An American in Germany
Last week, while spending time with a good friend who lives in Regensburg, I had the opportunity to meet her aunt and uncle. It was a brief meeting (we were dropping off a bike to be fixed by her uncle, a retired mechanic), and I did what I normally do in such situations: I said hello, I said goodbye, and in between I smiled and nodded and felt conspicuously American. Several days later, however, my friend mentioned that her aunt and uncle had no idea I was foreign.
“They thought you were a nice Bavarian boy,” she said.
I laughed. It was pleasant to be mistaken for a native, but it was pleasant precisely because of how absurd it seemed to me.
Whenever I’m outside of my apartment (I live in a room meant for two, but I haven’t had a suitemate for several months), I am aware of myself as American. If I’m with other members of the program, which is often the case, we will speak in English (with a smattering of those characteristically unique and amusing German phrases thrown in), but if I’m just with Germans, my foreignness is apparent the moment I open my mouth to say something. In classes, which just started this week, my introduction begins the same way every time: “My name is Taylor, and I come from America.” In fact, any time I introduce myself to someone, my name alone marks me as an Ausländer—a foreigner.
I was not aware of how closely bound to English the name Taylor was until I started introducing myself to Germans. It’s often met with confusion, a request to repeat myself, and then, when they say it back to me, it is startlingly different. At this point, I’ve introduced myself to several people by pronouncing my name with a German accent—to save myself the hassle, mostly. Not long after my friend told me that her aunt and uncle had thought I was Bavarian, we ran into one of her friends in town. I introduced myself (without a German accent) and then let my friend do most of the talking. When we parted, her friend said goodbye to her in German, and then turned to me.
“It was very nice to meet you,” she said, in English.
She went on her way, and my friend and I walked on.
“She didn’t think I was Bavarian,” I said after a moment. My friend laughed.
“Well, when you have a name like Taylor…” she said. “You should use a different name—perhaps Thom.”
“Yeah, or Hans,” I said.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with being an American in Germany. As much as the other program-members and I talk about wishing we could speak German well enough to be mistaken as native, we know that the point of a semester abroad is to experience another country’s culture, to be submersed in it, but not to become a part of that culture. It is about understanding foreigners and their cultures as an American. It is impossible to remove the American lens from how we experience Germany, but that is not a bad thing: we find things fascinating because we are constantly comparing them to our own culture.
It is odd, however, to constantly be conscious of being foreign—and here is an important distinction. Being foreign in Regensburg is different from being a tourist. We had our spring break recently, and I spent my two weeks traveling around Europe (Paris, Venice, Milan, Barcelona, Brussels). As a tourist, I was unapologetic about my American-ness—not in an aggressive way, but I did not speak the language, beyond the most basic words, in any of the countries I visited, and I didn’t pretend to. In Regensburg, the difference is that I do speak the language, at least fairly well. Also, I am not a tourist—I am living and studying here. So while it is wonderful to be able to speak German and to feel like this is my home, at the same time, it is frustrating to be clearly not from here. It is clearly not my home.
In many ways, the best part about being an American in Germany is simply the opportunity to mix the two cultures (and not, as you may assume, the late night debauchery and exploration of that famous German beer). For example, Regensburg has a baseball team—supposedly the best in Germany—and it is certainly interesting to see a baseball game, the quintessential American pastime, in Germany, played by Germans. Inspired, some members of the program and I recently bought a grill and had a cookout with hamburgers and bratwurst and German beer—an American tailgate, German style. It is in those moments of sharing cultural traditions and mixing languages that I am perfectly comfortable being an Amerikaner.