One of the most profound experiences I have ever had was the year I spend in the United States as a foreign exchange student in high school. Being a German of Turkish descent, I was already intimately familiar with differences in culture, upbringing, and thinking that could determine how people experienced and thought about different events in very different ways. However, my foreign exchange year in the US blew my mind and widened my horizon beyond explanation.
US culture is very different than both German and Turkish. Family life, outlook on sports and physical hardship, interpersonal relationships, and many more aspects were different than anything I had experienced before. For example, Americans put a lot of emphasis on sports. Not just watching sports the way Germans and Turks are fond (one would say fanatically so) to do, but on participation in athletic events. Schools were organized differently. Whereas in Germany school is out around 3 pm, after which kids go home, do their homework, or go to separate sports clubs, the lives of American teenagers are centered around their schools. Clubs take place at school, right after school, with the same people that you go to school with, leading to a very different cohesion of cliques and schools. I saw that Americans were very patriotic and proud of their armed forces, much like Turks are and very much not like how many Europeans are. Americans are very strict and uptight on certain issues like alcohol or sexuality when compared to Germans, but at other times very laid back. Culture is nuanced.
Having spent such a long time in the US not only helped me to improve my English but gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of Americans that many of my fellow Europeans lack. I obtained the ability to see issues from a US perspective, which allowed me to understand why Americans reacted to certain events the way they did.
Globally, I think we need more of this. I think that a big part of the world’s troubles stems from the fact that we just don’t understand that people of different cultures have very different lenses through which they look. Things that are self-explanatory for us might not be whatsoever for people from another culture. So we end up not understanding each other, Germans, Americans, Kiwis, Australians, French, Turks, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Ethiopians, Kenyans, and all the other cultures that I have forgotten...instead of working together we work against each other. Instead of working to make the world a better place, we try to make it harder for “the others.”
However, there is an easy way to stop this. All it takes is not all you’ve got. It takes much less. All we have to do is travel. And by that I don’t mean the usual “global tourist” way of traveling. I am not talking about the kind of travel where people go to another country, only stay in hostels, try anything possible to avoid speaking any other language but English, and cut their interaction with locals to a minimum. I am talking about travel in order to get to know the locals, the places, and their cultures. Learning the local language, even if it’s just a few words and phrases, is essential for that. You cannot understand another people if you cannot understand how they view the world. And you cannot do that if you do not speak their language. Language profoundly influences thinking. I don’t know what came first, the patterns of thought or the patterns in the language, but what I do know is that both are highly correlated. So language learning is key. Throughout my travels I met lots and lots of Americans. Most of them are great people. They proudly tell me how many years they have spend in Germany when they were stationed there. When I ask them if they speak German they often say no. That makes me sad. In all their years in Germany they haven’t managed to learn German. They have never really interacted with Germans on any level beyond the superficial. They have lived in their English-speaking bubble. So much potential, so much time that could have been spend getting to know a culture deeply. And none of it used.
I invite all my fellow DieLiving friends to travel the world, learn another language and let us work on understanding each other better. Because life is too short to stay at home and only do what’s comfortable. Die Living.