(This is an internet protocol I filled in for blackexpat.com in 2008.)
Describe your first trip abroad.
I had my first opportunity to come to Germany in 1972 – the summer vacation between 9th and 10th grades. I stayed with a wonderful guest family in one of the most beautiful areas of the country – The Black Forest. I travelled with a group of about 25 other American kids and 2 adults. We all lived in different little villages in the area, but attended the same school (“Gymnasium”) in Hausach. Our free time was spent travelling either as a group or with our guest families.
The many positive experiences I had made a lasting impression on me, and I decided to return to Europe at the earliest possible date.
When did you realize that you had the Expat bug and wanted to live abroad?
When I got back to the States I went into total culture shock. Although I had stayed in an area of Germany that was much more provincial than the western Pennsylvania suburb where I grew up in the States, I was blown away by the realization that there was “a whole ‘nuther world” out there.
Although my trip to German had been a kind of reward from my parents for my academic performance, once I returned to the States my grades plummeted.
I eventually persuaded my father to allow me to study in Europe if I could:
- graduate from high school at the end of the 11th grade, and
- maintain an “A” average for the entire year.
He probably thought I wouldn’t make it, but agreed to the deal. Anything to get me motivated again!
In September 1974 I headed back to Europe to study in Strasbourg before (finally) transferring to Heidelberg in 1975.
Where were you born and in which countries have you lived?
I was born in New Jersey, but grew up in central and southwestern Pennsylvania.
I have lived in Strasbourg, France, as well as in Heidelberg, Göttingen, Mainz and Neuss/Düsseldorf, Germany. I now live in Erkelenz, which is about 25 minutes from the Dutch border.
(Note: In the meantime I live in the Sauerland region of the country.)
What has been your most enlightening experience while living abroad?
In a lot of ways it’s difficult to pin it down to a single experience. It is a conglomerate of the way (and quality) of life, the natural beauty of many areas, the impressive cities (Prague or Budapest, to name just two of my favorites), the wonderful and eclectic mix of people I’ve met, as well as the whole journey of self-discovery you embark on when you step outside your personal comfort zone in such an extreme way.
What has been your most disheartening experience while living abroad?
The realization that the ugliest of human frailties – racism, xenophobia, etc. – are truly global.
What customs have you adopted in your new country?
Being familiar with local customs is part of really living in a country. I certainly can’t say that I actively participate in everything that goes on here, but I do make a serious attempt to understand the significance and rituals of everything from “Karneval” to “Backfischfest” to “Schützenfest”! This includes for me an at least passing grasp of the local dialect, because you can’t always depend on people to speak so-called “High German”. Plus, if you are as interested in language as I am, deciphering dialects is fun!
Which customs from home do you miss the most?
Not so much a custom, per se, but I miss having access to the Black Church. I know God is everywhere, and I am sure I could find a friendly and welcoming church home here, but…it’s just not the same!
How important is knowing the local language? Do you have proficiency in the local language?
I believe knowing/learning the language is absolutely paramount! You can never operate successfully within a culture or ever really know and understand it, without some mastery of the language.
When I first visited Germany as an exchange student I had only had 2 years of junior high school-level German. Living in a small village where people spoke a very strong dialect was therefore a real challenge for me. Fortunately, I’m a talkative person by nature, so I didn’t let my almost non-existent grasp of German grammar get in the way of my trying to say what I needed to say. I simply tried to apply what I’d learned to what I wanted to say. To this day my guest family gets a good laugh remembering some of my more exotic linguistic concoctions!
In the meantime I am very fluent in spoken German and also have strong written language skills. Written proficiency became important when I entered the workforce and began to climb the corporate ladder, though I always depend on native speakers to double-check important documents that go out.
I believe it’s imperative to learn the language if you really want to say you “live” here, though the level of proficiency you need certainly depends on the type of life you lead. There are obviously employment sectors where English is the language of business. On the other hand, you’ll still have to do your own shopping and talk to civil servants and interact with people on the street.
And – from time to time – stand up for yourself.
How have you gone about making friends?
My group of friends is a pretty eclectic mixture of other expats, people I have worked with, German neighbors and people I went to university with.
How do you keep in touch with family and friends from home?
Things have gotten so much easier! Most people can’t even remember when the only way to stay in touch with the folks back home was via “snail mail” – and that a letter took at least a week to get from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Or when calling the States for three minutes used to cost you about DM 11/Euro 5.50.
Now it’s almost cheaper to call the States than it is to call just over the border to the Netherlands if you use the right discount prefix, and with e-mail I can be in touch with friends and relatives there just as quickly as I can with people here.
How hard is it to find a good place to live?
I don’t find that very hard at all anymore. Obviously, it’s a question of finance and luck. You also have to be familiar with what is considered “normal” in terms of condition and features of the place you rent or buy.
In Germany, for example, many rental properties do not have any kitchen furnishings, so you have to be prepared to either
- continue your search till you find a place with the kitchen fully outfitted or
- get a kitchen (everything from the cabinetry to the appliances to the proverbial kitchen sink)
The issue of racism (for me, at least) isn’t as prevalent when looking for a place to live as it was – say – in the 70’s or early 80’s. It does still occur, of course, but in my recent experience it’s more the exception than the rule.
What goals have you achieved while living abroad?
Since living abroad I have achieved most of the goals I would have probably been focused on if I had stayed in the States with reference to education, career, relationships, etc. Doing all of this within a foreign context did, however, increase the level of difficulty – in some cases significantly.
I have also mastered one foreign language, gained decent proficiency in a second, and can do better than struggle in a third. I have travelled more than I would have if I had stayed in the States.
In some ways, too, I think that I (like all expats) have acted as an informal ambassador for my country, my race and my gender
What has living abroad taught you about yourself?
I grew up in a situation where I was most often known as “Mr. XX’s daughter”. Living in Europe gave me the level of autonomy and anonymity I needed. It has certainly taught me that I can make it on my own! Oh sure, I have made the requisite mistakes in life, but I also have the strength and the tenacity to pick myself up and continue forward.
What would you say to a friend or relative who is considering moving abroad?
Clearly define what you are looking for and what you are willing to pay for it. Living abroad – even in Western Europe – isn’t like living in a version of America where the people just talk funny. You must be willing and open to knew customs and rituals, but also to another way of thinking.
Do you consider yourself a permanent expatriate?
Yes, though even after 30+ years I would never say “never”. On the other hand, I was really surprised when some people asked if I would be returning to the States when my husband and I separated. I didn’t come to Europe because of a man, and I certainly don’t plan to leave it because of one (or the lack thereof).
I built up a life for myself here. My children were born here and consider themselves at home here. If I decide to return to the States, it’ll be because my own unique life plan has changed. Not one day sooner.
How has your life as an expatriate changed who you are?
I don’t think it has. I think my life as an expat has allowed me to be who I authentically am with more ease. Or with more comfort and flexibility in the places that would have been more restricting if I had chosen to stay in the State
Do Blacks (or foreigners in general) in your view have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?
Yes, racism and xenophobia are a global plague.
I think Americans will find racism (and racist assumptions) to simply be different to what they are used to. Sometimes more subtle. Sometimes based on totally different premises than you would find in the States.
As a black American you may also encounter behaviour that is more generated by curiosity than any type of racism.
And – if you are open to it – you might learn that American attitudes about race aren’t univeral – or necessarily always correct.