Featured Student: Kelton Hevelone
Photo Courtesy of Kelton Hevelone
Some Things I’ve Learned
It doesn’t feel entirely right to list off these things like some cheesy blog post you got click-baited into reading. It’s not because they are secrets and can only be ‘discovered’ through studying abroad, but like I said, at best they sound click-baity and they don’t really mean anything unless you’ve truly experienced them. And I mean, truly.
1.You Can’t Get Rid of Your Identity
Leading up to and upon first arrival in Germany, I tried hard to distance myself from my American identity. I packed very few shirts with English words on them, in fact the only one I brought was a CU t-shirt, and I refrained from bringing anything that was stereotypically ‘American.’ I wanted to be as German as I could possibly be. The reasoning behind this was multifaceted and had nothing to do with not wanting to be an American. Part of me wanted to ensure that I would fit in with other Germans, another wanted to distance myself from certain, um, political situations, and another wanted a full immersive experience, which I defined as losing myself or my identity and adopting a culture I wasn’t. And I achieved this to a certain extent, but it felt horribly alienating.
I talked with another study abroad student from Canada towards the beginning of this semester, who told me something that’s really stuck with me since: “Wear your accent like a badge, because it’s a part of you.” He was referring to the last few years he spent studying in Quebec as an English-speaking Canadian. He, like myself, tried really hard to lose his accent in French and be as French Canadian as he could be. However at the end of the day, he realized, and I am in the process of realizing, that you are who you are (absolutely mind-blowing, right?). Every person carries with them their culture as a part of their identity. This identity can be expanded through experiencing different cultures, but there is always a base culture that you must build upon. I’m coming to realize that there is absolutely no shame in being your culture, as long as you don’t impose your culture upon others.
2. You Are Not Your Country
Relating to the first point, you can be your culture without carrying the weight of your country with you. I was afraid at the beginning that others would judge me based on the decisions America makes as a country, which has become especially pertinent recently due to the withdrawal of America for a large part from the global scene. However, people are interested in you as a person and by no means tack the political or economic situation to you personally.
3. Life Can Be and Is Different in Other Places (another mind-breaker, I know)
Too often, Americans become trapped inside an American bubble. Despite hearing about this bubble from almost every one of my International Affairs teachers, I only saw what they meant after being removed from the bubble, seeing as those who are stuck in the bubble are blind to the existence or extent of the bubble. It doesn’t help that we are also the largest exporter of culture throughout the world. I mean, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Beyoncé. Yet, this amounts to Americans being self-absorbed in their own culture and burying themselves further in the confines of their warm, uni-cultural bubble. Sure, we have some J-Pop or K-Pop and musicians from other English-speaking countries, but we are missing out on so much the world has to offer due to this self-absorption. I’ve experienced this most pertinently in the multitude of amazing music Europe produces that we never actually end up hearing, looking at you Stromae.
The lifestyle in Bavaria is also far different from the States. Throughout Regensburg, all shops are closed on Sunday, have limited hours on Saturdays, and close at 8 pm every other day of the week. I was almost a little annoyed when I first arrived. I mean, how am I supposed to buy bell pepper flavored potato chips (very popular in Germany) at 3 am if all the stores are closed? I even fell into the very American mindset that these shops are losing a lot of business and revenue by the fact that they are closed on some of the most profitable times and days. Yet, this is exactly my American brain trying to fathom that people do things differently in other places. And just because it is done differently doesn’t mean that it is better or worse. It’s just a different way to go about life.
4. You Are Not Entitled to Comfort or to Fit in
This was one of the harder aspects of accumulating to Europe, the university, and the multitude of different cultures here. I have been in countless situations with Germans or other foreign students, where I have utterly not fit in, either by my values, the social situation, or the language being spoken. All native-born Americans unconsciously take it for granted that the speakers in a given social situation are going to speak their language, share fairly similar values, and having lived in America, share a common social context for conversation. These are such subtle aspects of communication that we regularly overlook, yet once they are gone, it becomes pertinent how important these aspects are to your feelings of comfort and social placement. No one is going to hold your hand and integrate you into the conversation and culture. These aspects, namely your cultural adaptability, can only be learned by living in the discomfort of not being fully integrated in the culture and language.
5. We are beyond lucky to be native speakers of English
To stay on the overplayed note that Americans are ungrateful, we, and along with all the other native English speakers around the planet, discount so often the gift of being able to speak the world lingua franca at native fluency. Everyone else has to learn English in order to participate in the modern world, yet we already possess a very high level in these skills as our base mode of communication. English is by no means a difficult language to learn for European language speakers (yes, only English speakers think English is hard to learn. Many people actually consider it to be very easy language. I’m sorry to ruin your entire conception of English), but we possess a feeling for the language that only very few non-native English speakers are able to achieve through years of learning. It was humbling when the gravity of this distinction hit me. Everyone I’ve met can speak English, but only the native English speakers have that native-speaker feel for the language, which puts us at an advantage in the world we all undervalue.
6. The World Watches Us
If the world is a stage, America is the brash actor no one can ignore. Our politics and economics affect every other state directly or indirectly, and in doing so, everyone is invested in these situations in America. Many of the political science classes I’ve taken here talk either about Germany’s relation to the United States as a main example topic or bring up the United States every second sentence when talking about current events (note: these statistics may be biased due to certain political figures that like to see their name in the news . . . or on twitter . . . *cough cough*). We are important to the world, and consequently, it is every American’s duty to be aware of and have experienced the diversity of people, cultures, languages, world views, and living situations throughout the world, including yours, dear reader.