I knew that studying abroad would mean I would be going through a lot of personal growth. That’s just what happens when you live in a new culture and you have to adapt to your surroundings. But as nice as that sounds, the personal growth can be painful and irritating.
When you go to live in a foreign culture, many things that you do one way at home are done a different way in your new country of residence. If you try to do something the way you are used to doing it–that is, the “right” way that you do it at home–you will often be “wrong” in the foreign country because they do things differently. You get funny looks, amused and sometimes even hurtful comments. Each is a reminder that you’re not at home and you’re wrong.
For a while, being wrong so often bothered me. I remember the first time I tried to use my shiny new EC-Card (like a credit card and ATM card for a European bank account) to pay for groceries. First, I managed to misread the little drawing that showed me how to insert the card into the card reader. Oops, my bad. After the cashier told me to turn the card around and I got it to read, I reached up to type my PIN onto the card reader’s keypad. That’s what the keypad’s for, right?
By this point, I should mention, I had barely said a word. I think I said “Hallo” to the cashier, which should not have been much of a giveaway that I’m a foreigner. But when I started to type my PIN into the little keypad, the cashier said, in English, “No, no, you have to sign.” Italics and all.
I was frustrated not only from the embarassment of not knowing how to pay, but also that the guy switched to English just because I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to use my PIN. I stick out as a foreigner pretty often here, but I can speak decent German. Had he said “Nein, Sie müssen unterschreiben” instead, I would have understood. Why rub salt on a wounded ego, mister?
Now, over a month later, I am much less irked by these embarrassing situations. Not long ago, I went to the post office to pick up a package. After I handed the clerk my delivery notice, she asked to see my ID. I showed her my student ID chip card. (In many stores in the areas surrounding Virginia Tech, students can use their Hokie Passports (university photo ID’s) as actual photo ID’s to make debit/credit purchases and such. So I assumed that the fancy photo ID chip card that TUDarmstadt gave me would be acceptable.)
But this lady didn’t think so. “Das ist kein Ausweis” (That’s not an ID), she said. She went on to tell me that my driver’s license would work. Pity that my American driver’s license was at the apartment (I’d love to have seen the look on her face), but I happened to have my passport handy, so I chalked the interaction up to experience and handed her my passport instead. She checked it, gave me my box of medical supplies (thank goodness they arrived!), and I went on my way.
A couple months ago, that interaction would have been really frustrating and I might have left the post office in tears. Now, I don’t care as much what people think. Things that I know how to do correctly in America are done differently here, and I understand that. Sometimes the person on the other side of the desk is understanding (especially if I tell them, in German, that I’m an exchange student and that my German is still weak), and sometimes they seem to think I’m stupid regardless of what I say or do.
But I’m not stupid. I’m used to different processes, and I’m going through the process of getting used to new processes. I’m going to look silly along the way at some points when I try to do something the way I’m used to doing it in America and it doesn’t work. But I’ve gotten more used to letting the criticism or irritated responses from people I encounter roll off my back.
Sometimes I wonder what the best souvenirs I can get for myself from Darmstadt and Germany are. Whatever little trinkets I end up choosing from stores, I really think the best souvenirs are going to be the lessons I learn here.
Such as that sometimes, I’m going to have to look foolish to get what I need.
Such as that me not knowing some new process isn’t my fault, but it is an opportunity to learn.
Such as that I should take criticism with a grain (or two, or five) of salt. Hurtful criticism should be directly ignored.
And that God knows that my intentions aren’t to irritate the person on the other side of the desk. His opinion is what counts in the end!