Why I’m Leaving Germany

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When it was time for me to leave Japan, I knew it right away. Seeing how my colleagues acted so casually in the aftermath of the tsunami made me start piling up all the reasons why Japan made me unhappy. How I could never fit in. How I had terrible loneliness. How I started acting out when people were ignorant about non-Japanese people and culture.

Now, in Germany, it’s not taken a tsunami to shift me out of love with my life here, but I know for sure that it is time for me to leave. I often think I’m crazy, since I have a job I feel passionate about, and I live a very good life here in Germany. But there are two main reasons why I feel I cannot go on here without becoming very unhappy.

1. Communication.

Tonight I was in the food section of a department store with a friend when an elderly lady fell back and crashed to the floor, knocking her head on a freezer as she went down. Blood was pouring from her head. A man and a woman nearby jumped to help her, and I did too. I helped the lady to her feet then was listening as the woman was explaining to the lady that there was blood coming from her head. I stood around helpless, wondering what to do, what to say. The lady needed to sit down, and the woman spoke with a member of staff but I didn’t quite catch anything about getting her somewhere to sit. I said awkwardly to the woman “there are sitting places over there” but the woman looked at me as if I was a nuisance and turned away from me. In the end, I could do nothing. So I paid up and left.

Even though Frankfurt is an international city, where 99.9% of people speak English, I feel isolated. My German is coming along well and I understand quite a bit these days, but I would need to study German a lot more before I was in a place where it would take away my isolation. In Japan, I wasn’t isolated by a language barrier – but I’d been studying it since I was 16.

I want to be in a place where I can make small talk with someone nearby. Or help someone in the street. Or be able to live with people who don’t have to put any extra effort into speaking with me because they speak in English anyway. Although I have more English-speaking friends here than I know what to do with, the fact that my go-to language isn’t the same as the majority of those around me makes me feel very limited in my world.

2. Information.

I’m in a supermarket in Germany and I pick up a can of soup. I judge it by its price, the design, the ingredients list. That’s it.

Take that same situation in Britain and I have a lot more information to hand – perhaps I’ve seen an advert about the soup, perhaps I saw a review for it in a magazine, perhaps I remember eating this soup at uni and remember whether I liked it or not.

I feel that here in Germany – and, indeed, as an expat in many places – it can feel like such a one dimensional life. It’s almost like being a child, with no prior knowledge on the things around you. This goes beyond a language barrier, it’s an informational barrier. Of course, one could learn more about the things around them – watch the tv adverts, talk about things with locals. In Japan I can’t read the words “ajino moto” or “biku camera” without singing the jingles, and simple information like that made me feel more at home there. But it’s totally different when you’re back at home in your own country and you are holding an item that takes you on a trip down a million memory lanes, sparking recognition in your brain. I want to go back to living around things that I know well, not things that are new and unknown.

Though I look around at the amazing people and the amazing life I have here and feel sad to be leaving it all behind, I get a pang of excitement inside me when I think of being able to live back in the UK again. I’ve been away for so long it’s like a foreign country to me now and I’m even excited at the prospect of experiencing reverse culture shock. There’s nothing like living abroad for understanding your own country and culture, but I feel that when I return and see everything with fresh eyes, I’ll be able to understand what it is to be British more than ever before.

And then I can start writing a whole new chapter in my life.

Gratitude in Japan

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For some reason, I happened to be reading through an old blog of mine that I used to write when I was in Japan. I started to read a few posts from there and couldn’t even remember writing them, but they were like portals back to my Japanese life.

I’ve found one post that I particularly liked. After almost 2.5 years out of Japan, this is a particularly nice post to look back upon and think about the cultural differences I encountered.

Here is my post, from 10th March 2011 (the day before the tsunami):

In the past week, I’ve had two events that have made me understand Japanese culture just that little bit more than I did before. The first was graduation. Of course, I had graduation last year too, but as it was my first, I was in awe of everything and so wasn’t able to catch a few things. The second, was the wedding of two Japanese friends.

As with any formal event in the Japanese school calendar, such as sports day or the culture festival, the students spent a long long time practicing for the graduation ceremony. Looking back to last year, I wonder why on earth they would want to spend so much time on what is, actually, standing then sitting then standing and singing, then sitting, then standing, then walking, getting some papers, taking them with two hands then tucking them under your left arm, then walking, standing, sitting, standing and listening to enough speeches to make your ears bleed. Some time in the week before graduation, I was stood in a classroom of graduating students, with about 10 minutes before class started. I like to try to speak to the kids in this time; just by being there with nothing to do gives the kids some free time when they can- and often do- talk to me about whatever they like. I saw that the class before was science, and so asked a girl what she had studied in it. “Oh, we didn’t do much science”, she said. “We were writing letters.” Letters? In a science lesson? I asked if it was some kind of project to save rain-forests or – heaven forbid- stop whaling. But she told me that they had been writing letters of thanks to their parents, for helping them and pushing them throughout their junior high school life.

What an interesting custom. In a country where parents (read: mothers) spend hours every day planning their child’s schedule with evening classes to get them ahead, make sure they do homework, buy them piles of books to help them.. it would be common place to take a step back and thank the parents. Unfortunately I don’t think I ever thanked my mum and dad.. well, of course things are different in England. Education is much more left to teachers. There is no cram school, though I did take (at the expense of my parents) extra French class to make sure I actually passed the A Level. But they did work hard to make sure I did my homework, and mum used to read over my essays (she is very good with words, is my mum). In days before wikipedia, dad was always getting me to use his wonderful collection of encyclopedias to help. But I never said thank you. I think even after graduating university, when the key speaker (Brain May wooo!) had told us that we needed to thank our parents for their funding and support, did I not thank them. So I thought it was wonderful that my kids were made to sit down and think about how they had come be where they are today.

And then the weekend before the graduation ceremony, at my friends’ wedding, I saw another custom of expressing gratitude.. but I have mixed feelings about this one. I’m sure I’ll do a separate post about it, but basically it was the wedding of my friend Mi-chan, a guy who I met a year ago. It was a mock Western wedding (I’ll explain why it’s “mock” in the wedding post…) but there were still a lot of things that were very Japanese. One of those things was, during the lunch (the days events were: wedding ceremony, lunch with speeches, after party that was pretty much exactly like the lunch but with more people and no posh food) the bride stood up next to the groom, who was holding a microphone and some tissues near her face, and read out a letter to her dad. As far as I can see, the sole purpose of this was to make everyone in the room cry. The parents (all 4 of them) had to stand in a line at the back and cry, but not before the bride herself started crying. So most of the speech was her sobbing things like “I’m sorry …. mrrrhhhhh…. for always …. mhhhrrrrrr… being … mrrrrhhhhhh… so … selfish .. mrrrhhhhhhhhhhhh!” into the microphone while the groom mopped her damp face.

Now, I don’t disagree that the father should be thanked and congratulated for bringing up a girl who is able to snag a good husband. A lot of his hard earned yen probably went to paying for the wedding too. But.. in front of everyone, and using something that should be a private little act of gratitude to manipulate the emotions of all the guests… I guess I don’t see the point of it. What’s more, it’s always the father. I’m pretty sure the mother worked just as hard, if not harder since it her job to bring up the children in Japanese society.

I think it’s really great that gratitude is a big part of Japanese culture. I wish we took the time out to say thank you to people too. Though we have the culture of sending thank you cards, people of my generation usually only use them to say thank you for a gift (even now I only get round to them when I have my mum breathing down my neck and nagging me endlessly about them.) Perhaps I should take notice and make the effort more often.

Thoughts on Drunken People

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The other day it was a nightmare getting from my place to Boyfriend’s. Weighed down with his guitar on my back, as I got to the tram stop in front of the main station, I was saddened to see what seemed like a never ending group of fans of Frankfurt’s football team, Eintracht.

I lived for 3 years in Liverpool and I have, I think, encountered more than my fair share of drunken football fans. And drunken Eintracht fans are so very very annoying. In Germany it’s perfectly fine to drink in public (including on public transport), and so you get very large groups of mainly men shouting, singing, bashing on train/tram windows, shaking the carriages. I would never think that any of these people would hurt me (though a fair few bashed past me while I waited for my tram), the way they present themselves is very intimidating and not very nice at all for a girl walking by herself.

In the UK it’s worse. In the UK, when people get drunk, they seem to just get more aggressive and I don’t know why this is. The only other place I’ve seen street fights in is Seoul, but in the roads outside bars, clubs and pubs in the UK it’s not uncommon to see people physically sorting out their differences. I’ve never seen one here in Frankfurt.

It seems it’s not just me who thinks this. I was at Frankfurt’s wine festival last week and was speaking to one of the wine sellers who happened to be a really nice guy from Leeds who used to be a high flying banker, but quit it all to study wine (how awesome is that?!) We were talking for quite a while and he also said that he noticed a big difference in drinking culture in Britain and in Germany. While my friend said that he thought it was mainly due to pubs and bars in England having to close early, forcing people to buy two drinks at a time, I’m not sure that’s where the problem lies.

In Germany they treat alcohol as just another thing in life. Like in the UK, you can drink from the age of 18 and are able to have a beer with a meal with your parents from 16. I was surprised at how relaxed people are here (in Frankfurt at least) with what seem to be under-age drinkers and smokers. The rules are there but if they are broken then no one really cares, it seems.  Perhaps them not treating drinking as a race that starts in their teens makes them a lot more relaxed about things; alcohol is just a normal thing instead of something that needs to be used in excess.

But I wonder if it’s just that the drink less than us. There are certainly people at night who drink way too much (Boyfriend lives next to an Irish pub and we are serenaded by their drunken chorus most nights) but I don’t really see anyone getting violent. I’ve been intimidated many times by groups of drunken guys who look kinda scary, but in my two years I’ve only had problems with two guys; once on the way home from town a drunken man wouldn’t let me past, and once a month or so ago while waiting for a bus on a Sunday morning a drunken Irish guy kept shouting insults at me when I wouldn’t talk with him.

In Japan it’s a completely different story still. Most of the Japanese people I have been drinking with go very very red when they drink. I don’t know what it is but their faces just goes like a tomato as soon as their lips touch alcohol. And no one gets that crazy when they are drunk, either, just cute. The craziest thing I have ever seen from drunken Japanese people (and this will tell you SO much about Japanese culture) is when I was teaching at the JHS, after one of the staff parties one other teacher stumbled down the street, saw a car, gently tried to open the car door and found it to be open. No one was shocked by a parked car not being locked, but the owner happened to be coming back to his car and started shouting at the teacher for being a bad role model. Japanese businessmen seem to like putting their ties around their heads as soon as they start to drink. That’s kinda cute.

One thing about drinking in Japan that is kinda scary is the rate of drink driving over there. While obvious foreigners like myself might find themselves being breathalysed while riding a bike at night, no one seems to mind that it is very very common for people to just drive themselves home after an evening in the bar. I have seen so many people who could barely walk get up and drive themselves home.

This has been a pointless, ramble-y post, but if you have stories of what drunkards are like where you are, I’d love to hear them! Usually these cultural sharing posts turn out to be the most rewarding 😉

Recycling

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I was giving a Frankfurt tour to two Japanese friends. They arrived at 6.30am so we had a whirlwind morning tour of the city. As we approached the centre, we saw this van. All three of us stopped to watch it. The little hooks pull the levers and the bottoms of the three compartments open to all the glass falls out.

A German man approached us. “You’ve not got these where you’re from?” he asks.

“Well, I’ve not seem anything like this in Japan, and I’m not sure what we do in England” I replied.

“You want to know something weird? Look at how the coloured glass is separated in the boxes. When the bottoms are opened, they all fall in together! So there really is no reason to separate them from the start!”

I would never have thought of that…

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