One of the first words I learned in German was Urlaub (vacation/holiday). Germans have between 20 and 30 vacation days a year. Add these to the impressive list of public/religious holidays, and you get at least 40--if you're a permanent employee of a company. In the 20 years I've lived in Germany I've been freelance 90% of the time, which means I have rarely enjoyed the luxury of paid holiday.
But I joke often that I've been on holiday for 20 years. Somehow this sounds as if I don't work at all, but I do. I work. I teach business English in companies full-time, I'm the managing editor of the popular and busy online literary journal SmokeLong Quarterly. I write. And I write. And I write. I have grass to mow. None of this, however, takes away that "away from home" feeling of Urlaub. If you're an expat yourself, you may understand this feeling.
I'm often asked how being an expat has influenced my writing. The answer is complicated, because I think you need to change as a person before you change as a writer. I can tell you how living abroad has changed me as a person. It brought into question everything I thought I knew about the world, about my country, about humanity and about myself--OK just everything.
Having to represent your country as an expat teaches you how much you don't understand about your homeland. It's difficult to speak for 300 million people, but Americans are expected to have an opinion about everything from slavery and the atrocities inflicted on the nations of indigenous peoples that later became known as Native Americans to Iraq and the NSA. We're also supposed to know every director's name of every American film ever made. For some reason, Germans remember this kind of stuff. And if you're an English teacher, you're expected to know every word in the English language and of course how to spell it. Expectations are high.
Another word for "expectations" is "prejudice". The world's eyes are on the US 24/7. They see us mostly through the TV and film images we create of ourselves, so it's our own fault really. The world sees the US as a country of extremes: the gorgeous yet emaciated rich and the morbidly obese poor, the Nobel Prize winners and the insanely stupid, the Democrats and the Republicans, the fundamentalist Christians and the porn industry. Sadly, most people around the world will describe Americans as obese, stupid, fundamentalist (fanatical) Christians completely ignorant of art and culture. And of course how could I have forgotten: we're all racists. This is, however, pretty much what we show the world. We make the mistake of airing or sensations, our scandals, our mass-market entertainment while we ignore everything else. We give a mic to one incredibly arrogant popstar who's proud of not reading while our thousands of literary magazines and journals enjoy less than stellar success. This is no one's fault but our own.
It took me several years to adjust to the relentless criticism of the US. I used to get furious. I used to defend the US with every bit of my conversational prowess, but now I smile, take a deep breath and concede that every country has its woes. And its stereotypes.
And racism. On the train a few years ago in Munich, I was sitting next to a black man. When an elderly Bavarian man sat down across from us with his dog, the black man cringed. It was obvious he was a bit afraid of dogs.
"You have to get used to it," the elderly Bavarian man said loudly in German to the black man as if to say that the man needed to assimilate into German society, as if being comfortable around dogs was required for this.
"Und was ist mit mir?" I asked.
"And what about me?" I repeated. "I'm also foreign. I know I don't look foreign, but I am. Do I also have to get used to your dog licking my trousers?"
"I'm not a racist," the man protested (too much).
The reason I've shared this anecdote with you is because being an expat is a continual lesson in human nature. Humans can be beautiful things, but they can also be pretty damn awful. Racism is not only a US-American phenomenon, and until you live in another country you might not see this so up close. The impulse to judge someone based on their skin color alone is alive and well wherever you go on this planet. It's alive and well, for example, in Qatar right now as hundreds of Indonesians and Nepalis are dropping dead as they build arenas for the World Cup. Their lives don't matter to Qatar or FIFA. That's racism--frightening racism sanctioned and sponsored by some of the world's largest and most prominent organizations.
Putting things into perspective, being mindful of my own behavior, accepting and being patient with the imperfections of others (since I'm so utterly and incontestably perfect), respecting and enjoying real friends--that's what moving to Germany 20 years ago has taught me. Germany has also taught me to be calmer and more objective in stressful situations. And it keeps teaching me so much.
Are you an expat? What has it taught you?
Today, Gravel Literary Magazine published my story "Birdie's Knowledge of Signs"! Have a READ.
I must be off,
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared in Indiana Review, Night Train, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK] blog, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Chicken Soup for the Soul and lots of other good places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.