Culture shock: Returning to America after 26 years

photo by George A. Smith

When I first came to Southern California after living 26 years in Germany, I heard questions from tanned guys in shorts that went something like, “Dude how does it feel to leave a land of constant moisture for the land of perpetual sun?” “Well,” I’d say, “Park the tofu and the skateboard and I’ll share my wisdom, young one.” 

When I arrived in California right after Thanksgiving in 2013, I felt like I had landed in an exciting “new” foreign country.  But the USA overwhelmed me with choices.  There were so many detailed and confusing TV, internet and phone plans that I felt to figure them out I needed a teenage lawyer with a minor in accounting.   

Outdoors, differences are even greater.  California smells like heat and Germany smells like rain.  Germany offered green forests and lots of clouds.  Southern California gives me blue skies and golden hills.  Sure, a cynic might call the golden hills “dead brown vegetation scorched by constant sun.”  But when it comes to too much nature, I’ll take the wind storms and snow of Germany over California’s earthquakes, wild fires and mud slides.

As you might expect in a desert climate, Southern Californians battle with lines of ants trying to breach house defenses, rattlesnakes behind bushes and black widows waiting in ambush in the garage. But I prefer Cali’s crawlers over Germany’s fliers.  Germans rarely use screens, so mosquitos and house flies constantly buzzed into our off-post home for dinner, or just to bug us.  When it comes to larger wildlife, in Germany I often found deer, rabbits and wild pigs on the menu.  In Southern California, I’m on the menu.  I’d go for walks and imagine the mountain lions and coyotes whispering to each other, “I’m starving.  He’ll do.”

While there isn’t much a difference with German and American domestic pets, there is with some owners.  In the German town I lived in, there were two dogs on our street.  The only time you’d hear one of them bark was when Der Fluffy took his owner on a walk past Das Muffy’s house and the two exchanged challenges.  But in my home in California, it seems every neighbor has at least two dogs and they all enjoy sharing barks, yelps and bellows with each other from their fenced-in “golden hills” yard, while the owner is inside with the AC on high, watching TV. Occasionally, he’ll slide the glass, porch door open to discipline the dogs from his couch with a loud, over-the-shoulder, seven-second, “shuuuut-up!”    

While I’m not a fan of doggie orchestras I do relish the diversity of the people in Southern California.  Hispanic, Asian, African, Indian and traditional American cultures blend into one place, yielding an exciting mix of food and entertainment.  While both the United States and Germany have great food and drink choices, I feel American diversity gives its cuisine the edge.  Give me an American steak or an “In-N-Out” hamburger over the German version.  But I still haven’t found an American restaurant that can beat German schnitzel.  I stopped by a place called “Wienerschnitzel” that didn’t serve any schnitzel – just hot dogs on a stick and hot dogs on a bun.  What?  When it comes to drinks, I’ll take a German “Pils” over an American beer, and a German Riesling over a Chardonnay, but California wines beat German Dornfelders and other German reds.

When it comes to traffic, it’s a draw.  While I like driving as fast as I want on a German autobahn without tolls, the multi-hour traffic jams are not fond memories.  Traffic jams in my part of California are slow-downs, not two-hour complete stops.  I don’t enjoy the California law that allows motorcycles to pass between full lanes of cars, or the toll roads.  And while seven-lane highways help, I don’t like the “all lanes equal” concept where drivers pass you on the left or right. 

Other comparisons?  When I left Germany, I traded my overseas housing and post allowances and largely tax-free status for California’s taxes on just about everything except flossing. In Germany I’d shop and wonder if anyone worked there other than a cashier.  In the U.S. I walk in and two or three “associates” battle to be my new best friend.  There is another side to the courtesy thing.  When I first came to California I thought the people were more respectful than they were in Germany, because they called me “sir” a lot.  But, as I now know, “sir” is just code for “wow, I’ll bet you’re older than the golden hills.”

I do miss the English language movie theater I used to go to off-post in the Kaiserslautern, Germany, area.  German-run theaters follow the rules.  They wouldn’t let unescorted, underage kids in to see a movie, and when people act up, they remove them.  In contrast, I went to a theater in California where a 60-some-year-old man asked a family of seven to stop talking.  They did. Minutes later another man came in and talked with his son so loudly I couldn’t hear parts of the movie.  Sixty-year-old man asked him to quiet down but loud  talking guy started a shouting match.  As the older gentlemen left the theater to talk to the manager, I channeled Marvel Super Hero power from the movie and joined him in the lobby.  Obnoxious guy followed us out.  When I spoke up in the lobby against guy who likes to talk, not watch, he moved toward me, stopping an inch from my face. It was then I noticed that at 1:30 in the afternoon he smelled like a two-legged bottle of Jack Daniels.  “Sir, have you been drinking?” I asked.  The older man then spoke up, and told the manager,  “Look if you don’t do something, I’m calling the police.”  Obnoxious pickled guy then grabbed his son’s hand, and left.  The theater employee called in a possible DUI.  We both got movie passes for the next day.   

So how do I think Germany compares with California?  Well, for me, life is about experiencing the now, not missing the yesterday or dreaming of the tomorrow.  You should totally and completely throw yourself into enjoying wherever you are. Sure I miss Germany.  I wish I could take the parts of Germany I love and mix them into California.  Part of the reason I stayed 26 years and would have stayed longer is that I picked up the “ultimate souvenir,” my German wife, Brigitte, and my then 14-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son were both going to German schools.  While it has been challenging for the kids to leave life-long friends and learn in English, they’re doing fine.  We’re happy to be together in the exciting “foreign” land of California with its multitude of new adventures, whether it’s the beaches of San Diego, Sequoia National Park, the high desert of Death Valley or a city like San Francisco.   While I won’t give Californians the comic relief of seeing me on a skateboard, and the closest I’ve come to tofu is typing the word, I do wear shorts or a bathing suit at the beach.  Unveiling my legs repels seagulls.  But you still won’t catch me saying, “Dude.”