At orientation one month ago, our Betreuerschaft prepared us for the highs and lows of culture shock. In a thought process that was equal parts excitement and naivete, I assumed I wouldn’t be hit too hard by culture shock. Of course, I was wrong.
I’d like to preface the rest of this post by saying that I am grateful for the opportunity I have been given. It is not my intention to sound whiny or entitled in this post. That said, I would be doing the future exchange students reading this blog an injustice if I didn’t provide them with the whole picture -- and the whole picture isn’t always sunny.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I was having a relatively easy go of things here. I was in the thick of a honeymoon phase, which is to be expected. After all, German bread is delicious and there’s a castle two kilometers from my house. I loved everything about my new home. I noticed cultural differences, but they were exciting at best and inconsequential at worst. My first day of school, however, was a reality check. It started to kick in that l would be living here for a year. “What have I done?” I wondered.
School here is challenging. I have to work hard to follow discussions, and mündliche Mitarbeit (in-class participation) can take a lot out of me. The first week of school, I set a personal record for language mistakes made and afternoon naps taken. Interpersonal communication is different from what I’m used to in the United States. Generally, people here are direct -- and this is coming from a girl who is direct by American standards. The small talk that American social life is built on isn’t a thing here. I’ve grown to appreciate all this, but it can still be hard.
Homesickness is another component of the exchange experience that I’ve been struggling with. Yesterday I had an intense craving for Cheese Its. More seriously, I miss my family, which has been partly exacerbated by grief. My grandpa, who was an avid traveler and was excited for my experience abroad, died shortly before I left the United States. Though I know he would be proud of the work I’m doing here, his death has made being away from home more difficult.
My homesickness and exhaustion don’t make me love Germany any less. The first few months of an exchange year are a big adjustment, and difficult days are part of the package. Accepting my emotions is an important step in moving forward. Additionally, I’ve tried to keep in mind the advice of one of my friends, who used to live abroad. “If you’re not happy with how things are going, change them,” he told me. “This is your year!”
I can’t wave a wand and make the hard parts of an exchange year disappear, but I can take baby steps to creating a positive experience. For instance, I can’t understand everything happening in my German class, but I can answer a question in our discussion. I can’t hug my cats, but I can walk my host grandparents’ dog. During my first week of school, I approached a group of girls from my class and asked if I could sit with them during the Pause. They’ve since welcomed me into their social network, and we’re planning to go out for sushi this week.
Slowly but surely, I’m making a life for myself here. I’m grateful to have a supportive host family, natural family, and welcoming group of faculty and classmates at school. There will be more ups and downs here, but I know I’m capable of handling them. And, if all else fails, Germany has excellent chocolate.