Why I Like CBYX

About nine months ago, twenty-five just-graduates from all over the United States all flew to Washington. D.C to kick off their year abroad in Germany. The only noticeable thing they had in common was that they were all Americans and they were all interested for some reason or another in spending a year in Germany rather than going to college or whatever else they might do just after graduating from high school.

When I arrived in Washington that day, I was a bit of a mess. I wasn’t in the least afraid to start this big adventure. What I was scared of (and I still don’t know why) was meeting all of the other CBYXers. For some reason I pre-supposed that all of them would somehow be your typical confused American excited to do a year abroad in EUROPE and otherwise fairly clueless about the world. Therefore, when I arrived, I couldn’t think particularly straight, wasn’t really acting like myself, and wasn’t doing much to get to know everyone. I felt like it would be useless, anyway. It’s not like we’d be living near each other once we got to Germany. These people would never become GOOD friends of mine, they would just be people I knew who would eventually fade out of my life like so many other people I have met for short periods of time.

Fast forward to January, Berlin Seminar. Suddenly, these strangers who I had looked at skeptically and in a way almost condescendingly were friends. The ones I’d never even talked to were friends. Suddenly it became clear that I have a lot of common interests with almost everyone in the group. Of course the starting point for a lot of conversations at the beginning of the week was experiences we had had over the course of the first six months, but the number of actual interesting conversations I had was more than I have probably ever had with people my age in such a short period of time.

And what does that have to do with CBYX in particular? CBYX takes a group of people who don’t necessarily have a lot in common and thrusts them into a foreign (literally) situation. Suddenly, everyone has common interests. Common problems. Common ideas. Common goals. At the orientation in Washington last June, Hecko and Katelyn (former participants who ran a lot of the orientation) told us that the twenty five of us were a family, we just didn’t know it yet. I Immediately thought back to marching band, where I had also been told I was part of a family. The marching band family never really felt like a family to me, more like a giant group of friends. I came to the conclusion that I was once again being forced into a “family” and dismissed the comment as yet another piece of B.S being fed to the young American population.

But they were right this time. Of course, my fellow CBYXers have not LITERALLY become a part of my family. But this year is something the now-twenty-three of us share that no one else at home can be a part of. Although we’ve all had different experiences when it comes to the specifics, all of us have been living on our own for nine months without seeing our real families. While not all of us have dealt with the same problems, it is pretty much a guarantee that if you have a problem, someone else in the group will have dealt with a similar issue. And if you have some sort of success story, funny story, anything, someone in the group is going to be able to relate. It’s become a group of people that I feel really close to even though relatively speaking, I don’t know them nearly as well as my friends at home.

The fact that the vocational part of this program only has twenty five people is another advantage, if you ask me. That means that instead of trying to get to know 250 or however many people there are in the normal program, you get twenty five people and then get to know them fairly well. Having a family of twenty five is a lot easier than a family of 200.

So thanks, CBYX. I’ve been impressed with the setup, and don’t think it could be changed to be much better.

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Germany is not France

I think it was about a year into the two years I was in France that it occurred to me that despite my admiration for the French and ability to appreciate their food, I would never be truly French. Why? Because I’m an American. The French (like Americans) convinced that their way of living is correct. There are specific rules that one must adhere to because that’s just the way it is. There are a lot cultural things that are so deeply integrated into every French person that they are taken as truths rather than as opinions the entire country happens to share. Not fitting into these cultural norms is cause for a certain amount of finger wagging from the french and a feeling of guiltiness for not knowing that too much ice in your water is bad for your digestion. For an American such as myself, that can lead to a feeling of constant self-consciousness and worry that I’m not doing something right (I suspect my time in France has something to do with my perfectionism).

And now I’m in Germany. About a month ago I realized that the reason that I am not German (and never will be) is exactly the opposite from the reason I am not French. Rather than adhering to rule after rule, my impression here has been that children are encouraged to cultivate their own identity and to make decisions for themselves from a much younger age than either in the United States or in France. Rather than, like the French, TELLING children in school that they WILL do this or WILL NOT do that, the Germans ASK their children what they want to do and encourage them to try different things. The idea behind this whole method, as far as I can tell is to let kids make mistakes and see what and what doesn’t work for themselves (as opposed to the French who are told what works and what doesn’t). Thus the internships integrated into the school system, thus the option to go to school through eighth, tenth, or twelfth grade, thus the large number of young Germans who go abroad for a year even during high school. It’s not about the way ONE does things, but about the way each INDIVIDUAL chooses to live his or her life.

I think growing up like that would have been difficult for me. I think a mix between the two extremes of French and German (more or less what I think I got) is best-try out a bit, but get input about what has and has not worked in the past. That said, having the opportunity to live in Germany this year has been a good chance to let myself try out things I never have tried out before and to allow myself to say “This is what I think” rather than “This is what I’ve been told, and as I agree with the general principal, I’m going to go with it”. I’ve been able to develop myself as an individual but still have the background that I had from growing up in the family I grew up in.

Talking about all of this in such general terms feels a little weird for me because it makes me feel like I’m overgeneralizing. I know in the back of my head that a lot of the impressions I have about the United States and France and Germany are based on where exactly I was/am located and the people I am with. But on the other hand, there are certain things that are indeed cultural, and while with all cultural things there are exceptions, the feeling that one should keep to the rule is there no matter what.

I’m back and still on my own

I’ve been gone from the interwebs for a fairly long time again. I hope you’ll forgive me. I think my inspiration to write may be coming back again, though. I was, to be completely honest, in a bit of a funk for a while. According to my program it’s called the “Winter Blues” and is characterized by feelings of wanting to go home, noticing the really annoying parts about Germany, and general homesickness. Similar to most people’s attitude towards death, I thought I would be immune to such a horrible illness, but it appears that I, too, was affected. Luckily the sun is coming out again (literally and figuratively) and with it my desire to write.

My history teacher my senior year of high school (who happens to double as my mother, but that’s another story) once said that when she looks at my generation she is surprised to see how little trust most all of us have in anything, more specifically how most of us don’t really BELIEVE in anything like the children of the sixties did. Civil rights, women’s rights, those are old topics for us. It’s be nice to save the rainforest. It’d be nice to work on WORLD PEACE, but in my mind at least, those problems are too broad on a planet with seven billion people. For me, it’s not so much a lack of belief in the problems as a lack of belief in my ability to do anything about them. That sounds really pessimistic, but it’s not, really. I’d rather work in (for example) a place with a bunch of disabled people where I can make their individual lives better, even for a short time, than go to some sort of protest fighting for rights for the disabled.

I know that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the fact that I’m in Germany, but since I’ve been here I’ve been exposed to people who are not among the unbelieving. I think I’ve already written about how there’s a really big fear of neo-nazis around here. What I didn’t know about when I wrote that post was how organized the anti-nazi stuff is. Antifa stands for Antifasistische (Aktion) and is essentially dedicated to working against neo-Nazi everything. Along with everything Antifa comes music, friends, t-shirts (you have to buy them), bumper stickers to put over right-wing extremist stickers, etc etc etc. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen young people so passionate about a cause. And it’s not one that I would expect, either, at least from people in the United States. It’s probably just a culture I’ve missed out on my entire suburban life, but after having been to a concert or two and having seen what the whole thing is, I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around just HOW passionate it’s possible to be about any sort of cause. On the one hand there’s anger about the people on the other side. On the other there’s optimism that things can change. But I think what the biggest thing is (looking at the whole thing from a completely objective point of view) is feeling like you are a part of something. Feeling like there are other people with the same ideas. And feeling like TOGETHER you can change something. When you watch a whole group of people singing/yelling Antifa songs/phrases (I’m not 100% sure exactly what), it’s difficult not to see the appeal.

I think I’ll stick with my one-on-one changing the world, but in a way it’s sort of comforting to know there are still people out there who are working in groups for the betterment of this over-inhabited planet.

The Importance of Lying

I’m pretty sure not lying is one of the Ten Commandments. And I know that God’s knowledge and power and all that is indisputable, that He’s all knowing, and that I should probably listen to the ten basic rules He sent us. However. I think that lying, to a certain extent, is necessary. It’s a coping mechanism.

“Be true to yourself and others”. Yes, OK. I understand. Don’t make stuff up just because you can. Don’t do something you regret and try to cover it up, because it will not work. Don’t tell people your best friend is Michael Jackson, because he’s, well…dead. And for goodness sake don’t tell yourself your marriage is fine when every evening ends in tears (not that I’ve been married before, but I’m fairly certain tears on a regular basis is not a sign of a healthy relationship). I’m talking about the little, insignificant things. More specifically the ones you can do nothing to change.

I’m a fairly optimistic person. Most of the things I write in this blog are positive. Reading it, one might be astounded to see that nothing bad or disappointing has happened to me in my six months here in Germany. That I haven’t made mistakes of any sort, that I know exactly what I’m doing every second of every day. In reality, that’s not completely true. I’m happy here. Most all the experiences I have had have been good. I feel in control of myself and like I know what I’m doing most of the time. But it’s not like I’m some sort of crazy super-hero, either.

I’ll take the most obvious example. Until last June, I was a fairly normal American kid-apart from the two years in France I had lived my whole life in suburbia, my grandparents lived there as well, as did my cousins, and my other cousins. I had a close family. I attended a good high school, and the community I lived in was a good community that valued education. I ate dinner a bit later than most American families because somehow getting dinner on the table by six never happened. The whole family had a gym membership. Really, the only thing missing from the average upper middle class american family was football on Sundays.
Then I came to Germany. Surprise! I no longer lived in an upper middle class American family! Dinner no longer was the biggest meal of the day. Sundays were spent relaxing at home rather than skiing or recovering from marching band competitions. Gym membership? No way. Skiing? Unfortunately, there are no mountains in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The family was nice (and still is). It’s just, well, not MY family.

My response? Not to dwell on the differences. Not to be depressed that my family here doesn’t work on a Sunday and my family at home does. Not to wonder where the hour long dinners with my dad’s sesame chicken (or burritos…) went. But to lie. To notice, but embrace the differences. To say to myself “Oh! I LOVE the fact that I FINALLY have time to relax!”. To enjoy the bread and meat we eat for dinner most evenings. And the result? I’d say it’s pretty good. In fact, the differences don’t really bother me all that much. I’m not telling myself I love something when I hate it. I’m just exaggerating the good and ignoring the bad. Which is telling myself half the truth. And therefore, under many definitions, lying.
But lying successfully. Because look at me. I AM happy here. And by embracing rather than rejecting the differences between my natural and host families, I’ve been able to make some really good observations (such as the fact that I don’t rest enough in the US). When I feel unhappy here, the answer is not to call home and talk about it. The answer is to either take a nap until it’s better, to write it down until it goes away, or to listen to music specially selected for its healing effects on my mood.

When it comes to lying about things you can change, it’s different. I’ve chosen not to pretend to be happy with just meeting a few people at school (as I was a bit worried was going to be the case when I first arrived). I chose to make sure that I met other people in my class and in the school. I eventually decided I would rather spend my Tuesday evenings at home rather than in the choir I was singing in in the beginning of the year, so I am now spending my Tuesday evenings at home. It’s a matter of following your gut. And if you have a gut feeling, that means you have a choice.

Don’t lie too much. Just when you have to to get to the point that you don’t need to anymore. And only to yourself. Lying to other people is a lot more complicated, I’ve found, because they don’t know what’s going on inside your head and, quite frankly, it’s just really really difficult.