At Home or Homesick? The Challenges of Living Abroad

As I was preparing an article on schooling in Germany, I happened to stumble across a question for the forum in a group consisting of American expatriates living in Germany dealing with feeling at home in Germany in comparison to living in the USA. The question was whether the expats regret living in Germany and if so, why. Within an hour of its posting, dozens of responses from members of the group came in, and the results were porous. The majority of respondents were of the opinion if there was a opportunity to return to the US, they would, in a heartbeat!

Now why would so many people want to say that about a country like Germany, which prides itself on its social security and health care network, as well as education, culture, sports, landscapes and the like?  Factors, such as difference in mentalities, difficulties making friends, xenophobia bureaucracy, job opportunities and even language barriers were mentioned, as well as missing some of the things that they were used to back home.

In the 15 years that I’ve been living in Germany, I’ve seen the good and bad sides of Germany, some of the latter that would technically scare off people wanting to live in the country, such as the lack of flexibility in the job market (my biggest pet peeve, since I’m an English teacher and blogger), the politicians trying to cut programs that are beneficial to the people, encounters with Skinheads, aggressive drivers and superficial relationships- where you are only friends with your colleagues if you have something to do with a project. But if compared to the US, some of the problems mentioned are also well known over there.

But perhaps the dissatisfaction may have to do with the decline in good relations between Berlin and Washington, which has become imminent thanks to the Spygate scandal earlier this year involving the NSA. Since the activities of the NSA were brought to light, many Americans living abroad have been put at a disadvantage thanks to additional policies by the US to put them more on a leash and Germans have even distanced themselves from the Americans abroad. This includes the latest proposal by the American tax agency IRS, which has triggered many Americans to trade in their US citizenship for one in their country of residency (click here for more details).

Despite all this, the question for the forum has gotten me to ask the forum the following:

  1. What are some things that you like about Germany that keeps you living there? The same applies to other countries abroad.
  2. What are some things you miss about the US that you can NOT get abroad?
  3. What improvements would you like to see in the place you’re living?
  4. And for those seriously thinking about moving back to the US, what factors would influence your decision about returning home?

In the 15 years living abroad, I still haven’t found anything that would convince me to return home, for there are many things that are keeping me here. Interestingly enough, more people I know are even thinking about moving abroad because Germany has more to offer than what they have at home. To give you a classic example, in a southern Minnesota town with 3,500 inhabitants, I am one of four people who are living here in Germany, two of them happen to be in the same graduating class as I am! After being the only one from the community living in Germany for 15 years, I received company from the other three, who moved to Germany with their families this year. Despite this,  we all have our reasons for living here.  Yet we have collected our share of experiences both good and bad. Many of them I’ve mentioned here in the Files. More will come in the Files as many themes will come to light that will be talked about.

But seriously, what keeps you here in Germany (or abroad) and what would you like to see changed? Put your thoughts and discussion either in the Comment section or in the Files’ facebook page and let’s get a discussion going on this theme, shall we? After all, many of us have enough experience to share, much of which will appear in the Files soon.

In School in Germany: Ask the Ami



To start off this entry, I have a word of advice to all Americans who are teaching (or will be teaching) and are wishing to gather some valuable experience abroad: Be prepared to be bombarded with questions from your students with regards to your home country, and when answering them, be objective but truthful.
So far in the first week alone at the Gymnasium, I’ve had at least four sessions, where half of the time was spent with Q&A about my native country, my life as a teacher, my favorites and least favorites, and (my most interesting part) views of President Obama and the NSA.  We also had some questions about German-American (cultural) differences and a few other items of interest.
For some teaching in Germany for the first time, this will take you by surprise, yet after teaching for a long time, it is the norm for students to throw out questions to be answered from my own view, which is truthfully and objectively.  But it brings up a question worth discussing, which is why are Americans still being loved even to this day?  Granted we were responsible for first saving western Germany from the tyrants that left scars on Germany’s past and keeping it from becoming part of a regime ruled by another tyrant. We also influenced the eastern half to tear down the Berlin Wall and reunite with its western counterpart.  But we also had our dark times with W. in power and him ruining all our political relations and, in the end, the US economy, through his “Texas-style” politics which has sent many Americans fleeing to Canada and Europe.
Yet from a teacher’s point of view, I guess the reason why we are still loved over here in Germany is because of our awareness of the fact that there is a world beyond the country’s borders and the fact that we are more aware of what’s going on than the ones who have never been abroad. Furthermore, apart from our introduction to popular culture to Europe, we have been successfully bringing humor and a “cool” way of handling issues- meaning relaxing, finding ways to make lives even better, making people laugh, and lastly, convincing the ones who are obsessed with cleanliness and extreme planning, there is such a thing as Plan B and beyond, should Plan A fail. As I’ve been in many situations with the last point, having Plan B is my sticking point, as it provides flexibility in finding ways to achieve something.

But in spite of the glamor and positive aspects, we’ve been more honest with ourselves, showing Germans (and on a wider scale, Europeans)  the reality of the US, but from an objective point of view. This means showing people what the US really has, which is the good, the bad and interesting sides, and allowing them to look at the country from their own perspective. As the US was touted the hero of democracy in the 1980s and 90s, the country today is still a superpower in many aspects, but has all the problems that Europeans have- with inequality and poverty, problems with education and health care, increased mortality, high unemployment, and more difficulties competing on the international scale because of the domestic problems that we have not been able to handle.  By being truthful about ourselves and objective about our country and views in the world has made us more human, more open, but in turn more liked by our European counterparts than we were 30 years back. If admitting our mistakes and being aware of what’s going on is not a big step towards better relations, than I don’t know what is.

So, to close this entry, when asked about the US and the American way of life: be open, be objective but most importantly, be truthful. Give the students all aspects from various points of view. But also show them that we are much better than we were in the past. We were heroes of the past and proud of our heritage, but we are also open to changes to the benefit of the US, its allies and the rest of the world, for we are all human, all friends, and all united in a single cause.

Here are some interesting questions I’ve dealt with so far:

What’s your view of the NSA and its spying?

JS: Both Americans and Europeans find this not cool. Invasion of privacy has no place anywhere because we are entitled to our rights, which includes having our own lives that is not being watched 24/7.  Good relations is one thing, but spying, both home and abroad: It’s something that we do not accept both in the US as well as abroad.


What’s your view of Germany in terms of history?

JS: Germany is a country that is looking ahead and taking pride in what it has developed in the last 50 years. Of course many people still remember the dark ages of the Third Reich, yet as we walk away from that, we have taken pride in technological developments and our open mindedness since 1945.


Favorite places in Germany?

JS: There are many in Germany. The northern half is one of my favorite places, especially along the Baltic Sea. Yet there are other places worth exploring, like the mountain areas in central and extreme southern Germany as well as the North Sea.


Apart from the Bratwurst and beer, what else is special about Germany?

JS: Soccer, Handball, its history (esp. when looking at cities, like Berlin), the historic bridges and lastly, the Christmas markets


Favorite City in the US?  Favorite American Football Team?

JS: Pittsburgh; The Pittsburgh Steelers


And my favorite one: Are you planning on staying in Germany?

JS: You betcha! 🙂