Monday, November 17, 2014

Extrovert vs. Introvert expat experience

Lately I've been longing for all things back home.  It's going to be Christmas and I miss my family.  I miss my friends.  I miss America.  This feeling of homesickness has been so strong that a couple of times I found myself fighting tears while sitting in lectures.  It's weird.  Why now?  I'm well into my eighth year as an expat.  I'm not even sure I remember what living in America is like.  

Someone posted an article about introverts on Facebook and I realized my expat experience is different from other people's because I am an introvert.  I don't like parties, crowds or lots of noise and activity.  You'd find me happier doing solo activities like reading or running or walking my dog.  I really like people, don't get me wrong. I find them interesting and amazing but I have a finite amount of social energy.  If I don't know someone well then being around them is draining and a little anxiety inducing.  My family and people that I've known for years have the opposite affect.  Being with them is relaxing and fun.  I start to get stressed out and worn down if I'm always expending social energy and never recharging it.

My problem is that my social energy doesn't get a proper recharge in Germany.  Expats are always moving and we're always moving.  I haven't gotten the chance to build the kind of strong friendships I have back home.  There are a handful of people in Germany who I can say really got to know me but of course they moved or I moved so those people aren't in my life except via social media.  The longest I've ever been friends with anyone is four years but it's usually much less than that.

By the time I got to Berlin I'd probably cycled through at least six times of making all new friends for various reasons and I was socially exhausted.  I put myself through the motions but my heart wasn't in it anymore.  I didn't feel like telling people I buzzed my hair in high school (that ended up being a traumatic social experiment) or that I like dogs.  What was the point when we'd be moving in a couple years anyway?  I was tired of the the whole thing.  All of my social energy was being expended dealing with the neighbors, hanging out with my inlaws and taking on toddler tantrums.  I have nothing left over to put forth building the friendships that will give me energy instead of take it. 

An extroverted person would probably fare much better being an expat.  Extroverts thrives on being around people and are happy to constantly make new friends.  They like to be where the excitement is, a face in the crowd.  A lot of my expat friends are extroverts.  They're easy to talk to, easy to get along with and they have a social calender that makes me tired just thinking about it.  These kinds of people who are charismatic and sociable.  They form friendship groups and always go places together.  If you are an extrovert expat I envy you.  It sounds super fun.

Right now I'm craving stability.  I don't want temporary homes, temporary friends or temporary circumstances.  I am even starting to hate my IKEA furniture.  I look at it and think that at this point I'd like something permanent, something that I truly like and not it's just-for-now.  I want to be in a place where I can put down roots, finally take a deep breath and relax without thinking about how moving again is going to factor into my five year plan. 

I've been lucky to work in Germany and now to be able to go to school.  I'm grateful I've gotten the chance to carve out a life and not just be a trailing spouse.  There hasn't ever been a time when I wasn't able to pursue one goal or another.  But living in Germany at all costs has never been my dream.  I love this country but there are other things I want more than to live here.  I was professional success in my chosen field and I want to be a part of effecting social changes in the US.  It's something I've always felt strongly about and it's impossible to do while I live in Germany.  My identity is strongly wrapped up in the work I do and without that my life would feel diminished.

My theory professor was giving a lecture on Parsons yesterday and he talked about how individuals leave their parents and friends to go into the world and make their own lives.  The theory says that when we leave those people we retain the abstract values that they have given us.  This is very true for me.  I lost a lot of people but I kept the value, the truths that they taught me.  I can't stay in Germany and ignore my convictions.  If I'm ever going to effect any kind of social change I have to go back to my own country.  In addition I'm really really tired of the only constant in my life being change.


P.S. 16 year old me with no hair, I thought I was so hardcore with my inverted rosary (maybe now would be a good time to apologize to Catholics?)  Sorry for defacing your religious artifact to seem cool, guys.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The joke's on you

On Monday my theory professor cracked a couple jokes about Mormons.  Do you know any Mormons?  I've never really met any personally but there are a bunch of Mormon mommy bloggers out and they seem ok.  An entire auditorium of European students laughing at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City made me feel odd.  A quiet little voice in my head was asking, 'what exactly is happening here?' and 'why do they think this is so funny?'  I mean, is the Mormon temple any different from any other temple out there?  Should we start laughing at Mosques?  Maybe the Buddhist temple in Java is equally as humorous?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree I took a class on American religion.  I was just coming out of a fundamentalist Christian church and hated that class with a passion.  One of the things we studied was Mormonism.  Mainly because it's the only truly American religion that hasn't been imported from somewhere else.   The class required us to treat all religious beliefs with equal respect when discussing them.  This was a requirement.  If you said something disrespectful you had to leave.

The biggest difference between my university experience in Germany and in the US is that way in which the professors and students approach subject matter.  In Germany it seems that there is very little respect for anything except looking good in front of an audience.  Professors make jokes at the expense of marginalized groups, suicide, and Mormons, that just so far.  I've been going to classes for five weeks and I'm sure the count will continue to rise.  Germany is a fairly homogeneous society and these groups have zero representation in the student body.  They are easy targets and the jokes are cheap shots that do little more than increase the professor's popularity.   It also creates a hostile learning environment.   It's easy for them to impress most of the students because these student lack much real life experience.  The majority have never had a real job and seem to do little beside go to school and socialize. 

One of the things I always loved about Sociology was it's compassion.  It didn't make judgments.  It assumed people made the best decisions of those available to them.  Our professors had very little interest in their titles or ranking in society.  They cared about learning and teaching.  If they made jokes it was at their own expense.  These people inspired me.  It fit very well with what I experienced as a young adult.  There were some answers and some hope there. 

My husband always told me if I ever went to school in Germany I probably wouldn't like it.  He said it wasn't fun like school is in the US.  And you know what?  He is right.  Sitting through classes I can't help but this there is nothing I have in common with anyone there.  Our life experiences shape us and mine have been somewhat unique in comparison with most Germans.  That's why I felt the need to write three stories about things I saw in my early twenties.  That is the perspective I came from.  I don't know where it will take me, but it happened and I feel it is important.  I'm never going to be the kind of person that can fit into this society.  My values are not their values and vice versa.  All of that is perfectly ok, I just need to formulate a plan to bare two more years of Mormon jokes without losing my mind. 

Sometimes if you want to win you have to know what it's like to lose.   And while I'm at it, fuck your Mormon jokes and drug references.  I see right through you.


III: Where are you going, where have you been?

III: Suicide: RSA

This is my hardest story to write.  How could I write something this personal without it being so personal?  As you might be able to tell by reading these three stories, I was a little self destructive.  Self destructive people tend to seek out other self destructive people to keep them company.  That is how I became friend with RSA.  We both worked the night shift at a gas station that was just as dramatic but way, way less safe place to work than the nearby fast food restaurant.  I ended up quitting this 3rd shift position soon after a driver tried to corner me into his limo late one night.  Devious middle aged alcoholics who hang out at gas stations whenever a teenager is working the late shift are bad news.  My friend RSA was different.  

I'm not sure how to quantify being a good person.  RSA never did anything disrespectful towards women.  He helped people who needed help.  He worked multiple jobs.  He had pets that he loved and took care of.  If he had any kind of personal failing it was that he hated himself and expressed this in multiple ways from wracking up credit card debt to burning himself with lit cigarettes.  He was always letting young women crash at his place when they would end up kicked out.  But he never tried anything with anyone.  Of all the people I've known he the safest to everyone but himself and the most like me in every way.  Sometimes this is frightening because he's not alive anymore and I am.   He destroyed himself, he's gone forever.

If I had to quantify being a good person I would run into a problem.  The two kindest people I have ever known, the least judgmental, the most giving, the most loving, benefit of the doubt giving are also the ones who want nothing more than to take themselves out of this world.  I can understand why they would feel this way, I really do, because the deck has been stacked against them and feeling all the feelings are probably too much over the years.  I understand but it's so grossly unfair.  Why you?

Drugs are not cool.  Drugs are not good.  People who don't know should know.  I see what drugs do ten, fifteen, twenty years on and I don't see them the same way I did when I was yonger.   It's slow suicide that carves away chunks of what once was.  It takes your children, your significant other, it gives you MRSA, prostitutes you, robs you in the night, infects your blood, sends you to prison.  This kind of death can take thirty years to die and everyone who loves you will witness the whole thing from beginning to finish.  The worst are the cycles of clean and relapsed.  A person can be ok for years and then all of sudden all that time and effort and the life they rebuilt is nothing.  It's gone and you are back on the street, all the hope that this time it was really going to stick is gone.

When I was 19 I met a woman who was almost six feet tall.  She was gorgeous and crazy, twitchy and unpredictable.  Everything about her seemed to be a glamorous novelty, even the name she went by Storm.  She was pregnant.  She was addicted to crack.  She had a sugar daddy.  She was a prostitute.  Those things don't mean the same thing to me fifteen years on.  Storm is somebody most people never meet, never see.  She's a person who should matter to everyone but doesn't.  When she touches the rest of society they condemn her then return her to her vices.

RSA was like a drug addict with his depression and self destruction.  He had two beautiful little kids.  I thought he was going to make it but he killed himself instead.  He wasn't the first one of my friends to do this and I realize he won't be the last.  Some of the people I love are out right now destroying themselves, hurrying along their deaths and that is another fact of life that has to be respected and can not be changed.  Suicide is the ultimate act of self determination.  There is so much people do not get to chose in life they take one final decision instead.

Sometimes I don't want to know the things I know.  There is a lot of despair there and it's very short on reason 'why'.  Then sometimes I think that if I had not loved these people and been their friend, if I didn't carry them with me through their lives and after their deaths what would I be?  They gave me a knowing that for better or worse can never be undone.  It reminds that none of us will ever be truly safe, nothing can be taken for granted.  Everything matters. 


II: Where are you going, where have you been?

II: Poverty: Shugg

image thanks to Google
This is a Chicago police camera.  They were used to discourage drug dealing, gang activity and violent crime.  Driving around the far West side at night about ten years ago you would see these atop light poles and stationed at popular intersections on every block.  Maybe they are still there?  I don't know. The police cameras had obnoxious flashing blue lights on top that always made me feel like I was driving through a science fiction movie.  Of course, I wasn't driving through a movie, I was trying to help my friend locate her stolen car.  The car had most likely been 'borrowed' for some kind of errand and would show up somewhere in the next couple of days.  We were hoping to speed up the process of finding it.  

Ten years ago there were two bad directions in Chicago and the West was one of them.  (The other is the infamous South side if you are curious.)  Driving down N Austin Boulvard between Oak Park and the Chicago city limit you would clearly be able to discern which area had the high murder rate, drug problem, and gangs.  The West side is an urban desert.  There are lots of single family houses, convenience stores, places advertising checking services, pawn shops, and all the other businesses that only pop up in financially destitute neighborhoods.  What is starkly lacking are supermarkets, public transportation, department stores, Starbucks, Blockbuster Video and all the other businesses that populated every other city block in safer areas. 

The first time I went to the West side people yelled reverse racial slurs from their porches while we drove down the narrow streets.  Dogs roamed free and the streets had never been plowed.  Strange men pulled up and motioned for us to roll down the window so they could ask us if we were single or wanted to buy drugs.  There were people sitting on porches in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, always in huge puffy black coats that looked like garbage bags full of down feathers.  It was different.  I got used to it.  I learned that if I looked straight ahead and stopped gapping like a tourist people would mostly leave me alone.  They all thought we were there to buy drugs anyway.  The only other white people I ever saw there were drug addicts and two police detectives shaking down an illegal tattoo parlor in the hopes they could flush out a bigger fish worth arresting. 

Now I know that driving around a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night looking for a stolen car is not a good idea but at 21 it didn't seem so bad.  By that time I had been around a few times and had a false sense of security.  Maybe the theme of 'Where are you going, where have you been?' should be the interesting things I learned while trying to help people?  Anyway.

The only place you could find street parking on the West side were in front of the houses that were dealing drugs.  Most people are not fond of standing outside all night in the freezing cold if they can avoid it.  With this system buyers would pull up to the house, the dealer would come and sell.  Easy and much less chance of attracting unwanted attention.  If anyone tried to park in front of a drug house the inhabitants would come and ask you to move your car, with a gun.  Of course it seemed that in order to check the alleys and little parking lots I was going to have to park somewhere and would end up idling my car in front of a drug house while a dealer tapped on the window and I stared straight ahead pretending I didn't see them.  (No one should ever, ever do this.)  The end of our fruitless search brought us to a dealer's house my friend knew who was called Shugg.

Shugg was originally introduced to me as a 'one armed gangster called Shugg'.  I can not believe how embarrassingly we used to talk in those days but Shugg was a career criminal who lost an arm robbing trains.  He moved to the equally as dangerous criminal path of drug dealing out of his mother's house.  At the time I was just starting to be introduced to terms like 'institutionalized poverty' at NIU.  Shugg put a face on this term even though he wasn't lacking for money.  He had cash, a house and a car.  What he did not have was good credit, health insurance, stability or an exit plan. He was cut off from the rest of the city.  Inescapable poverty was everywhere, an invisible permeable boundary people slipped back and forth across as their fortune determined.  It was so different from my suburban home it seemed alien. 

When I think of poverty I think of being trapped in a place where blue lights flash through your curtains all night and a person can not walk down the street without being watched by the police.  There is a lack, but it's not just of money or opportunity, it's also a lack of being treated with the same respect as people who don't live there.  It's waking up to go to work and finding your car has been stolen and you don't know if you can get it back.  Given enough time going to jail is inevitable.  Poverty is about more than no money, it's oppression and being abandoned by the rest of a society that has deemed you unworthy.