Immersion

On a windy day in late July, almost six years ago to the day, I strolled along the main street of my little hometown of Stanford in Central Montana. As I traced my path along the cracked sidewalk, I couldn’t help but contemplate with apprehension the journey awaiting me in a few days’ time. I was in the midst of packing my bags for my year of high school exchange in Germany, my first overseas adventure. In fact, it would be my first time outside of the United States. Looking around at the community I had called home for the past eighteen years, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the ways in which a full year of immersion in a foreign culture would affect me.

Some important traits I developed as an exchange student in Germany were persistence and a willingness to try new things. I remember vividly the first days of my homestay when I was overwhelmed with the new sights, smells, people, diet, and vernacular. The most difficult challenge was the language barrier. I recall leafing frantically through my dictionary my first few days. With effort and hard work, I made progress-albeit slowly- in the language. I found myself more and more understood with each passing day. Beyond language, I eventually adapted to the rest as well. On the culinary scene, I came to tolerate and in some cases even appreciate previously foreign dishes such as liverwurst and sauerkraut. Where at first it seemed like I would never acclimate, I learned to never give up.

As I started to delve deeper into the culture of my host country, I encountered beliefs and practices which were very different from my upbringing in rural Montana. As I discussed these differences with my German friends and family, I gained a better understanding of their reasoning for their actions and beliefs. The European emphasis on the conservation of energy is a concrete example of a cultural difference which I had difficulty getting used to. Growing up in a state with an abundance of cheap hydroelectric power, I wasn’t accustomed to turning off the light switch after I left the room. However, after engaging with my host family, I learned that electricity in Germany was much more expensive and came from pollution-heavy brown coal.

Even as I continued to learn more about my new home, I gained a greater appreciation for my old one. I missed everything Americana. There were definitely days when I would come home from school, play Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” pine for the Rockies, and dream of a slab of some good ol’ Montana beef. Through my discussions and debates with my European friends and family, I became very much aware that the United States was not perfect, and though I did love Germany and the German culture, it couldn’t replace being an American. I was proud of my country’s diversity, innovation, and natural wonders.

When I returned to Stanford, about 11 months after that blustery July day, I wasn’t the same person. Almost a year of living immersed in a foreign culture had had its effect. As I walked down main street, singing a traditional German carnival song under my breath, I was surprised by how different everything seemed. I was astonished at how wide the road was and how big the vehicles were compared to the streets and cars I had seen in Europe. The next days and weeks were filled with observations and adjustments like that as I readjusted to living in the United States. I was so relieved to be home, and yet at the same time I felt that I had left a part of myself in Germany. I was an American, but part of me was German, too.