Now that I have already been here for a couple of months, I feel able to give a short summary of the daily life of Americans. Before I came here, I had thought that American culture was not that different to German culture. Certainly, there are definitely countries in the world, where you would rather expect a culture shock. Indeed, the difference between American and German culture and the daily lives is not that big at first sight. However, there are multiple little differences I will try to explain now.
One of the major differences is the unbelievable and overwhelming American friendliness. Most of the Americans I have met are more open-minded and warm-hearted than I would expect it from Germans. Trying to be polite is very important to many Americans. Germans tend to be more straightforward, even though this might be a little too direct and strict for Americans. Americans are different. They really care about political correctness when they address others. There was a little conflict between a teacher and people of the school’s administration a couple of weeks ago. Even though everybody involved knew that this conflict was quite intense, both parties explicitly mentioned that they were happy to work with each other and that they were looking forward to finding solutions.
When you see Americans, you do not only say “Hello” or “Hi”. It always comes with “How are you?”, “How are you doing?”, “How is it going?” or something similar. Even though they do not expect an answer to these questions, I do like the American way of saying “Hi”. Because sometimes they do not only answer “Good, how are you?” but actually start telling you how they feel and what they are up to. This makes it very easy to get in contact with Americans and therefore to learn more about the identity of Americans. However, many Americans do not even expect an answer to questions like “How are you?”.
But these are surely not the only reasons for American politeness. Since my internship is organized through an American institute (Amity Institute), I am not the only German intern in Milwaukee. The other three interns are at Milwaukee German Immersion School, the elementary school cooperating with my school. Some weeks ago, a parent of an elementary school student invited the other German interns and me to a show in a theatre. We did not even get to know her, she just reserved us incredibly good seats for free without wanting anything in return. This leads to another immense difference between Germany and the United States: the parental involvement.
Especially in the German department, many parents are very actively involved in the school’s activities. One of the reasons why my host family is hosting is because they want to give something back to the school. I have discussed their intention to host German interns with them and one of the reasons they do it every year is because they want to help the school having a better German program. Whenever the students have a fieldtrip, they do not only go with their teachers but always with at least two parent chaperones. During my internship, I have met three mothers who came into German Culture classes to do art projects with the students or to help preparing traditional German food. Some other parents of German students have founded Milwaukee German Immersion Foundation. This foundation organizes fundraising events and festivities to support German Immersion School and the German department at Milwaukee School of Languages. Additionally, to the German Immersion Foundation, there is the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). This association of parents and teachers strives after the most beneficial cooperation between the two parties. They help organizing school events and provide financial support. However, the close connection between parents and teachers is not always only positive. The teachers email or call the parents way more often than they do in Germany. As some parents receive messages from the teachers very often, the individual email is not as valuable anymore. But there are also a lot of emails from the parents, too. They want to know how their children are doing in the classroom, if the students have homework or why they do the things they are doing. This close contact can get exhausting for both parties.
Another difference regarding the daily life of Germans and Americans is how they deal with the environment. First of all, American cars are bigger than the German ones. Many people drive SUVs or trucks. Of course, they need more gas than smaller cars. This does not bother Americans that much, as gas is much less expensive than in Germany. A gallon (about 3.8 liters) of regular gas is about $2.35. Thus, many people tend to drive bigger cars which are more comfortable as they do not need to care about the mileage.
Germany tries to be “green” in many ways. Cars are small and fuel-efficient, houses are thermally insulated and trash is being separated. This is a little different in the United States. The trash is only separated in residual waste and recyclables. They do not differentiate between organic waste, paper, glass, plastic or aluminum. All these things go into the recyclable bin. They should be separated at the garbage dump, but this is not as effective as separating the trash at the individual households. This is why even a huge amount of the recyclable trash is being burnt.
Some other examples to show that Americans are not that eco-conscious is their excessive use of aluminum cans and air-conditioning. Most of the rooms, no matter whether they are private households, museums, malls or other public spaces, are cooled down during summer times. It often happens that you freeze inside a building even though it is warm outside. This is, of course, bad for the environment. However, many Americans expect malls, hospitals or public rooms to be air-conditioned.
The bigger, the better; the more, the merrier – this could be the ideal of many Americans. Cars are big, packages in the grocery stores are typically huge and the portions in restaurants are big. On my way to the Rocky Mountains, I bought two Hot Dogs and 1.5 liters of coke for $2. This perfectly sums up typical prejudices against Americans. And sadly, these prejudices were often true. Americans usually have a small lunch and a bigger dinner. However, the students get hot lunch at school every day. When they come home, they have dinner which makes most of the students have two hot dishes a day.
The more, the merrier – this could also sum up after-school activities of many students. At the very beginning of my internship, my students had to fill out a survey for the teacher. Her intention was to get to know the students better. As I was evaluating the surveys, I realized how many activities the students had after school. My host sister, for example, is 9 years old and has after-school activities at four days during the week. Two days of swimming, one night of volleyball and one night with ukulele lessons. Once a month she is at girls’ scouts, too. This keeps her busy all week and by the time she is done with her homework, it is often 9 o’clock. I think this is too much for an elementary school student but this seems rather normal in the United States. One of my students does gymnastics four times a week for three hours each, some other students go to an Irish dance club three times a week. At the weekends, many students have volleyball, soccer or football games, go to chess tournaments or sign up for boys’ or girls’ scouts’ camps. After the baseball season had ended, my host brother did not have more free time at the weekends, but went to chess tournaments every Saturday. Although it does not seem to bother the children, I think that this huge amount of after-school activities is too much. The children are stressed and often do not get enough sleep.
When I came to Milwaukee, I thought the differences between Germany and the United States regarding their daily life were not too big. And they are not at first sight. However, as I had the chance to compare American and German culture over a longer time, I realized that there are multiple little differences.