Yesterday after language school, our instructor and I went to grab some lunch. In the rest of her life she is a religious studies/philosophy PhD student and we had been wanting to chat about life and theology so we decided that yesterday was the day. She is German by origin but has lived in the US as a child and then as a grad student. She also has lived in Jerusalem and in a few different locations in Germany and now Berlin. She has a perspective in the world that is this interesting US European perspective and is great for teaching German because she has also been teaching us culture around the language. At times she might say, “that is correct but this other terminology is more used.” Or we have a few minutes at the end of each class in which we learn words that are just fun to use.
As we were chatting away, a topic came up and at the end of part of the conversation I said, “Well, you do you.” She started to chuckle.
“What? What happened?”
“Well, that was just so American of you to say! It might be the most American thing I have heard you say yet!”
We both chuckled some more and I acknowledged that yeah, I hadn’t heard anyone but Americans use it I guess. You do you.
As I was walking home and shared this little convo with Ana and our American neighbor and friend from upstairs, we chuckled again and all agreed…oh yeah, we would never hear Germans or anyone else in Europe say this.
I have become quite addicted to this new app called Marco Polo. You can record video messages for your friends that have it and go back and forth with these little videos. Like visual texting and it is really helping my homesickness. Last night, as I settled in to watch a video from one of my dear friends from back home, I listened as she talked about her day and what is going on in her life and then she said it….”I just think…well, you do you!” Ana turned as I smiled widely…there it is again.
At home this wouldn’t even cross my mind and certainly whoever I was talking with probably wouldn’t be chuckling. My mind goes a couple of different places after this moment in time…which I kind of loved by the way…
- The phrase “You do you” is indeed one of those very American phrases. In the Urban dictionary it is defined as:1. the act of doing what one believes is the right decision, being oneself
2. a response when somebody constantly asks for suggestions, but doesn’t actually need or listen to them
So in some ways it is not so out of place when talking to people but on the other hand it does reflect this individualistic starting place that most Europeans aren’t as invested in as the American spirit. I asked my gf Ana who is from Serbia and has lived in different European countries all of her life why is that phrase so American and so funny. Her response was just…”It is just used by Americans…I don’t know why but it just is.” Maybe it’s the tone, maybe its the underlying implications, maybe its just where it comes from and it doesn’t occur to others to use it.
- But then that got me to thinking about these things and phrases that I bring with me to this place. What assumptions do I bring that are just cultural? What expectations do I bring to my relationships here that aren’t base line expectations to Europeans? What shocks me about what I encounter that might be cultural? Here are some things about what I mean in differences in culture that I have been picking up;
- Today I learned in language school that its perfectly acceptable and even nice to comment on what suits people as they wear it. For example…that car suits you! Your shoes are looking great! That skirt highlights your….you get it.
- Germans are extremely direct especially when giving unsolicited advice.
- Sometimes when speaking to me, this nice west coast American misinterprets what the German is saying. I then come home and ask why the German was yelling at me harshly when in reality that person was just talking to me but with a little lecture to come along with it.
- Small talk is rare here and when it happens I take it as a miraculous event.
- Rules are rules and well explained….like into great detail. This is the way to do it….each little detail…step by step…you get the idea.
- My last observation is this one and I have hinted at it before as I find myself here longer and longer. More and more I find that I am the only American in the room and at some point, that will be highlighted. Last week, there was a day that I counted that someone called me “the American,” eight times. In each room, I was the only American and I said or did something very very American which I didn’t think was until it was highlighted. Until now, it was not a common practice in my life…like maybe only has happened a few times until now…that I was the only one from the US in the room. Let alone have it be highlighted so much. And to be honest, I don’t mind that but what it does is add an identifier to me that I haven’t really had to claim before. This then shifts how I move in this world…how my theology might reflect that, my spiritual life, how I might introduce myself and clarify who I want to be. This might determine how I interact or apologize for myself in a room. All in all, it is really good for us to sometimes be in this place. For many of us, we recognize that coming from the US especially as a white American gives us privilege and it is good for us to name it but then also learn from what it means to be the other in the room.
Last Thursday I sat in a two hourish meeting that was all in German. I repeat. It was ALL. IN. GERMAN. I was the only one in a room of 12 people that didn’t speak German well. The leader knew this and when she asked me if it was ok to speak only in German. I had to check myself. Her second language is English and why should I ask her to speak in English when I am the only one who needs it especially after a long day. Her comfort is in German and she can do more in German. German it is. I confirmed that of course, speak German and I will understand what I understand and read notes to translate later. In that moment, I thought I would be bummed to feel isolated from the conversation and then something magical happened. I understood most of the meeting. Now, I cannot regurgitate the sentences and my responses were in English when asked. I didn’t get the jokes or the nuances but I can tell you in English what the agenda was and what I need to do from it. IT WAS A TOTAL WIN!!!!!! And I was all the more knowledgeable about who I am and who I want to be and who I wasn’t because of it.
So you do you and all those things that make us us but remember that we can look around to see who else is in the room.