Hey gang. I made it. As you read this, I am coming to you from the city of Düsseldorf, Germany. I had a bit of a back and forth with myself about what I should share with you first: My journey over or the strange mental mess of culture shock that I am experiencing here. Of course, the mental stuff won because if I don’t pen it, it might keep bothering me till I go crazy.
So it’s been 52 days since I landed in Germany and boy has it been a ride. Settling in has been trickier than normal for me because I’ve been up against a mountain of mental stuff that got triggered by being here. Today I will go into a list of things that have caused me to experience my first bout of culture shock.
1) Not my noises
So I’m sure I have mentioned at some point when I wrote about Japan that the hardest thing for me to adjust to in the beginning was the sensory overload. Japan is noisy! When I think back now, it’s actually crazy how noisy Japan is when you look at the citizens, who are for the most part, not particularly noisy at all. But as soon as you walk into a shop, walk across the street, get on a train, sounds from intercoms and machines assault you, either telling you about sales, giving you instructions, or just belting a random jingle. A pet peeve of mine was always the exposure that I would get when I went to draw money. Usually, the ATM will shout a welcome in Japanese before letting you select an option but as soon as you change the language, it will do the same thing again in the new language. For me, it sounded louder in English, maybe because the tone they used for the recording is a bit brash and sounds uncouth. So I would find myself standing at the ATM trying to look like an OG foreigner but get instantly exposed by this damn machine!
When I arrived in Germany, I expected the sounds to be different but I don’t think I internally processed that expectation. Suddenly I could walk across the street with the sound assisting the visually impaired clicking silently in the background. I could walk into a shop, go from the fruit and veg aisle to the meat fridges with no one shouting a promotion at me from a tiny screen. Perhaps the most shocking noises were the ones from the people. On my first week, I took a few walks around the city and I couldn’t believe how loud everyone was. As I thought this I had to wonder, had I become… Japanese??
Among these noisy voices that were floating around town were those of English speakers. Anyone who has lived in Japan, with its minority of 2% foreigners, will tell you that hearing English in a country where you don’t expect to hear much of it is shocking. I came into Germany still thinking like this. The shock of hearing English wore off quickly though because I realised that most people in my city are really not from here. That doesn’t mean they are from English-speaking nations but when you come to a place away from people who speak your language, English does sometimes become the default. Hearing all the different accents still makes me secretly smile, and I’ve been here for weeks. I should be over this already.
Unfortunately, my only reference to living long term in a non-English nation has been Japan so when it came to my expectations of English-speaking abilities in the locals, the bar was low. Germany is surpassing expectations here. I don’t know a slick of German yet, so most of my interactions with locals have involved me asking if the person speaks English (on one occasion I was ready to ask if they spoke Japanese!). And like clockwork, every single time I’ve asked, the conversation has magically translated itself into English. The only time someone didn’t know English was when I was speaking to another foreigner.
I’d like to reiterate, I still don’t speak a word of German even though everyone keeps telling me it is the copy and paste of Afrikaans, a language that I CAN speak and understand. When I tell you that the lies are making me feel like a fool, I’m not even playing.
I work in an international office so unfortunately, I have more chance of hearing Brazilian Portuguese in the passages than I am of hearing German. This means I have less chance of interacting with German in my day-to-day life. Especially given that people usually change over to English when I squint my forehead in confusion. But, on the few occasions where I have had a chance to sit and listen to German (mostly YouTube adverts that I can’t skip), I can confidently say that these two languages are second cousins at best. The one thing I have believed all my life is that Afrikaans and German have the same basic rules of pronunciation. This is, in fact, not true. I think the biggest difference that has been throwing me off is the ‘g’. In Afrikaans, you drag that ‘g’ from the depths of your soul. In German, however, the ‘g’ is exactly like the English ‘g’ in ‘gone’. The discovery that German isn’t as raw and harsh as they have led us to believe in all those WW2 documentaries, feels like a betrayal.
As a newbie to a city that is only recently coming out of lockdown, I have relied on online sources to give me information about some of the goings-on outside. Mostly I’ve been trying to read reviews about local shops to find out if I need to have a Covid test before I can go shopping (a real thing here for a long time until recently). What I found was venom.
In Japan, I always went through two stages of reading reviews: First, foreigner check – does this place I’m going to treat everyone okay regardless of nationality or skin colour? Second, local check – what do locals think of this service. With this two-step verification, I learnt to take foreigner reviews with a pinch of salt. If the people were not locals of the area, the reviews leaned towards the unrealistic end of reality, giving praise where none was deserved. On the flip side, the Japanese reviews ranged from honest to venom. The venom never made sense to me though because it would start out as a paragraph of flattery before closing off on a note that discouraged people to visit the place, sealed with a one-star rating.
Coming to Germany, I expected to find level-headed people online. Like the reviews from back home: honest about what’s going on. Unfortunately, much like reviews in Japan, I am finding myself having to dodge the venom to get to the reviews that make sense. The venom here wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t directly reference the customer service. The number of times I’ve chosen not to go to a grocery store because I was afraid I’d run into some mean lady who screams at people (something the reviews have promised me), is too darn high. Honestly, if I listen to the reviews here, I might die of hunger alone in my house.
I just learnt how to navigate the shopping experience in Japanese. Just now. Like now now. I was that girl knowing what the cashier is asking and being able to answer naturally in Japanese. Now I’m back at the beginning. I love the planet but if I’m honest, adding initiatives like selling plastic bags to curb the use of plastic has increased the complexity involved in paying for goods. It’s in these instances where I really wonder how deaf people navigate these subtle changes that abled people introduce haphazardly into daily life.
6) Public transport
In my old city, I cycled everywhere. Until I got a car because cycling up the mountains is just too much of a job for me to do when I’m coming from doing groceries. The car opened up a lot of local travel opportunities for me, which was great. Coming to Germany, I thought I would miss this.
Luckily, a few short hours into my time here, I knew I wouldn’t have those problems. Düsseldorf is a hefty city in terms of size and because of this, it has a gang load of transport options available. Right now I use the tram to get around. I wanted to get a bicycle but after hiring a bike (yeah you can hire a bike like an uber here yal) a few times to get to work; I am convinced that riding in a big city is not for me. There are tram tracks everywhere and if you know anything about cycling, any hole in the ground is a potential accident waiting
Perhaps the most mind-boggling of the mental things that I have faced here is having to reconcile with the fact that this city looks eerily similar to Johannesburg. There’s the old side of town whose architecture reminds me of the inner city buildings in both Joburg and Pretoria. There’s also the more modern side of town, the area where I work, that reminds me of Sandton, and places like Boksburg who are also following a similar approach to architecture. I even left town the other weekend and found myself staring out at fields of grass and electric towers that reminded me of the Highveld. This is great but also extremely painful as it acts as a constant reminder of what I am missing out on back home.
I’m watching a replay of the Olympic opening ceremony now and in this nostalgic moment, a thought just came to my mind. It’s inspired by an old bible story: Don’t look back, lest you turn to salt like Lot’s wife. A terrible way to force oneself to move on perhaps, but I feel like this is probably the best way I can try to encourage myself to not live in two places mentally. In Japan it was easier, with everything being so different from what I was familiar with at home. It was easier to accept where I was and what I was doing. Now the distinction between here and there is so blurred that sometimes I feel like I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I’m not in Germany. Maybe I’m back home living in a secret and yet-to-be-discovered city near Johannesburg. Maybe.
Anyway, since this has been a long one, I’ll leave you on a positive note. I’m settling in great here. Making new friends and keeping in touch with old ones. It’s amazing how easy it has been to reconnect with my South African friends now that I’m in the same timezone again. Work is going great too, it’s wonderful to be back in the world of the problem-solvers that are User Experience Designers. It’s amazing to be able to work in such a multicultural office too – it’s like visiting all these different countries without ever having to go there physically. All that is to say: So far, so good. This new adventure is bound to lead to some good adventures.