Why I Make a Terrible Expat, but a Decent Zuwanderer

“Schönes Wochenende!” I said to my friend as we parted ways.

“Huh?” they replied

“Schöoooneeees Woch-en-ende!” I said more slowly.

“What does that mean?”

I tried to hide my puzzled face that was a dead giveaway to my thoughts, how long have you lived in Germany, again? How do you not know this?

“Oh, um… it means have a good weekend, directly translated to “beautiful weekend” in German. It’s a common goodbye phrase to say over the weekend.”

“Right, ok, well have a good weekend,” they said and we parted ways.

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I remember the first time I heard that phrase, my heart was thumping a million miles per hour as the line in the super market got longer and longer behind me. Germans were staring at the back of my head. I could feel their judgment boring through me like drills. I was sure they were all thinking, this silly American was holding up their weekend shopping. I dared not make eye contact. They watched me fumble with my produce, like an animal at the zoo.

Wait, I’m supposed to bag my own groceries, in a bag I don’t have? There is no way I can bag this all myself. I should have got half the food. Why don’t I have a bag?

I cut back behind the line to where the bags for purchase hung then fought my way back. I threw the bag on the belt adding it to my items to purchase. I heard mumbling behind me.

What is the cashier saying to me? Omg she probably thinks I am really dim. Close your mouth, Susanna, and stop just staring at her. Just nod or say no, just DO something. Pretend like you know what you’re doing.

“Nein.”

Shit, wrong answer, they want a signature. I can’t say no to that, stupid. Shit- they want it on the back of the receipt. How the hell would I know that? Fuck, another question?

“Nein”

Yes, right answer! Woo!

I’m pretty sure I was dropping produce all over and still trying to bag my items when I heard “Schönes Wochenende!” on my way out the door. That was the first pleasant sounding phrase anyone said to me since I arrived in Germany. I wondered what it meant. I went home and looked it up. It became ammo in my slow to increasing German phrase book.

After that experience, it would have been easy to bury my head in the sand. Find a group of Americans to whinge about German culture with, to speak English with and to avoid all the hardships of being an “expat” with. I’m not hating on the people that do this. I get it, life in a foreign country is HARD and no matter what, you always need a little bit of home with you, but this concept of burying my head in the sand wasn’t for me. You can only avoid this for so long, so why not immigrate and integrate, became a Zuwanderer.

Haidhausen-Wienerplatz-Bavarian-May-pole-church-Munich-Germany

Wienerplatz, Munich, Germany. Traditional May Pole.

Zuwanderer directly translates to an immigrant without German parents, living in Germany. Another word that is more common to use is Aüslander. Aüslander can carry a negative connotation for some and while I stood in the Aüslander line when I applied for my visa, I identify with the word Zuwanderer. Perhaps it is because I myself am a bit of a wanderer.

To start: There is a lot of debate back and forth regarding the difference between an expat and a Zuwanderer. Some divide it between money, jobs classification, the length of stay or if they came by choice or not. I, however, generally group those that are defined as expats into two categories, how small minded of me, I know; Those that are here temporarily (6 mo-1 year) to party or act as endless tourists and those that move indefinitely, but never acclimate to the culture and live in an expat bubble. So, for this post, those are the definitions I go by, to define myself as a terrible expat. If you do not fit into my two categories I would consider you as well a zuwanderer.

Siegestor Gate Munich Bavaria Germany

Siegestor gate in Munich, Germany

Munich is a notoriously difficult place to integrate. The locals are known to be a bit closed off. If you don’t do it their way, you can take the highway. This has understandably created an expat bubble in both categories. I watched groups of expats I know get together and just party every weekend. They would get drunk, rampage like tourists, disrespecting laws, being loud, and invasive. They would complain about needing German language skills to work, that college wasn’t as free as it seemed, there was lots of red tape, the super market, the banking system, the constant judgment from locals, receiving mail in German, finding a place to live… the list goes on. They get trapped in their comfort zone, refusing to learn simple phrases and embrace the negative along with the positives of living in a foreign country. I’ve seen countless people come, call life in Munich too hard after refusing to put in the effort, and leave.

Altstadt-Old-city-Munich-Bavaria-Germany-st-peters-church

Bird’s eye view of the old city in Munich from St. Peters Church.

I would meet expats whom would latch on to me, knowing we weren’t compatible enough to be friends, but they were so terrified to go outside on their own, they needed me. They needed someone. They thought they could bring me into their expat bubble with them and we would cling to each other while the world went on around us. All while I was thinking. We have nothing in common, we would never be friends back home, why should we now? Grade A bitch, I know.

Sure, I gripe about some of the above, I mean really, who needs 15 letters a day from their bank, no one, that’s who. And I’ll be the first to admit the first 3 months were hard, really hard. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it and the worst part was not having a support system in Munich. That alone is enough to push anyone into an expat bubble. Having a sense of community and home is important, but, I moved here for a reason and that reason was to experience a different life. I had always wanted to live in Europe, and I was doing it. I didn’t want to live the same life I lived in the U.S., just in another country. So, I picked myself up and tried.

munich-opera-german-don-giovanni

Attending the Italian Opera, “Don Giovanni” with German Subtitles the first month I arrived at the Munich Opera House.

Determined to not be “that girl at the supermarket” I enrolled in intensive German classes. Monday through Friday for five hours a day. For three months I went to German. I wanted to pull my hair out. I wanted to scrape the ridges of my brain off, but I did it. I made friends with people from all over the world. I strived to make genuine connections and develop friendships with a variety of people. However, there were still periods where I felt very lonely and isolated.

Gay-Pride-Munich-Germany-June

Getting involved in local events by supporting the local LBGTQI community of Munich at Pride parade.

I had several people tell me to go to expat meet ups and social events, life would be much easier if I did. My inner introvert shuddered at the thought of going to a place filled with people desperate for friends, desperate enough to put on a mask just to share company with someone who spoke their own language and shared their own culture. This sounded like a terrible group date combining everything I hate about dating and making friends into one awkward sushi burrito. I can find friends with common interests on my own and if I can’t, well then, I am happy doing things on my own!

Snowboarding and Skiing Garmisch German Alps

Embracing the winter season! Snowboarding at Garmisch in a snow storm.

To this day, I’ve never been to an expat meet up or event. I’m not stating if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s a thing. Maybe I should have gone and pushed myself from my introverted bubble, but I made friends regardless. I do activities regardless. So, I am not sure I missed out on much. And you know what? Maybe the German culture is set up for independent introverts like myself and perhaps I would be pushed into the bubble if I was less confident doing things on my own, but that’s a reflection for a different day.

Hiking Tegernsee in autumn Bavaria Germany

Adventuring out on my own and hiking at Tegernsee, Germany.

I still find ways to celebrate my heritage though, as most people do. I don’t deny the importance of this. My partner and I still cook a Thanksgiving dinner with friends and carve pumpkins on Halloween. I celebrate Australia day, with my Australian partner, and we dress up in red, white and blue light up flags on the 4th of July and head down to the river and make a fool of ourselves. When I go out in public I am still the loudest and most colorful person around. I speak English with my English speaking friends, but I also speak German with them. I have friends who don’t speak any English and we struggle through German together. I signed up to volunteer to help traumatized refugees in a program all in German. I watch TV in German and listen to German radio. I go out and explore the culture and surrounding nature on my own. I cut through the red tape with a binder full of official documents and a laugh hidden inside. I think being a Zuwanderer in a foreign country, is about finding that right balance or honoring and preserving your heritage and traditions of home, but getting out of the bubble and embracing your new life to make the best of it.

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Celebrating Australia Day with my Partner in Munich, Germany.

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Overall, I would say I am settling into life in Munich quite well; that I’m a decent Zuwanderer. Slowly over time, my super market trips became easier and while I still get judgmental stares, I can at least hold my own in Munich and most of all I LOVE it here and feel at home, annoying quirks and all.

Day trip from Munich to Zugspitze Germany's tallest mountain

I feel right at home nestled among the German Alps!

I would like to acknowledge that I came here by choice and I am aware I come from a place of privilege to easily make the best of life here. I know Germany, in particular, has had a huge influx of peoples who have not come by as free of choice as I have and I respect them and their determination at integrating into life here in Germany, they are doing wonderfully. This post was intended to shed light on what I consider the toxic expat bubble create by others who also come from a place of privilege and move to Germany on their own accord. This post it not meant to pass judgement on lifestyles that vary from my own, but simply to reflect on my own experiences.

Find out why I make a terrible expat, but decent Zuwanderer in my first reflections on being an expat in Munich, Germany.

15 thoughts on “Why I Make a Terrible Expat, but a Decent Zuwanderer

  1. Abby

    Wow! I’ve never seen the Siegestor gate in Munich before. Well, actually the only part of Munich I’ve seen is the inside of the airport for 7 hours. But doesn’t the Siegestor look so much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris? With that, I’m off to some google research.

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  2. Alaine

    I grew up as an expat kid in the expat bubble because of my international schools. The only local friends I had were from my dance and figure skating lessons. It is a bubble. I think growing up as a child it is ok. As an expat adult, most of my friends are from everywhere, world Travelers, and/or expats. I don’t have many local friends who have never lived or traveled outside their country. Because I don’t get along with them. They don’t “get” me and write me off usually. Sigh. Yes, it’s easy to be stuck in an expat bubble but living in a place alone without friends is not fun. It’s lonely, frustrating, and I spent Long hours at the gym or Netflix. Traveling solo is different, that is a positive experience.

    Reply
    1. Wandering Chocobo Post author

      Great comment Alaine, thank you! I understand that sometimes it is impossible to pop that expat bubble there are certain cultures it is hard to break in and immerse yourself into. I’ve heard Japan is almost impossible to really immigrate and unless you’re Japanese you’ll always be an outsider. My partner grew up in Singapore and we’ve thought of moving back there as educated adults and he always said that he didn’t know if he could because moving back would be moving back into the expat bubble, but he would know what life was like on the other side. Anyways, great point about the local friends having never traveled. I don’t think I could be friends with people who haven’t traveled either. I think for this post it’s not just about making friends with locals, it’s also adapting some of the cultures. Learning local phrases, and celebrating some of their events, volunteering, etc. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  3. Christabel Lobo

    I started studying German over a year ago – not really sure why but I wanted to learn another language. Should have picked Spanish because German is sehr schwierig! I was born an expat in the Middle East, so I know trying to pop the expat bubble, but it’s so hard. Especially when you’re seeking comfort, but good for you for resisting the familiar.

    I studied abroad in France and made it a point to make friends with the local students – actually making an effort to speak French with the locals instead of reverting to English really did wonders for my language skills. Once I stopped caring about making mistakes when speaking, and being laughed at (hey, at least I’m giving it a shot) it became a lot easier for me to learn.

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  4. LC

    Definitely relate to many points you make here (and am forever in awe of people who choose to move to countries where they don’t speak the native language!). I’m not sure if it is possible to be a “good” expat to be fair – I know I felt like I was failing at it for most of the time I lived abroad. Yet, everyone’s experience of expat life is so uniquely their own and we all need to make what we will of it.

    Those German classes do sound very upsetting. I’m doing two hours of it a week and it hurts my head – thinking of five hours Monday-Friday makes me want to weep!

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  5. Chantell Collins

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings! I know that the struggles of living in another country can be difficult to describe and each experience will be different for each person. I have lived abroad in 4 countries (not including my one month in Germany – ha!) and have never written about being an “expat” because I find it so hard to express sufficiently in words. I definitely agree that it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of hanging out with the international crowd – it even happened to me in Vancouver, I had no Canadian friends except for my colleagues! Not by choice but it was just what evolved. I worked really hard in my last city to make some Spanish friends who I spoke Spanish with – and having housemates who don’t speak English helps a lot ha ha, Good on you for persevering and sharing your experiences!

    Reply
  6. Nicole Anderson | Camping for Women

    Part of my high school years was spent living in Japan with a Japanese family as part of a student exchange program. There I acquired fluent spoken and written Japanese as well as a deep cultural understanding. At the time I certainly wasn’t part of any expat bubble at all and I think that really helped me learn and gain these new skills much faster. While it been a long time since I returned from Japan, I still enjoy interacting with Japanese I meet in their language and they acknowledge the effort you have made to learn this. It’s great that you are really starting to find your feet in Germany and I wish you all the best in your life there.

    Reply
  7. Abigail Sinsona

    Reading about your expat life is so exciting! It is so difficult and challenging to move to a new city or country and start your life all over again. That alone is something that I give you a lot of props for. Germany is such a beautiful country so I probably won’t miss home as much if I moved here. LOL

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  8. Karin

    I never went to an expat event when we lived in Bogota; we once went to a language exchange night where there were supposed to be some foreigners but there were none, it was packed and it was a bit of a disaster. I met some foreigners in there but except for my colleagues, I didn´t make friends with them. Everybody seemed to be on a different quest than mine and it took me a while to make my own friends. Of course, it was made easier by having a family there but it was still weird. I applaud you for enrolling into an intensive language course – I learned French this way and I know it is HARD. But good for you because I am sure it gives you so much more insight into the local events and culture and opens your mind (and helps prevent dementia in higher age hahaha).

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  9. Mariella

    Hi Susanna – I loved to read this post! Experiences like this are the ones that truly define what can and cannot handle. It’s so true when you say you always need a little home with you. No matter what, a piece of home is always needed. On that note, I had no idea about how difficult is it to integrate in Munich but glad that everything worked out at the end 🙂 Safe travels. – Mariella

    Reply
  10. Anna Schlaht

    I haven’t lived in another country (yet, I’d like to someday) and I’m still learning a second language. This said, despite not knowing what it’s like to be a Zuwanderer, I’m so impressed by how you’ve handled integrating with Germany! It’s not easy, I bet, to walk in not knowing the language or the customs and decide to take classes and meet locals instead of clinging to other local expats. But you’ve made the hard choice, and the harder ones are always the sweetest (IMO). If I ever move abroad, I hope to make the same decisions you made. 🙂 But maybe I’ll start by just learning a language first. Cheers!

    Reply
  11. James

    I can relate to you about expat life, I lived in Mexico City for 3 years. I was often referred to as güero but never as gringo. Like you I learned the local language, tried the local food etc.. I would have preferred to have been an expat in Munich though. I understand about wanting to bury your head in the sand, I had many of those situations.

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  12. Mimi & Mitch

    Loved reading about your supermarket experience haha, we would’ve hated to be in the same situation! Love that you guys celebrated Oz day haha, we do the same 😛

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  13. Jean

    I love that you celebrated Australia Day in Munich! Well both countries drink a lot of beer Good on you for picking yourself up, learning German and embracing the wonders of a European winter

    Reply
  14. Archana Singh

    I can totally relate to your post. I stayed in the Philippines as an Expat and I tried my best to learn the local language. At times I would struggle to say the right words but it would always earn me new friends 🙂

    Reply

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