In my quest to learn a language, I gained a better understanding of the world.

My very first introduction to German was during my first year in middle school. As an elective, I had a basic introduction to three languages: French, Spanish and German. Then, when the semester ended, we had to choose one to pursue for the next three years. Without a doubt, I chose French. I even toyed with the idea of taking Spanish, as even then, the importance of Spanish was becoming apparent. But German … never.

To be fair, I’m a firm believer in the mantra, “When in Rome, you do what the Romans do”. Therefore, whenever I travel, I try to learn and speak at least the basics of the local language. However, once I moved to Germany, I realized very quickly that the basics wasn’t going to get me very far. Although Germans are rather forgiving and understanding when it comes to tourists not being able to speak their language, there is a lower … or shall I say, lack of tolerance for immigrants who do not speak their language, and I began experiencing language (as well as cultural) barriers everywhere I went.

After looking into 2-3 language schools, I decided on Zentrum für deutsche Sprache und Kultur, a language institute that is partially funded by the German government in effort to teach recently arrived immigrants and migrants German language and culture, which the Germans as well as most Western European countries consider is an essential part of assimilation.

It was a place comprised of people from ALL over the world. Even though for most of my life, I’d lived in cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural cities like Houston and NYC, I’ve never had an exposure to such diverse group people from every corner of the world, and although I’d considered myself to be a well-informed person when it comes to different countries and cultures, during introduction, there were students from countries that I’d never even heard of: Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan to name a few.

It was exciting and exhilarating to be among people from parts the world that I didn’t even know existed, and the best part of it was that all of us had a common goal, to learn and hopefully, master the German language. We were all immigrants … foreigners, and no matter what our ethnicity, religion, or political views were, we had to communicate and learn in one language. It was an exquisite connection between all of us.

Some days, the experience proved to be overwhelming and exhausting, especially the first week, when I realized that after 2 months of private lessons at Goethe Institute, I could hardly carry on an introductory conversation in German. I had grown accustom to instructors who translated in English when I didn’t understand the question, and this was unthinkable at Zentrum, not to mention impossible, as in order for the instructors to translate their question into every student’s native language, they would have to speak over 20 languages.

True to German culture and their affinity for debating, the instructors did not shy away from difficult conversations, literally and figuratively. Like asking a woman from Israel and a man from Palestine, why they thought Jerusalem is and should remain to be the capital of both countries. It was one of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve ever been part of, as two people from two different countries declare the same city as their capital, understanding all too well the tragic history and current political situation between Israel and Palestine. Anyone could see and feel the attachment and the love that they had for Jerusalem and their land, and it was heartbreaking to know that the two people that sat in that class and spoke of the place that was so dear to them were also the people enduring one of the most tragic conflicts in the world.

Then again, as an American, I was viewed as a creator of world conflict. It was shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, and sitting among the citizens of the world, it became evident that it was us, the Americans who the rest of the world considered as troublemakers.

Overnight, I, as well as millions of Americans living abroad during that period, became representatives of our government’s decisions and actions, and no one was shy about expressing their thoughts and opinions. Sometimes, it was just to express their disdain for George Bush and his administration, but mostly, it was about the actions of our government which impacted their country (most often, negatively), the people and their own lives.

Of course, like any patriotic American would or could under such circumstances, I tried to (re)present our perspective and defend the decisions and actions of my country and government … or at least as well as I could in my limited German. However, their view and the recount of their history was so completely different from what I’d learned in school, what was presented in the US media, and most importantly, how we saw ourselves.

On a daily basis, there were questions and realizations that were difficult to answer and process. One day, a Pakistani student asked me why Americans were so rich while the rest of the world suffered in poverty. During the initial days of the US invasion of Iraq, I listened to an Iraqi friend of mine who shared her worries and concerns for her family back home while I watched my fellow Americans celebrating the bombing of Bagdad, even some of the so-called news agencies referring to it as Fourth of July fireworks.

The people from countries that the US government had deemed “evil” were anything but. Most of the students I’d met from Iran, Iraq, and Syria were kind and considerate of the how they expressed themselves. They knew all too well that the decisions and the actions of their governments or mine did not dictate or reflect who we were as citizens, individuals, and more importantly, as friends.

Contempt for the US and Americans always came from the least expected places and people, most often students from Western European countries, which we’d considered allies. I still remember that the most outrageous comment that came from a Spanish student who expressed her disdain for the US and Americans by telling me that she thought that Americans deserved what had happened on 9/11 for being so arrogant. It was shocking and heartbreaking, and I thought, “with allies like this, who needs enemies?”

Then again, I learned that the US government has a long history of getting in bed with countries and governments that we should be wary of, and seeing pictures of President Bush arm in arms with Vladimir Putin made me realize that we, as Americans, should have a healthy dose of skepticism towards what we see in our own media as well as what’s written in our history books, particularly the chapter on Ronald Reagan.

The time I’d spent learning German at Zentrum was one of the most interesting and enlightening experience of my life. I believe that no educational institution could have provided me with such eye-opening insight into what’s happening around the world, and exposed me to so many different cultures, such diverse viewpoints (political, religious and more), and have made me better understand how the decisions of our (the US) government have impacted and still impacts everyday lives of people all around the world.

However, the best part of the whole experience was meeting people … friends from all over the world, and learning that we are more alike than different. It reminds of a poem I’d read some time ago by Dr. Maya Angelou, an inspiring author, poet and a truly phenomenal woman.

Human Family

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land.
I’ve seen the wonders of the world,
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

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About S. In

a cultural critic, an avid traveler and a purveyor of social justice and education equity View all posts by S. In

One response to “In my quest to learn a language, I gained a better understanding of the world.

  • Europe, a cautionary tale | Confessions of an Expat

    […] Being in a language class at Zentrum für deutsche Sprache und Kultur (Center for German Language and Culture) with foreigners from all over the world, I was exposed to and became aware of the racism and hardship that immigrants faced in Europe.  The discrimination and humiliation they encountered were often the topics of our daily conversation. […]

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