Expat vs Language Part 1

Clara’s post on her Memorable Journey from Cameroon via Moscow brought memories of my own unforgettable journeys. I recall 3 particular travel experiences while I was an expat in Germany. They have these in common: they were unforgettable because they were stressful; they were stressful because of language gap; and they were valuable experiences because they have added to my confidence and courage as a traveler.

Frankfurt Airport


Welcome to Germany. I step into the Frankfurt Airport and feel like I stepped out of my body. The PA system, backed up by the chatters of passengers and airport people all around me, blare a barrage of unintelligible sounds. When I look around, there are signs everywhere, mostly words I couldn’t pronounce, let alone comprehend. It helps that some signs have familiar images of them, like the luggage image for where to claim them, and the man and woman sign for where the restroom is. What a relief, in many ways, because I found out later on that a CR is commonly labeled as WC in Europe.

I continue to walk through the airport, finding reassurance from the English sub-titles of the important navigational signs. I begin to appreciate how major hubs like the Frankfurt Airport make sure that there are English sub-titles to assist the international passengers in navigating this large, busy and complex infrastructure. I imagine the time when it wasn’t so, and how stressful that might have been especially for passengers trying to catch their connecting flights. I wouldn’t know. This is, after all, my first international trip. My only point of reference is the previous stopover at Schipol. And what about the non-English-speaking travelers? It must be so terrifying for them not to understand anything at all.

I shamefully find relief from that thought.
Schadenfreude, I later learned.

I begin to suspect if I have dyslexia or it’s just the natural effect of the long, compound words common in the German language coupled with the abundance of umlauts and new letters in the alphabet which I only used in my text messages in my Nokia phone to indicate smileys (happily referring to the letter “ü”). Anschlussflüge is just a mild example of what I just described. The sub-title reassured me, “relax, it only means connecting flights”. There, I found it! In the same group of signs, I find “Exit”, which explains the German word above it, Ausgang, and graciously points me to my escape.

Whew! At least I know how to escape this very strange place. But I also know stepping out of the airport and into the city will finally take me to the real world that is to be my new expat life. I know the airport is friendlier because it expects foreigners. But what about the city? Are they as generous with English sub-titles as their neat airport? For a moment there, with that thought in mind, I stare at the gates and feel paralyzed. I never had panic attacks, but that must be the closest. In retrospect, I realize that was the moment of my first culture shock.

Before my trip to Germany even started, I had been warned about the concept of culture shock. It is said to be “a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment” (dictionary.com). Our company have orientation kits and trainings, even a personality quiz that compares my result to the culture profile of the destination country. For example, I learned that I am 75% similar to the German’s direct and frank communication style and 25% similar to their punctuality. (Or something to this effect.) I was expecting that all these preparations, plus the few months that I worked closely with my German counterparts, will somehow lessen the blow of the shock. But I learned then that nothing comes close to real-life experience.

You can read a lot of guide books 
what you can learn in a moment when you travel.

Finally, I feel my legs again. I start to walk. I step out of the airport and into this new world. I look at the 3 other girls who just went through that same experience with me. I feel grateful that I am going through this journey with a few other colleagues who also became my friends. I won’t be alone, after all.  We flag down a taxi, impressed that it is a brand new Mercedes Benz. I look around the pristine city, breathe in the clean air. It feels very different. I hand over the little note I have in my hand to the taxi driver, as we were taught. I’m glad I remembered this, for I couldn’t confidently pronounce this mouthful of word that marks my new home, Niebelungenallee.

Once again, I feel a little panic inside. What if I get lost? How can I ask for directions when I couldn’t even remember how to spell my address. I must keep that little note in my purse. Such is the time before iPhones and the accessible GPS and Google. Throughout the ride, I mentally practiced what I am about to tell the driver at the end of this journey. Danke schön. Quittung, bitte. I need the receipt so the company reimburses my travel expenses. I stand by the gate of my new home, looking at the taxi now driving away. The quittung in my hand.

That was my certificate of achievement for my very first 
successful German conversation. I can do this, after all.

Thinking back on this travel experience makes me realize how lucky I am to experience my first culture shock in the Frankfurt Airport. While it is ranked 11th busiest airport, by passenger traffic, 3rd in Europe, it is also the cleanest and most organized airports I’ve ever seen.

I decided to split the 3 stories into 3 parts as I found the first one to be more extensive than I originally planned. Do head over to Clara’s blog, The Expat Partners’ Survival Guide, for more of her memorable journeys. She also invites bloggers to share their own travel memories.


8 thoughts on “Expat vs Language Part 1

    1. Right?? My work in Germany requires me to read and use reaaaally long technical terms. So I know Deutsch aber totally useless in day to day conversations, like zentraleerfassungabrechnungsdaten.😄 i love the language though, it’s more consistent than English.😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not so many 🙂 My native is Russian, I learnt Ukrainian as a kid, I speak English fluently and German with mistakes (especially those articles and endings – killing me). I tried to study Chinese, but ended up with a couple of words and phrases. Now, in Czech Republic, I can understand quite a lot, mostly due to the fast that there’re similarities between Czech and Ukrainian, but I still have to improve my active vocabulary to be able to speak.

        Liked by 1 person


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