Saturday, March 29, 2008

Changing Points of View

Some good friends are moving back to the U.S. after just over five years spent in southern Germany. It's a difficult transition, as I know, having done it myself. I now have multiple friends who've done the same. There's probably a reason for that, though it's hard to pin down.

You move overseas knowing that things will be different. Of course they will - that's why we do it! Going to a place where buildings and landscapes look different, the weather's different, people eat exotic foods, do unfamiliar things, speak a language that you hope to learn. It's not for everyone, that kind of wholesale change. But for those who choose to, it's a thrill.

Then you get there, and settle down to start *living* there, and you find it's not quite what you expected. Well of course it isn't! Where's the fun in already knowing exactly how your life is going to change? I remember my first year living in England...there was so *much* that was different! It got tiring at first. I mean, even the bloody sizes of paper stationery were different - and they had different names! The telephone rings differently, the postman doesn't pick up mail from your house, the milk tastes vaguely unfamiliar, clothes, shoes and socks are all sized differently, your US format DVDs don't work in British machines, you can't find the foods you really miss in the grocery store and even the vegetables have different names. You go to lunch, order something and when it arrives it's nothing like you thought it would be. As for driving - let's not go there. It just got to be too much sometimes.

But you want to live there and enjoy it, so you learn to cope. You make friends, you learn new names for things, find unfamiliar fun things to do, figure out what size clothes you wear, find new foods to enjoy, learn something of the language...and before you know it, you've begun to feel almost like a native. People no longer turn around to stare when you talk in a restaurant, the postman recognizes your name on your mail from the U.S., even though no one writes the address correctly, and you don't consciously think about calling almost-8.5x11-size paper "A4" anymore. AND, you passed your driving test with flying colours.

*Then* go back to the U.S. for a visit.

Blimey! It's so noisy! The houses are huge, but the cars are IMMENSE! Even the people are bigger, and their clothing is so different, so...colorful. The grocery store prices are waaay higher than you remember them. You go to a restaurant and not only are the portions gigantic, but it tastes funny. And why are people turning around to stare? Then your family starts telling you how cute your accent is. And you're thinking...*what* accent?! And gosh darn it, this milk tastes strange.

Welcome home.

You get used to it again pretty quickly though. After 10 tense minutes behind the wheel, you remember how to drive on the right. The air smells like home, your family is thrilled to see you, you get to eat a few foods you never got over missing in the UK, and your cute accent goes away, mostly. Still, you have this creeping feeling that you don't fit in anymore. Your accent has faded, but your new vocabulary is more persistent. Your view of American culture and society has broadened, become more dispassionate, your experiences have changed some of your opinions, and you find it easier to see other points of view. Suddenly the ex-pats in your circle of acquaintances, whose behavior and attitudes seemed eccentric before, make sense!

But best of all, when you go back to the UK, you find you slip into your European skin with hardly a thought. Your friends tease you again about your Yank accent, but not for long. Sure, you love your family, and the home you left behind, and your passport may say you're a U.S. citizen, but you know you're becoming a Transatlantic, a citizen of the world. At first it seems like you don't fit in anywhere, but eventually you figure out that you've actually learned how to fit in anywhere.

1 comment:

  1. You explained this so succinctly. It's definitely a challenging switch. One of the things that was hardest for me to learn, un-learn, and then re-learn was how right-of-way/pedestrian traffic laws are different. I started out in the UK just blithely walking into cross-walks assuming traffic would stop, and wound up back here terrified when anybody would do that because I anticipated honks and screeching tires. What a world.