In the summer of 2009, under the hot Arizona sun, I decided together with my wife Julia, to move to Germany. Julia was born and raised in Germany, and I really wanted to get to know her culture and language. Aside from that, tuition fees are basically non-existent in Germany, so I decided to pursue my master’s degree, and Julia her bachelor’s degree.
The decision to move to Germany was rather spontaneous. I never imagined that I would move to a different country. However, two fantastic vacations, including our wedding ceremony, led me to believe that a move to Germany would not be so difficult. My (future) in-laws were friendly (and still are) and could speak English. Everyone I met went out of their way to help me get around and make me feel welcome. The same music was playing on the radio and I could go to the movie theater and watch the latest action-packed movies in English. How hard could a move to Germany really be?
Needless to say, the move did not go over as smoothly as I thought it would. Simple tasks such as grocery shopping, or brick and mortar shopping in general, became tedious. Imagine walking in to an enormous hardware store and not being able to ask where they keep their flat head socket wood screws. Aside from the language barrier that I egregiously underestimated, there were several other factors that I did not consider before the move. After nearly six years living in Germany, I can safely say that I have successfully integrated myself into the German culture, but it was not an easy road. That is why I put together a list of three things every expat or future expat should take into consideration:
1. Prepare to be shocked
My short stays in Germany on vacation really skewed my perception of what living in Germany really entails. Actually, for me, a great part about vacation is that you end up back at home when it is over. I had to quickly adjust as my favorite vacation destination became my home.
Culture shock is not something to take lightly. It can lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue, increased illness, body aches and pains, and so on. Further symptoms of culture shock include homesickness, loneliness and disorientation. As I mentioned above, pop-culture aspects are very similar here in Germany, but it was the little things that affected my daily routine. I always like to use grocery shopping as an example. In California and Arizona, I would simply lay my basket of items on the grocery counter, have a friendly conversation with the cashier and pay for my groceries. When I was done paying, my groceries were bagged and waiting for me at the end of the counter. This check-out process looks a lot different in Germany. In some stores, transactions are timed by management and the goal is to get through as many customers as possible. A major faux pas is putting the basket full of items on the check-out counter. Of course nobody told me this which led to a disastrous first shopping experience in Germany. The people in line behind me couldn’t believe what they were seeing and the cashier yelled something at me (I think it was good I couldn’t understand her).
Thanks to the plethora of resources available online, it is possible to research the destination culture, and prepare yourself mentally for what is to come. It is important to enter the new culture with an open mind and not idealize your own culture. Chances are, as connected as this world is in this digital age, you will find a person you can discuss your upcoming move with. I was by no means the first or last U.S. citizen to move to Germany. My mistake was that I underestimated the power of culture shock and did not utilize the resources available to me that could have made the move more comfortable. Being aware of some of the nuances of cultural differences and mentally preparing yourself can go a long way in preventing culture shock.
2. Learn the language
I had zero knowledge of the German language before making the move. I was a very talkative person and really enjoyed making people laugh back in the States. I didn’t realize how important that was until I couldn’t do it anymore. Sure, many Germans can speak English, but in my experience, many were hesitant to use it. It was a lot different than the vacations I spent in the country. The worst part was, I became very dependent on my wife and her family. This is not easy for a typically independent person. Through the combination of exposure to new viruses/bacteria and culture shock, I was sick, on and off, for about the first six months after the move. I could not find a doctor that was willing to speak English with me. So as a result, I was forced to bring Julia with me to all of my doctor appointments.
Aside from the independence aspect, learning the language will earn you respect from your peers. My master’s program was offered 50% in English and 50% in German. Outside of the classroom, I made it a point to only speak German with my German classmates. They admired my dedication and helped me develop my language skills. German is not an easy language to learn, especially since they have 16 different ways to say the English word “the”!
As it turned out, my knowledge of the German language gave me a significant competitive advantage on the German job market; so all the stress and hours I dedicated to learning the language paid off in the end.
3. Immerse yourself in the culture
This point goes back to what I mentioned previously about not idealizing your own culture. One of the worst things a new expat can do is continually say “Well, in America we… set our grocery baskets directly on the counter.” Instead, there should be an openness to understanding why something is the way it is in your new environment. While complaining about the grocery shopping situation, I was informed about the stressful work environment for these cashiers and the timed performance metrics. I then understood why the cashiers were not speaking with me and nearly pushing my groceries over the counter onto the floor. I don’t like the experience of grocery shopping in Germany, but I understand why it is the way it is, and that goes a long way.
Additionally, it is best to explore your new environment and find out what kind of cultural offerings are available. It could be a museum, a city tour, or an event. I was able to experience the German culture in combination with a language course I was enrolled in at the university. Aside from German lectures, we visited several cities, participated in a cooking class, and we even travelled to Cologne for the Karneval festivities.
I will not go into detail about Karneval, as there are two types of Germans: those who believe Karneval is part of the German culture, and those who don’t. In any event, these trips and activities played a big role in my understanding of the German culture and helped me become more comfortable in my new environment.
To sum-up: Researching the end-destination, learning the language and immersing yourself in the new culture together serve as a successful basis for current and future expats. These tips are of course simply based on my personal experience in Germany.
Perhaps you have other tips or are looking to talk to someone about an upcoming move to a new environment. Feel free to comment below or contact me directly. I look forward to hearing from you!