Recently savoring an ear of sweet corn, I recalled a long-ago conversation in Germany during which my host Hubert asked what my family ate in the summer. I detailed the delights of corn-on-the-cob, complete with chewing kernels from the cob and butter dripping down the chin, only to observe his awkward expression. Although in later years I ate corn on German pizza and in salad, Hubert on that day in 1977 explained that in Germany animals ate corn.
My students and I discovered many such cultural differences as we and our German counterparts lived in each other’s homes. For me, one joy of traveling was to observe how people elsewhere lived their daily lives; and, in the process, I came to appreciate my own culture all the more.
Other culinary differences were readily apparent. Every GHS exchange student can relate a story of some unbelievably inedible or delectable food served by a host family. With a foot planted in each culture, I have seen typical American foods similarly viewed.
One boy discovered Poptarts and took at least ten boxes home to Germany. The GHS home economics classes prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast for our guests, but the German kids just did not appreciate pumpkin pie, our iconic autumn dessert. Generically referring to all German breakfast cereals as “Cornflakes,” our visitors saw American supermarket aisles filled with cereal in every possible form, including Cabbage Patch Kids and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The most “American” food item I ever had to explain was served at a host family potluck. As cafeteria tables filled with brownies, sloppy joes, and deviled eggs, one German girl nervously confided that her family had brought Dirt Cake. My explanation allayed fears while I privately smiled at the student’s mistaken image of her host’s special dessert.
Our school-centered exchange offered other opportunities for comparing customs. The German students, who carried pencil cases filled with writing implements and a tiny sharpener, found our wall-mounted pencil sharpeners a novelty. Occasionally my German colleagues purchased them for their own classrooms, while I viewed the simple device through new eyes – often wishing that my students, several who regularly brought no writing tool to class, had their own pencil cases.
Students the world over share an interest in non-school days. This year’s summer vacation at our partner school in Springe began on July 23; school will resume on September 3. Contrast that relatively short break with the traditionally longer one many American kids enjoy.
German weather conditions cause school closings if public transportation is affected, while our calamity day system is based on school district ownership of buses. Several years ago when TV stations began running school information across the bottom of the screen, one boy described the scene in his host home on a foggy morning: Each time the list scrolled from Franklin Monroe directly to Greenville, everyone groaned and waited for “just one more cycle” before dressing for school.
My kids often described our county fair to their host families. Trying to detail Ohio 4-H was often difficult: belonging to clubs to learn about farm animals or sewing and then displaying projects in a carnival setting were not simple concepts to envision. One of my girls modeled her Pork Queen crown and sash, but it was difficult for our hosts to grasp the idea of pig royalty.
One staple of county fair entertainment is the Friday-night demolition derby. I attended several years ago when my brother-in-law participated. As I watched the drivers relentlessly back into each other until just one car was still running, I wondered if I could explain such an event to Ingrid and Hubert.
More seriously, the Germans were once invited as guests at a Board of Education meeting. When everyone else stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, the teacher motioned her charges to also rise. They watched us remove hats, face the flag, place hands over hearts, and recite the national oath in unison. I was not surprised by the looks on the faces of children from a country whose rampant nationalism had so seriously affected world order a mere half century earlier.
I checked with Ingrid about my observations; in recent years, some customs from both countries have become homogenized. I can buy Nutella chocolate spread here in Urbana, and Europeans have many opportunities to dine at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Ingrid had vaguely heard of a demolition derby somewhere in Germany; and, of course, the NFL plays a few games overseas. She also explained that in recent years her fellow countrymen have begun displaying the German flag more often to express the same national pride we feel for Old Glory.
I guess I am a little sad that life on Planet Earth is becoming more standardized as the world keeps shrinking in a virtual kind of way. I find it interesting that the folks from the land of Oktoberfest have not developed a taste for root beer. I have no satisfactory explanation for the existence of the American spork. I still cannot explain why heavily-padded football players huddle up after each play while soccer players, protected only by shin guards, run with abandon up and down the field.
Yes, I have discovered many new concepts and points-of-view throughout my travels. But I remain an American who loves and understands most of what can be truly experienced only in America.