“But why are you here?” One of the other students asked in broken German. He’s from Eritrea, a refugee in Germany because of severe persecution against Christians, and had been learning German for just five weeks, along with the other students in the class. He continued in very simple German, with large hand gestures and incredulity, “Why here? America is good! Why?”
That was a really good question. It’s one that we’ve been asked time and again by new acquaintances. As we’ve continued finding our way here, my internal reaction to this question has evolved. And sometimes my response varies, depending on who I’m talking with and what the circumstances are.
At first, I used to answer with, “For adventure!” I was proud of us newlyweds, married less than a year, choosing to step into something so big. I had married both Michael and his very obvious and progressive disability, a piece of life that adds a flair of challenge to simple, everyday activities. Moving across the world, even to a well-established European country, was not only an adventure that we chose in order to experience another culture together and learn a new language. It was also a undertaking that we wildly underestimated, leaving our supportive net of family and the inclusion of familiarity with certain social systems that, being citizens of the US, we could take advantage of. And I’m not just talking of the social welfare system, from which we would have been mostly precluded, having chosen to get legally married and with both of us working full-time. No, I’m also talking of the other social systems such as health insurance, taxes, the simple structure of coffee shops and roadways and knowing where we could get what we needed.
We’re not immigrants. Immigrants are people who move to another country intending to stay there permanently. But in learning to settle here, we’ve had, I think, much the same experience as an immigrant would have in their first year plus of life in a foreign country. Obviously everyone’s experiences are different because everyone comes from their own background, culture, language, and even the direction in which they read a book — left to right, up and down, back to front. We’re not immigrants, but we have tried to settle here.
I’ve had to figure out the systems. I’ve had to look stupid time and time again in order to find out what I need to know. I’ve had to learn a new language. At times, I’ve faced prejudice and unequal treatment because I not only look young, but I also sometimes sound naive and ignorant when I speak German in a situation that’s beyond my skill level. But for the duration of time that we are here, we want to be living here intentionally, and that means settling in, making it home, and dealing with all the big and little things that that entails.
In Germany, it’s obvious I’m a foreigner. But I’m a foreigner very much by choice.
I started writing this post a few days after Michael started his German class, way back in October — seven months ago, actually. And life got too busy for blogging. But that insistent question, “Why are you here?” really got me thinking. Here we were, in class every day surrounded by people who for the most part came to Germany out of necessity, whether in search of better job opportunities or just a safe place to live without their life being threatened. And we came to Germany for fun.
It was humbling. I actually felt embarrassed to tell these people the thing that I had so proudly told others, that we came to Germany for an adventure. Yet as I got to know Michael’s fellow students, I think that self-conscious feeling faded unnoticed. But the impact of the realization remained.
I’m so very thankful that we are privileged with choice. We have always been free to choose to remain or to go back. And I now have a much higher respect for immigrants and refugees who don’t have such a freedom of choice. Settling here has had plenty of challenges, and they have challenged my joy, my resolve, my peace, my confidence, and even my self-worth. But I always have the comfort in the back of my mind that if everything gets too bad, I can give up and move back to the place where, even if I have no idea what I’m doing, at least I can communicate with ease. I admire Michael’s fellow students, because I know the resolve and the strength of spirit that it takes to make a life, a home, and happiness in a new country.