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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Diffusing Reverse Culture Shock

Fourteen months ago my husband Steve and I relocated back to the United States after living in Hamburg for eighteen years. Germany was a second home for us and a wonderful place to raise our two American children. Our son Kevin was seven years old and our daughter Kathryn was four years old when we landed on the door steps of good ol’ Germany in 1989 - three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Shortly after I joined the American Women’s Club of Hamburg (AWCH) in 1991, I volunteered for the club membership position. In the first board meeting I attended, those present were called upon to answer an ice-breaker question: “How long have you lived in Hamburg and how long do you expect to stay?” I said, “We have been here a year and I will probably die in Hamburg.” Everyone laughed, but I was serious and honestly had no thought of returning to the US, until possibly retirement age.

The initial culture shock for both Steve and me was when we were told that his job would take us away from our second home—forever. We were in shock! I could not believe we would leave our life in Europe, one that we worked so hard to build as expats living abroad. We were both very sad.

Prior to receiving the news of Steve’s job change, I had met Mr. Michael Neumann, the owner of Come and Go expedition in Hamburg and Berlin, whose company sponsored a lovely reception at the opening of the AWCH 50th Anniversary party. I was impressed by his kindness toward our club, and hoped our members would be able to use his services on their next move, never dreaming that I would be the first one to give him a call. We needed good advice and assistance for our move across the Atlantic as Steve had to begin his job within four months. After contacting Mr. Neumann, as well as other companies to get comparative bids, the Come and Go office responded to me within hours of receiving my request. Mr. Neumann’s speedy response and his suggestions for the best service that would fit our budget proved that a good expedition company is important in lessening the stress of an international move.

Neither Steve nor I have experienced the typical extremes related to reverse culture shock, due in part to our personalities. We adjust to new situations easily and take time to breathe. Unlike our move to Germany, where we entered a world unknown, moving back to the US was returning to a familiar place. Since we know the societal rules, we are confident enough to know which of them we need to follow and which we can ignore. The culture shock for us comes in the form of what we miss from good ol’ Germany. For example, I went to purchase an advent wreath and the sales person didn’t even know what I was talking about. Or, we loved the fact that the German state supported “time out” in order to give people a Pause from their work week by closing stores on Sundays or holidays – that is unheard of in the US. Or, the European traditions for socializing are genteel, such as Kaffee trinken accompanied by a leisurely walk along the Elbe River. In America that is replaced with a cup of coffee in a to-go cup taken on a fast walk around Greenlake. Oh my!

There are some things that simply make us uncomfortable after having lived abroad for so many years. American hyper-patriotism feels like it is out of line. The influence of the media feels overwhelming, and the over-emphasis on negative news is psychologically unhealthy. Fear seems to dictate what the parents allow their children to do – US children have much less freedom than our kids did growing up in Hamburg. Perhaps the fear is not unwarranted. Yesterday, a small group of fifteen year-olds assaulted a famous Seattle street musician after one of his gigs. The injuries took his life. That area of town is not a slum but rather a place where socialites regularly congregate.

The fact remains that the US and Germany are similar in many ways. I was taught by the AWCH to bloom where I am planted and therefore, that is what I choose to do. By encountering new situations head on and making new friends, I choose to diffuse reverse culture shock.

originally published in Currents Dec 2008/Jan 2009

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