Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Ruin a Party

Whatever post-Soviet East Germans accuse West Germans of being--greedy, selfish, spoiled, inconsiderate, capitalistic, cold-hearted, cut-throat, superficial, insincere, manipulative--they assume was a result of decades of American influence.  "Es kommt alles rüber, alles rüber!"--"It all comes over (to us)!" they grumble, shaking their heads, whether the topic is reality TV, investment banking, foods full of evil "chemicals," or the celebration of Halloween and Valentine's Day.  No matter how many times I try to explain that investment banking was invented in Europe, that America's Halloween and Valentine's Day traditions come from Britain, that chemicals are in everything--it's also called matter, and that it's their own fault if they're dumb enough to watch reality TV, no one seems convinced.

There may well be some grain of truth to their accusations, and I am not an apologist, but there are certain things that press my buttons.  West Germans grumble about the same things, and also love to hate America, but their assumptions are usually more tempered by personal experience.  Or not.

Your country raised you
Your country fed you
And just like any other country
It will break you
On front line send you
Tax the hell out of you
And just like any other country
It will lock you up you!

What are all these countries
How did they appear?
Who cut up the cake?
Who brought up all this gear?
Did it have to do anything
With its people's will?
I don't know, I don't know
I don't know my dear...

--Gogol Bordello

July 24, 2011

I woke up this morning with my left eye glued shut, my upper eyelid stuck to the skin below with a paste of dried tears.  I did it again last night, the faux pas of trying to defend myself and my background and people who I know and love and respect.

We were at the birthday party of a Brazilian friend, a handsome quadrilingual charmer.  His apartment was packed with an international crowd: Italians, Brazilians, Argentinians, Germans.  And me.  I met a German guy for the first time, Christian, an artsy emo-type Wessie studying design in Leipzig.  He was friendly, funny, and well-traveled.  He told me he was in a long-distance relationship with an American girl from Missouri, and I was thrilled to find a mid-western connection, which triggered our switch from German to English.  He'd actually heard of my home town, and we compared past travels: "St. Louis?  Yeah, last year," "And Kansas City?  For real?!"  It was refreshing to speak English at a party (even my German friends who have great English rarely speak it with me), and nice to talk naturally, not some stilted ESL-English or British/Euro mash-up.  I finally seemed to have found someone who knew where I was coming from.

And then the moment came: He stepped on a landmine.

Of all of those points of difference, of all of those things I miss about my home country, it's the lack of plain old interpersonal politeness and decency towards others here that makes me want to pack up my bags and never come back.  Of considerate interaction with strangers in various circumstances: shopping, traveling, standing in line, walking down the street.  To an American (or many other nationals) visiting or living here, it sometimes seems like everyone is mentally ill.  You get snapped and shouted at for things you never dreamed of doing, courteous questions are repelled by a steely glare.  It's not uncommon to be greeted with, "What do you want?" or "You better not ask me about ...!" when you've walked into a shop.  You could say that it's my midwestern upbringing that makes me so sensitive, but I've visited New York City twice since moving here, and melted each time into a puddle of relieved euphoria at the New Yorkers' soothing politeness and friendliness.  Part of my job is teaching "small talk."  For all too many Germans (and, arguably, other northern-Europeans), making chit-chat is an unpleasant burden, a pointless task that they'd rather avoid.  First meetings between strangers are considered naturally awkward, and any attempt to make them less so (in the absence of alcohol, that is) are often dismissed as disingenuous.  Which, translated to international situations, can make them look like sociopaths.

"I miss that American friendliness," I confessed to Christian, thinking he'd know what I meant.  And in response, a line I'd heard a hundred times before: "Yeah, sure, an American will be your best friend for five minutes."

"Best friend for five minutes."  That's often the line that Germans use to sum up interactions with Americans.  Germans take relationships seriously, they carefully evaluate who they let into their hearts, and are fiercely loyal to the in-group, dismissive to the out-group.  For them, a classic culture shock situation is when they visit American friends in the US, go to a public place, and the Americans strike up a short conversation with other random Americans.  The Germans ask their friends, "How do you know those people?" and the American's answer is, "I don't."  And the Germans are astonished that it's possible to talk so long, so comfortably, with a complete stranger.

Having heard it before, I try to take a diplomatic stance, despite my shock at hearing it from him.  "It's a shame you say that," I tell Christian, "I really think that's a misunderstanding!"  I give an example from my last visit home.  I bought some clothes at Target, and while ringing up the items, Sheniqua The Cashier said, "Oh, that's such a pretty dress.  You know, my daughter loves clothes.  She always wants more and more and more.  But I ain't got that kinda money!"  Me: "Oh yeah, how old is she?"  Cashier: "She four, but she already knows what cash is!"  Me: "Oh, I know it's not easy!  Good luck with her.  Have a nice day."

"Yeah," Christian says sarcastically, "But that's totally fake.  You don't care about her."

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't!" I say.  "But we're talking, we're communicating.  We're two different people expressing ourselves and sharing something, and that conversation would never even happen here.  Is that so bad?"

"Oh, come on!" is his answer, "You don't give a fuck about Sheniqua."

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't," I repeat, "That's not your call.  That's up to me.  Is it really so hard to be nice to other people?  I hate when Germans say this 'best friends for five minutes' crap.  We just have a different way of interacting with people.  And it's not always strategic or self-interested or empty.  Maybe it is sometimes, but it doesn't have to be."  I feel the muscles knotting in my neck as the tension rises.  I'm so disappointed.  "And to be honest, really, I just hate hearing the same thing again and again and again.  It's upsetting.  It kind of makes me want to slap you."

"So slap me!" he said, with aggressive flippancy.

I thought for only a split second, of my cramped muscles, of my misunderstood sentiments.

"Ok."  *smack*

I hit him with my right hand, not too hard, but a nice classic slap, full finger-on-cheek impact with a satisfyingly plosive sound.  And suddenly, he looks utterly shocked, his hand to his cheek, his voice a half-octave higher than before.

"You slapped me!  Why did you slap me?!?"

"Because you told me to!" is my equally indignant answer.  "You sit here and tell me how superficial we Americans are, that we never mean what we say.  But I mean what I say.  I slapped you to prove that I'm not as full of shit as you say we are.  You say we don't mean what we say, but when I say I want to slap you, I want to slap you!  I really do!"

Within an instant, I'm crying, still sitting on a wooden chair at Rodrigo's kitchen table, Christian on the chair right in front of me, the other party guests milling around us, raising curious eyebrows at the confusion in the corner of the room.  And I'm crying to prove a point, more than anything else, to defy that "superficial" label.  And Christian's crying now, too, on the verge of hysteria.

"Why are you crying?!  I like you!  You're wonderful!  I didn't want to hurt you!  My own girlfriend is an American!"

"I liked you, too," I say tearfully, "I'm crying because I've heard this all before, and sooner or later it's just too much.  I can deal with it 99 times, but the 100th time I snap.  Because when you're alone and far from home and constantly have to hear this stuff, are constantly misunderstood, it hurts.  And at some point it's just too much."

My watchful and long-suffering German boyfriend, witness to many such outbursts, kisses the top of my head.  Our Brazilian host is holding my slapping hand, talking to me in German with his elastic accent and purring "r"s. "Hey, warum weinst du? Ich werde auch immer falsch verstanden! Glaubst du, ich mag das? Immer hören, Brasilianer können nur Party, Party, Party, Frauen sind alle Prostituierten. Glaubst du, ich mag das?"--"Why are you crying? I'm always misunderstood, too! You think I like it? Always hearing Brazilians can only party, party, party, all women are prostitutes.  You think I like it?"

"How can you say you're alone?" the slappee asks, continuing in German.  "Look, you have an adoring boyfriend who takes care of you.  You're not alone."

"I was alone when I first came here," I said, "I met him later.  I had to figure out everything for myself.  And I've had to fight for everything I have."  My voice cracks.  "I've had to fight.  You might think it's easy, but it's not.  You have to be tough to live abroad."

My boyfriend looks on, unperturbed.  He's used to my fits.  "It's true," he says calmly, "She's had to fight.  It's really not that easy."

 "But it's made you stronger!" Christian and Rodrigo chime in.

"Of course it's made me stronger," I say, "But sometimes it's just too much.  Too much to deal with, too much misunderstanding."

I go to the bathroom and let out a few girlish sobs, splash my face with cold water.  My eyes are blood red.  After a few minutes, I try to collect my dignity anyway, ready to go back out, to go on having a good time.  But when I emerge, everyone's disappeared.  I ruined the party.  Cleared the room.

Just three people are left in the kitchen: my boyfriend, our host, and another man, sitting at the table talking quietly with Rodrigo in Portuguese.  The mood is overcast.  "Ach ja," Rodrigo sighs, "Es ist wirklich nicht so einfach"--"It's really not that easy"--he says, without looking up.  He himself had managed to get Portuguese citizenship through his mother before moving to Germany, and is now living alone, waiting for his German girlfriend to finish an internship in London, planning their upcoming move to Sao Paulo.  I ask, and the other man tells me he's also from Portugal.

I nod resignedly. "At least you're EU citizens," I say softly.  "That makes it all a little easier."

"I know I'm too naive," I continue, "Too idealistic.  But I really work to help everyone in the world understand each other just a little bit better."  I turn my gaze to the three men.  "Look at us, we're all white.  Between Europe and the Americas, it shouldn't be so different.  But sometimes it is.  The poor Arabs, the Africans, the Persians--imagine what they go through.  Why do we always misunderstand each other?"

I feel bad about ruining the party.  Why can't I lighten up?  Why do I have to take everything so seriously?  Rodrigo's look is distant.  I don't know if he's irritated, tired, or just thinking.

We gather up our stuff, and at the door, Rodrigo hugs us goodbye.  "Listen, when it gets bad, call me," he says.  "We'll talk."

Outside, it was already morning, full of sunrise prettiness and chirping birds.  My boyfriend ushered me cheerfully into the tram, and I almost instantly fell asleep in his protective arm.  He shook me gently at the right stop, and we stumbled home and into bed.  I woke up this morning to overcast skies, fully clothed, with my eyelid stuck to my cheek.


  1. Arme Kelsey! Deutsche sind echt Idioten, ich bin auch ziemlich genervt von denen im Moment. Letztens bin ich durch einen Park Fahrrad gefahren und da haben Leute mitten auf dem - ok, zugegebenermaßen - Fußweg Boggia gespielt. Aber es war ein sehr breiter Fußweg. Ich habe geklingelt, keiner hat sich bewegt, dann bin ich langsam und vorsichtig zwischen ihnen durch gefahren, um ihr blödes Spiel nicht kaputtzumachen und natürlich meckert der Typ mich an, dass das nicht der Fahrradweg ist.

  2. Aber ihr habt schon eure Flucht geplannt. ;-)