Welcome back, it’s been a while, and we have a lot to catch up on. Before I talk about everything that has been going on in my life, I want to start with a quote from Thomas Paine that summarizes it very well:
The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.
Never in my life have I struggled so much as I have in my first four months in Germany. But never in my life have I grown so much either. While I admittedly spent much of my first few months looking up flight tickets from Berlin to Denver, I would not change my decision to come here for anything.
List #2: 5 Struggles and (Corresponding) Rewards of Exchange
1. Loneliness. While the majority of endless handbooks, Washington DC meetings, and Language Camp seminars had mentally prepared me to experience culture shock, nothing could’ve prepared me for the intense feelings of loneliness I felt during my initial time here. I was blessed with the most wonderful host family any CBYX student could ask for (blog on that coming soon), but the lack of relationships with peers my own age was startling. My location in Berlin is far from that of other CBYXers, and I found making German friends to be a challenge.
- Self-Discovery. It’s surprising how much I didn’t know about myself after being constantly surrounded by people and a community I knew like the palm of my hand. I’ve uncovered an appreciation for new things and ideas to which I’d had little previous exposure – used bookstores, street art, Prussian architecture, botanical cafes, multicultural food markets, and vintage shopping, to name a few. With so much time to reflect, I’ve been able to really get in touch with my personality and core values, away from the influence of my high school peers.
- Self-Love. As I’ve gotten to know myself more, I’ve become more acquainted with the parts of myself that I love, like my adventurous spirit or my passion for learning.
- Independence. The exchange experience has put me in the perfect space for introspection. Not only am I now able to spend time alone, and even enjoy it, I am becoming increasingly confident in exactly who I am.
- Problem Solving. I no longer lean on the opinions of my parents or peers to solve problems. That is not to say that I do not seek help when I need it, but I’ve discovered I am a lot more capable than I previously thought. I am also able to remain much calmer under pressure, as pressures that seemed so insurmountable in the US now seem so insignificant.
2. Culture shock. As I discuss with other exchange students, there is one universal experience we always come back to: everyone thinks they’re too good for culture shock. No one is.
- Learning & Reflection. Going into this experience being so sure that culture shock is something that merely affects some people (not me though) and being hit so hard with the opposite reality is humbling. I definitely gained a little perspective, a little humility. I also expanded my cultural knowledge. I chose to go abroad to be immersed in the culture of Germany. There’s no better way to learn culture than to be shocked by it. By being forced into German culture – the pleasant and the painful – I came to understand so much about Germany, its history, its culture, and its people. I am also able to take my newfound cultural understandings and draw fascinating comparisons to culture and life in the United States. For example, (1) I miss the closeness of student-teacher relationships in America and believe they do promote better learning. However, I like that Germany offers students more options for secondary education if they believe college is not the path for them. This allows for a range of interests and educational paths (and less student debt). (2) I’ve enjoyed the emphasis on environmental protection in Germany, particularly the use of public transportation, which allows me to go anywhere in Berlin without having to pump and pay for my gas all the time. (3) I have also enjoyed the safety impacts of gun control, as I feel incredibly safe, even in a city of three million people. (4) America is more racially diverse, as I rarely know someone whose ethnic diversity comes purely from one place. However, in Germany, most people I know are German, as are their parents, as were their parents’ parents, and generations and generations before. Therefore, America is united more by a national identity rather than a racial identity; nationalism is a core part of American culture. This leads to the American stereotype that we think we are “#1” or “better than other countries” and problems with an inability to self-reflect and criticize our own system. However, the driving centripetal force in German culture is ethnicity, which leads to a different cultural blend. Both cultural forces have their benefits and drawbacks, and it has certainly been interesting to learn about how the two societies are shaped differently by their history and identities.
- Communication. While I have found that Americans often soften or circumvent difficult conversations, Germans tend to confront them with full force. Germans communicate directly. This style of communication, which I have always slightly preferred, has strengthened my ability to advocate for myself, discuss problems and solutions with others, and, in general, effectively and efficiently convey my thoughts.
3. Lack of Structure. In the US, my school schedule was exactly the same Monday through Friday. In Germany, it changes every day of the week. In the US, I left school to go to activities and school clubs I went to every week of the year and to hangout with friends I’d known since fourth grade. In Germany, most of my friends are occupied after school and have their own solidified long-term friendships. I went from juggling eight AP courses, an internship, a long-term relationship, seven clubs, and applying to college and gap year programs, desperately struggling to find time to eat or sleep, to having a lighter course load and one weekly extracurricular outside of school. I found myself wondering “what do I do with myself?”
- Flexibility. This topic is actually something I talked about with my interviewers. We collectively agreed that CBYX would be a really good challenge for my perfectionistic, over-planning tendencies and would help me relax in the face of unexpected daily or life changes.
- Initiative. With so much free time, I had to do a little research, a little processing, and a little venturing to seek out opportunities I’d initially expected to find me easily. Now, and my host family can certainly corroborate, there is rarely a night where I find myself lounging at home. I had to take the first steps and then let life – and the magic of Berlin – surprise me from there.
4. Language. The first few months of speaking German here felt like an impossible challenge. I missed the simplicity of the all-encompassing article “the” and was frustrated having to figure out the gender of literally every inanimate object in my life. I was so eager to learn, I would come home from school and study Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik and vocabulary almost everyday. While the extra hours I poured into the language certainly helped, my speaking lacked a certain something, like a match just not quite catching the wick. I had all the abilities, all the grammar, all the vocab, and yet… I just couldn’t speak. And as my language skills developed, new challenges arose. I’d gained the linguistic consciousness to hear myself making mistakes, every one grating like nails against the chalkboard of my high self-expectations.
- German. Nevertheless, I pushed through. I made friends with Germans who spoke little English, giving myself no escape. I walked the dog with my little host sisters - who are just starting to learn English in school - and asked them to quiz me. I used my classes as an opportunity to dive much deeper into the development of my language skills, making pages and pages of notes about vocabulary, idioms, and connotative nuances. But most importantly, I turned off my shame and just spoke. Regardless of whether all the verbs were perfectly conjugated or the nouns correctly gendered, I spoke. Something clicked. And then something wild happened… I thought and even dreamed… in German.
- English. In fact, sometimes I speak so much German, I sort of forget how to speak English. I find myself saying “It goes!” (per the German phrase, es geht, meaning that something works) instead of “It works” or thinking of the German word for something before the English word.
5. Embarrassment. From making friends in school to cultural norms to familial dynamics to fashion choices to language, there is little I can’t find some way to do wrong.
- Confidence. Thanks to my impressive ability to mess up, I’ve learned that embarrassment is a waste of time, and it’s actually easier to make friends when I am sure of who I am and don’t try to change myself to blend in.
- Authenticity. There’s something magnetic about someone who knows who they are and shows up authentically. This applies even outside of exchange, but CBYX was definitely a driving force in helping me solidify the woman I am and show up as her.
The lessons I have discussed in this blog will not only impact me for the rest of this program, but for the rest of my life. Everytime I am struggling, I will just remember that enormous growth is right around the corner.