Friday, April 29, 2005

Living in America

Living in America to me is a constant process of adjustment. Coming to this country meant to me that I needed to adjust to a completely new way of living. I needed to adjust to a different way of beds being made, coffee tasting different, sausages I was familiar with not being available. In the very same way it meant I needed to adjust to a new lifestyle - coming from a larger town to a smaller town in the Midwest of the United States meant being more depended on cars or people who had cars. Needing to get used for sidewalks being barely available, walking to some place making you look weird. Living in smaller town America means that going to a movie theater by public transportation can be a whole day affair, while going the same distance by car wouldn't take the long.

Living in America means adjusting to a very different sense of national pride. Coming from a nation, where saying “I am proud to be a German” still raises eyebrows in a negative way, discovering American national pride and patriotism are an adjustment. Add to this that I as an East German ain't even used to being a German, being proud of a country I barely identify with is a very hard thing to do. Living in America also means to adjust to be confronted with different ideas and mindsets. I thought everyone knew how human beings became human beings - the idea of evolution is so natural to me. Living in America, has taught me it isn't. Creationism is an idea that is still asked to be taught in school. It is also in America where I had to learn that looking at issues like homosexuality or a woman's role in the family does not necessarily mean people look at the issue the way I do. I encountered people finding it normal to say that "homosexuality is a choice, it's a sin" and that a woman's place is to serve her husband. Things I have been taught very different.

Living in America, or better, living in the US also means to adjust images of that country. For many Germans, the US is the land of dreams, the land of opportunity. Things in America are always possible and much easier to achieve. People in America are always heroes, great people, better than anything we know anyways. But America isn't that. Neither is America a country where you only have fat and stupid people that always rally around the flag, that don't know anything about other countries and cultures; that are conservative religious fanatics. The US doesn't fit that image either. The US has people I like and people I don't like. However, living in the US meant I had to adjust my personal image. Close to end of me living in the US, I'd inclined to say the US is just another country - different from what I am used to, just like any other foreign country.

Note: the idea for this entry comes from my friend and colleague Miguel. He gave the task and I will hereby pass it to my readers:
"In no more than three paragraphs (brief, please), describe "America". Be creative. A caveat, I don't mean talk about politics or foreign policy or any of that stuff. This is a specific question. Describe, essentially, what living in America is like, specifically, what living in "your" America is like (e.g. what's daily life like in your piece of America?).Of course, if you've never "lived" in America, this isn't for you."

12 comments:

Miguel (MABB) said...

Hi. It is interesting to read your post about America. It remeinds me to some people I know, who also come from the DDR.

Now that I am living in West Germany, I get a different perspective. Specially, here in Hamburg. I think many people here have a love-hate relationship with America. Many people show a slight disdain towards Americans, and what America stands for. However, they tend to know American culture even better than born Americans. It's a little funny.

t'su said...

It's nice to see a new post to Aufbau Ost. I've been thirsty to read more about post-reunification views. :)

Kuch said...

I think people get a slightly unfair notion of the American Dream. Many who immigrate here, only embrace their notion of living this dream. I think it's true that more than in any other country, anything is possible in America. The unfair part is that many think it will be easy. No, nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but ALWAYS possible in America.

It's a little sad to read that you think the America is "just another country." America is the most open, self-depricating society on the planet. Warts and all, the what would the world be like if America did not exist? And ask yourself the same question about any other country. No, America not just another country.

Living in America means that the vast majority of us embrace the "gift of giving." A normal day, or month, or year involves us as a people stepping up to assist those in need.

Aufbau Ost said...

Kuch,

I've got a couple of comments to make on your comment, but first let me thank you and the other commenters for reading and commenting.

I think people get a slightly unfair notion of the American Dream.

No image is ever accurate to the reality, because images, especially if created outside of the experience, are created based on second hand information.

It's a little sad to read that you think the America is "just another country."

To me it is, and only based on the perspective of "living in". Had I gone to a different perspective (world status, politics, economics etc) my assessment would be different. If I had to choose a country to live in other than my own - the US would be ONE out of MANY to choose from. The thing is, in the process of living in the US, I had to adjust to living in the US. In adjusting to this kind of lifestyle, I have changed too. Not only have I grown into a stronger person (something I will be forever grateful for), but I have also recognized that certain things became more important to me than what they were before. Based on these adjustments I, personally, would not make the choice for living to the US as easily as I made it when I moved to the US 6 years ago. To be honest, I'd most likely choose a different country. And I'd choose a different goal in moving. When I moved to the US, I moved with the goal of becoming a citizen of the US, denouncing my own citizenship (shows that Germans are probably more self-depriciating than Americans). If I would choose to live in another country but my own for another time, I would know it would only be temporarily. Because in this constant process of adjustment I have found out how much I am a(n) (East)German and a European. I am not an American, and I will never be.

t'su said...

Kuch, when you wrote

"Living in America means that the vast majority of us embrace the "gift of giving." A normal day, or month, or year involves us as a people stepping up to assist those in need."

I've got to disagree. I think the vast majority of Americans are in it for themselves. America is built on the idea of self-interested individualism, and I think the fact that we happen to get it right in some cases certainly doesn't amount to "a majority of us embracing the gift of giving."

In a lot of ways, the US is fucked up. No matter how much of the official bullshit one believes.

Also, when you wrote

"No, nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but ALWAYS possible in America. "

I again disagree. You won't see a black or woman president in the foreseeable, women who want it won't be able to see any combat, Nor will homos who want to fight to defend this country be able to fight.

Poor kids who receive lousy educations and whose families suffer mind-boggling social problems (I work with these kids all the time), won't be the nation's next leaders, doctors or lawyers. Middle and upper class kids will be. Maybe an occasional superstar might rise from poverty, but by and large their lot is set. The poor kids will by and large be the ones clogging up the court system and filling our jails.

Your image is far too rosy. I love this country, too, and I'm proud to be American, but these "warts" show that "ANYTHING" is not always possible with hard work. Sometimes, like everywhere else in the world, no matter how much you work for something you just can't have it. And I think the proposition of the vast majority of americans embracing the "gift of giving" is false nationalist bullshit. I think Melli's perception is fairly accurate.

No offense intended. Just my two cents.

Kuch said...

Aufbau Ost

All I'm saying is that people tend to develop some sort of Utopian idea of what America is really like. Perhaps this was true for you as well, and realistically, no country can totally live up to this standard. If I think that America is the best country (and I do), then of course I mean the best when compared to other countries, not Utopian perfection. I assumed you came to Michigan (I grew up there, but not live in Minnesota) for the educational opportunities. Many others from Europe do this as well. I read a report on Deutsche Welle about the brain drain in Germany. I think something like 75% of Europeans who seek doctorate degrees in the US have no intention of returning.

Also, isn't "world status, politics, economics etc", part of living in America? Again, I don't think it's fair to judge upon a single, or a few issues; rather a comprehensive evaluation based upon a totality of concerns.

T'su

I have similar comments as above. Tell me how many women or blacks have been president of Germany? Russia? France? etc... Again, America should be compared to other countries, not perfection. I think it was John Quincy Adams who said that facts are stubborn things that cannot be changed based upon one's ideology. Americans privately donate(through Churches, Foundations, NGOs, etc) about $17 billion each year to charities. The US government gives about $16 billion to underdeveloped nations each year. Tell me, which countries prove that they are "less fucked up" than America by giving more?

Aufbau Ost said...

Kuch,

There are again interesting issues you raise in your comment.

If I think that America is the best country (and I do), then of course I mean the best when compared to other countries, not Utopian perfection.

That is perfectly ok. If I compare it to other countries now, after having lived in the reality of "small town Michigan" I say it isn't. Does the US offer great opportunities? Undoubtetly. That has made living here a really good experience. But I think I could live as well, maybe even better in a European country. I have been the last years twice to the UK, found that an interesting country to live in (friends of mine live there/ moved there). Another highlight for me was visiting Norway last year. I have a thing for Scandinavian countries anyways, have visited Denmark and Sweden as well. And I am feeling, granted I'd live in a town or close to an urban center that those could be great places to live. And for Denmark, Sweden and the UK I'd even encounter less problems applying for jobs than I do here in the US (because of my European citizenship).

You are right, I came to the US for the educational opportunities, but also because I felt no connection with the country I am from. This has something to do with the recent history of the demise of the GDR (East Germany, the country I grew up in) and the unification with all its problems afterward. I felt as if I had no connection to that new Germany. I still don't so much. But over the time of being here in the US I felt I have a very strong regional identity of being East German and a Leipzigian. There is my reason to go back. I have been unable to establish a same connection to the US.

As for separating every day life from World Status, political and economic issues. Yes the latter are in part influencing "life in America". but only in part. If this had been about evaluating the US economy or politics, the assessment would have not been as personal I think. I also wonder if it would have been a better assessment. I have seen and learned about poverty here in a way I do not know it from home. Politics - as a political scientist my assessment of the state of the US in terms of domestic politics is a mixed one too (governability of the country for instance). I see problems with the voting system, the way minorities and women have a chance to rise up and the socio-economic status behind it. But how has that affect me personally. I teach about it, I read about, I evaluate it. I struggle with it on a marginal level only, I am not a voter and my only workplace is campus right now, so I am quite insulated in that environment. I could assess the political impact and the economic impact merely from an observer perspective. And that wasn't what this was about.

US world status - the world without the US would be a different one, almost certainly. Would it be a better or worse one? Depends again on the issues you look at. Militarily, US provides a lot of security, it has the highest military spending of the world. What about diplomatic efforts, would they be better (more effective) in an absence of a strong US or not. Not sure, this requires more thought.

But also looking at issues of development aid. The US gives the most aid numerically, yes, but almost least according to share of GDP (I think Japan is the only other country that gives less based on GDP). Charity: in the US every person gives about 5cents a year. It ranks fairly high, but Norwegians outperform the US - they give 24cents per capita, the Swiss people give 7. Germans give less than the US - 3 cents per capita and the french even less than that. but than again, based on a per capita contribution, France spends twice as much in terms of governmental aid than the US. The Committment to Development Index for instance ranks the US somewhere in the middle based on some other standards (how fragmented aid is, how tarriffs hinder development, etc. etc.). Best country to perform on the CDI - the Netherlands, followed by Denmark. Second year in a row it ranks this high. Ask development scholars what they think about US policies in the World Bank, IMF you will find tons of criticism. So how "good" of a country is the US.
The US is the biggest militarily and economically, but is it the best country in the world to live in - not for me (but it isn't the worst either, it is one of the ones one can comfortably live in).

If I may also reply to something you wrote for Tsu.

Tell me how many women or blacks have been president of Germany? Russia? France? etc... Again, America should be compared to other countries, not perfection.

Blacks are not making up that much of the population compared to the US, so let me switch to the theme of women. I will also exclude Russia, because it isn't really a democracy at this point of time.
So let's talk about the status of women in high-level positions in France and Germany compared to the US. Well, we haven't seen a female president or chancellor in either country. We may get to see a female candidate for chancellor in Germany next year, an East German even (I treat East Germans as a minority) - that is if the current party leader of the Christian Democrats is elected candidate for chancellor (looks like it right now, we will see next year).
What else about the women's advancement in business (let's say CEOs)? Both countries do better on it compared to the US, even though Germany does far worse than France. I think every 3rd CEO in France is female. This has something to do with a rather progressive childcare system in France that encourages women to go for careers. Germany is structured way more conservatively in that regard, I think only every 10th CEO in Germany is female.

How about politics. The current government coalition has made it a point to promote women to high level positions on the executive. Out of the 14 ministers (or secretaries as you may call it) of the current Bundestag 6 (almost half) are women. The highest prestige position is probably the Justice department that is headed by a female. Perfect, no, I wish we had a female secretary of state (like Austria has and Sweden had), but better compared to the US - I think so. Also if we are looking at the numbers of women elected to parliament we see a difference. Germany ranks 13 out of 184 for females in parliament and has 32.8 percent female MP in the lower house, 18.8 in the upper house. France (who had a female defense minister just recently) ranks worse here (#69)12.2% for the lower, 16.9% for the upper house. The US performs better than France, but only on rank #60, it has 15% female representatives in House of Representatives and 14% of female representatives in the Senate. And just as a throw in, countries with the highest female participation in Parliament: Rwanda (yes, Rwanda), Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands. Interestingly enough even Pakistan (#32)has a higher share of female representatives than the US. The United Kingdom, who had had a female prime minister, ranks better than the US as well (#49).

So in comparison, the US doesn't perform as greately as one would expect on some issues. It depends, which variables are important to ones personal assessment of a country and which are not.

Kuch said...

Aufbau Ost
Thank you for your comments. They are very thoughtful, and are greatly appreciated. Of course everything is "relative" in some regards, but I'm not sure that Ann Arbor is really small town America... anyway

I am VERY interested in politics and particularly German Politics. We hosted a German exchange student for a year and eventually visited several of my ancestral villages (near Nurnberg). In all honesty, there is definitely something romantic about what I saw in "small village" European life.

Your comments about your lack of connection to the New Germany are also interesting. One of the differences that I have noticed from Germany to the US is that Americans are much more unafraid of declaring their patriotism, or love for their country. We often refer to ourselves as "us." Whereas the Germans I have spoken to do not share these feelings. They often use the term "Germany" where we would use the term "us." Perhaps this has been brought about by the culture of guilt about the past generation(s) and WWII.

I understand what your'e saying about the differences between minority involvement in government. What minority in Germany could be fairly compared to American blacks? I don't know what the percentage of Turks is there, but perhpaps that is a comparison worthy of some thought. Is there some sort of representation of Turkish immigrants in the Bundestag? I would also wonder if you know if there is a similar Muslim representation in the government in France or Norway. I have read about increasingly growing Arabic populations in these countries. Do you know if there is a proportional involvement in the respective governments?

You also wrote of the involvement of women in the business and government world of various European countries. Incidentally, from what I know at this point, I would be "rooting" for Angela Merkel in the next election. Do you have any thoughts on a possible connection to these statistics to the issue of plummeting birthrates in Europe? I think the rate in Germany is around 1.5 (births per child bearing woman), where it is 2.0 in the US. I have seen reports in German media which talk about how women there are afraid to have and raise children for fear of damaging their career. Also, the effects of dwindling population on the financial viability of the social system in Germany.

And one last thought... I have been reading about the big debate in Germany right now about capitalism. I would be interested to know your thoughts about this (being from the former East Germany). Maybe this is another large difference between Germany and the US. Clearly, any society has "social" responsibilities. I believe there is a very fine line to be toed with respect to this. On the one hand, the social programs available in Germany are very noble and respectful of various social needs. Of course any society has the responsibility to assist the poor, free the oppressed, etc... But I wonder about the psychological impacts of what seems like cradle to grave social security in Germany. I think generally, the Germans that I know, or reports that I have read, are a bit more cynical than the average American. I would wonder if the "self determination" (perceived, or real) of capitalism is a possible reason for this. Or, does the one for all, and all for one aspect of socialsim remove this ideal of self-deterimination? And is this issue somehow responsible (the poor economy and unemployment problems not withstanding) for the malaise/negative outlook in Germany?

Aufbau Ost said...

Kuch,

You raise a lot of interesting questions. Unfortunately I am not having the time to answer them right now (unless my latest entry may already provide some answers of what I am thinking). I hope, to get back to your questions one way or the other at a later point of time.

PS: Ann Arbor is not a small town, no. But it isn't where I am at either. And where I am at is small town, at least by German standards and compared to my hometown (which isn't a huge city either).

t'su said...

Kuch,

America's unique in that it has more money to give. I don't know the numbers offhand, but I wonder percentage of their income Americans donate per person, compared to citizens of other states? By simply stating that Americans donate more as a raw figure is not as meaningful as saying that Americans donate a larger percentage of their income than others.

Also, please don't put my profanity in quotations when referring to something I've written. Quotes are rather prissy.

jove said...

Well let us all hope you finish your studies as quickly as possible and return to Germany and Europe.

Aufbau Ost said...

Jove,

I moved back to Germany last June...