I have observed that being immersed in a different culture means that I am far more easily exhausted from my daily routine, because I’m constantly translating in my head and must be more aware of my surroundings. Taking time to rest, connect with a friend or family from home, and to do something familiar have been important parts of settling into a different culture.
Another theme that has been reoccurring during my time abroad has been hospitality. I expected German culture, and European culture in general, to be cold and more reserved, making it harder to make lasting friendships over a semester in Heidelberg. This has not been the case. In my travels, I have been welcomed into several homes for a weekend or a nice meal. I have met families and students that have selflessly included me into their daily lives and let me get a glimpse of true German culture. Even on the University campus, student organizations go out of their way to be welcoming and to build community for international students. Small talk rarely occurs in Germany, which means that I must be proactive to meet new people. However, the friendships I have made here have been genuine and generous, especially because of their intentionality. I have been touched and surprised by these acts of hospitality. However small, they have made large impacts on me and my time in Germany.
The first city I flew into before coming to Heidelberg was Barcelona, Spain for a conference. There, I learned about a method of sight-seeing called the “living gallery.” Essentially, the point is that each city has its own history, architecture, attractions, and everyday life and people that make it unique. In my experience, viewing a city as a “living gallery,” has made me more attentive and enriched my perspective of the places I have visited on short trips, like Tromsø, Vienna, and Bonn. In my long-term stay in Heidelberg, this “living gallery” perspective has taught me to take a step back and observe the culture that I am immersed in with a new perspective. My posts for the IAS 2790 course are the result of these observations – as I have learned more about German culture, history, language, norms, activities, and ideals, I have been able to build a better and more accurate picture of my host city. These observations go beyond the Heidelberg that the 11.9 million yearly visitors will get to experience.
By attending the “Authoring Your Study Abroad” course, I was able to set aside time to reflect on how much I have already learned from week to week. I now have a small collection of my experiences and observations of my host culture, which I appreciate. I was also able to be in connection with students from across the globe, who shared their unique perspectives on their host cultures. I found these stories encouraged me to look deeper and to discover more about my own host country and culture.
Though I am only half-way through my semester in Germany, I can already begin to imagine how my time here will influence me once I return to the United States and OU. I expect that I will be more willing to try new experiences, more prone to spontaneity and curiosity, more interested in other cultures and traditions, and more appreciative of the little things that I love about my home culture. I know I will miss some of the structure and efficiency of the Deutsche Weg. I hope to incorporate what I have experienced of hospitality and intentionality in relationships into my community. I will also miss the ease of travel, multi-lingual and cultural community of the European world. Yet, with all that I will miss in Germany, I am also going to be incredibly thankful for systems and social expectations with which I am both familiar and comfortable.