Since many of you have expressed an interest in knowing what it was like for me to live and work abroad, AEM has launched a new series entitled, "Living Abroad." These pieces are about American expats who have lived or are living abroad. I am also exploring options of moving abroad again in a year or year and a half, and will be writing about that possibility (primarily here), as well as sharing my own experience of living and working in Korea. If you are interested in sharing your story with my readers, please don't hesitate to send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Those of you who have yet to leave the country are also welcome to submit pieces. This series is part of a public service to let indentured educated citizens know that there are other options, and that they can find fulfilling opportunities beyond U.S. borders.
I was put in touch with Seth Hulse after interviewing his cousin, Corrie Hulse. Corrie is now back in S. Korea for a third time. Her cousin, on the other hand, lives in Germany. Let's here what it is like for him as a graduate student in that country.
Johannsen: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What did you study in school? Where did you study? How many degrees do you have?
Hulse: I sprouted up in blazing hot Richmond, Texas, a suburban city outside of Houston. Due to financial reasons, I began my college career at my local community college, and then a year later transferred to the University of Houston and eventually received two bachelor's in Communication and German. The German degree was an unplanned but good mistake. I’m not sure what those professors were feeding us, maybe promises of a history full of happiness and small class sizes, but many of us kept on showing up to new seminars each semester. My life was a suburban one, traveling to a commuter school, which the University of Houston unfortunately is, and working as an electronic salesman near my parent’s house. Nearing the end of my studies I decided in 2005 to spend two semesters studying abroad in Germany. Then, in an attempt to avoid a flailing job market for humanities students, I made the decision after finishing my studies in Texas to attend graduate school in Germany. In 2007 I headed to Siegen, Germany, and finished my M.A. in Literature, Culture, and Media studies in 2009, and since then I have been a full time lecturer and Ph.D student, all at the University of Siegen. I love stinky French cheese and German bread.
Johannsen: I love those things as well! You've made me long to be back in Köln! I remember eating outside of that city, in a little village that seemed just inches away from France. The restaurant we ate at was incredible. It was a mixture of French and German food served with fabulous German beers. Heavenly. You also made a humorous remark when we first began corresponding, and said, "we don't go broke having studied in the U.S. We instead venture into the glorious halls of debt." Would you expand upon this idea?
Hulse: Concerning school costs I didn’t realize how much the American system buries people who find themselves in a family that is neither poor nor rich. Being the fifth born of seven children, I was the third to hit college and by that time my parent's finances had been stretched due to medical bills, the usual house and car payments, and because of huge out-of-state tuition fees one of my brothers was accruing. Regardless of your political approach, you have to admit that we are for better or worse not only a debting nation but also a debting culture [my emphasis]. Oftentimes we long for things just out of reach and then attain them through debt. I didn’t fully grasp our cultural tendencies until I moved to a country that is almost manically afraid of debt. Cash or debit card only stores are the norm in Germany. How we should deal with our ways is another story. Debt enabled me to reach my current position. The current system is what is it is. I realized the extent of my debt once I left the illusory FASFA safety net of being registered as a full time student. I had to greatly juggle my finances and eat loads of rice during my graduate studies because I was no longer seen as a student by FAFSA and had to begin paying on my student loans. Most universities outside of the U.S. are not recognized by FAFSA because the U.S. does not want to subsidize educations abroad. So beware in case pursuing studies abroad is your goal [my emphasis].
Johannnsen: I'm glad you made this point about the U.S. being an indebted culture, and how that is not the way Germany operates. I recall a very good friend I had in college (we're still friends). He had actually been my German instructor, and later he became a very, very close friend. In any event, I remember discovering this quality about Germans when he told me that he was pondering a purchase. He wanted to buy a pair of running shoes, and he had been thinking about it for several weeks. I was stunned, and asked, "why don't you just go buy them?"
He smiled and said, "that's not how I work. I need to think about it for a while, and then I'll buy." Later, when I was living in Munich, I noticed this again. Germans are masters when it comes to window-shopping. It's a sport there. I remember how the men and women would stroll late at night and peer into the shop windows. They too were pondering a purchase. It was amazing to see that difference in consumption behaviors. So, where are you now living? How’s it going?
Hulse: I now live in Siegen, Germany, where I’ve been since 2007. I’ve adjusted quite well to this little hamlet in the forests northwest of Hessen. With most houses covered in black slate, the city itself is a bit dark, which is very fitting for a city whose forests produced materials for iron ore and slate. Siegen, its iron forests, its hardened mountain people, and its transient student population . . . Though for anything cultural, I always find myself traveling into the Rhineland to Cologne. I am personally ready for some change and would like to leave Siegen, and Germany altogether, but my academic ambitions and the economic climate in the U.S., and of course the lovely hardened mountain people here, are reasons for my staying here for the time being.
Johannsen: Do you plan on returning to the U.S.? (If you're not returning, let us know what thoughts you have on that).
Hulse: Heck yes, I’ll be returning. My (Stephen) Colbertian gut tells me that I will be dying in the U.S. if all goes well. At the moment my goal is to make money, like everyone else on the planet, and to finish my doctoral studies. I am still hesitant about trying to find my place in the American job market and as far as staying at university goes, academia does not pay well and the steady jobs are very few.
Johannsen: Oh, you are absolutely right. I have so many good friends in academia, and it's brutal. That's one of the reasons I left my Ph.D. program. I was unwilling to commit all that time to wind up jobless and overqualified. It wasn't worth it in my view. On another note, do you think younger people should think about pursuing work abroad? If so, why?
Hulse: This sounds like one of those indoctrination questions. We’ll have to call David Koresh back from the dead to help in recruiting. If you study to become a teacher of English in North Rhine-Westphalia, the German state in which I live, you are required to spend six months of your studies in an English-speaking country. Now imagine if that were the case for all high school Spanish teachers in the U.S. Whether you’re planning a becoming a chemist or construction management expert, there are many other practical reasons as to why you not should but must make your way outside of the U.S. at least for a brief while before you land that dream job.
Johannsen: [Laughing]. Well, let me organize a séance in Waco. I don't live too far away from there, so I'll let you know what he has to say! But you were saying . . .
Hulse: The main reason I would list is simple. By living in a foreign country for an extended period of time you can change some of the wiring in your brain [my emphasis]. Just as improving your knowledge of advanced math and physics can rewire how you reason and come to conclusions, so too can living in a foreign country, especially in one where the language is not native to you. You are forced to learn how to tell people who you are not only in a different language but within a different meaning system and in doing so you are forced to think about who you are in a vastly different cultural light. This is why you always hear of people who have gone off somewhere afar and ‘found themselves.’ Having to find yourself in a different meaning system is a thousand times more invaluable than holding hands and singing we are the world with your multicultural buddies. That experience teaches you to become more negotiable and communicative.
Due to the college system here, most Germans don’t finish with too much debt, though that trend is changing. Because of this many graduates opt for a social year or half year abroad and commence some kind of work and travel program. The goal is to recover from intense studies and to take one last major journey before trying to settle down. International experience also looks good on the résumé.
Of course most Germans don’t begin their post-college lives with staggering college debts weighing over their heads. But this option is doable for American students who are willing to defer a student loan for a year due to ‘financial hardship,’ though not all loans can be deferred. If you go this route you can try to escape this monolithic thing called Americanness, though I am not sure if this is completely possible. You can’t really escape crappy McDonald’s fast food, unless you visit Kim Jong-il, and even that is questionable.
Johannsen: Kim Jong-il . . . I am not sure if he is a fan of McDonald's, but he sure loves good French brandy! If I go back to South Korea, I'll make a point to visit him and inquire about his thoughts regarding McDonald's cuisine. But in all seriousness, you make excellent points about the importance of living in a different country with a different language. You inhabit yourself differently - you are absolutely right. That is why living abroad, in my view, is an invaluable experience. It can't be quantified by the market system, and that's why it is so powerful. It would be interesting to ask recent graduates from German universities how they felt about their futures. The graduates from the U.S. who find me are terrified and hopeless. I always hate receiving those emails, the ones from recent graduates. I hate to deliver devastating news about the fact that they are not alone, and that currently there is little that is being done to help them pay back such unmanageably high levels of debt.
Bist du krank vor Heimweh? On that note, what do you miss most about the U.S.? Conversely, what are things you don't miss?
Hulse: I always tell people that I suffer from Leuteweh (people-sickness), as opposed to homesickness. Naturally the word doesn’t exist in either language, but my point is always that I don’t really miss Houston, per se, just the people dear to me who aren’t near me. I do miss tastes, smells, and the feeling of the vast openness that is the Texas landscape, though it doesn’t pain me to not live in the suburban sprawl that scars Houston. I don’t miss one of the many Sunbelt cities of concrete that lacks a functional transit system. Funnily enough I also miss my parent's subdivision. Paradoxical, I know. Subdivisions would be great if you could just slap a city right around them instead of placing subdivisions around cities.
What I miss the most, aside from TexMex and good BBQ sauce, is the superficial niceness that defines most Texans when we are out and about. Asking how one is doing even when we don’t give a damn.
Johannsen: [Laughing]. I am not a native Texan, and have now lived all over the U.S. and on two other continents. However, I was raised in the so-called soulless suburbs as well, so I can identify with your sentiments. I too missed TexMex, and couldn't wait to get back here and eat it again (the Northeast hasn't an ounce of good TexMex, unless you're in Cambridge, and the same - obviously - goes for South Korea). BBQ in Texas? Not so much. I am from Kansas City after all, and that is the birthplace of good BBQ. Lordy, how I miss Oklahoma Joe's. But that's another story . . .
Speaking of differences in the U.S., I was so taken aback when I first started visiting Texas. When I'd go out for a jog, people would wave and talk to me. That was strange. Then I noticed this hilarious Christmas greeting in a yard down the road from my in-laws. It was a bright sign that said, "Merry Christmas, Y'all!" To me that exemplifies that Texan friendliness you describe. On that note, what are the differences in societal attitudes toward higher education in the Germany versus the United States?
Hulse: The educational system on the whole is much more centralized and compartmentalized in Germany and vocations and apprenticeships are more highly regulated. You don’t just go down to the corner where the day laborers wait to be picked up, as is oftentimes the case in Houston. Here the men fixing the street or laying a new sidewalk or working in a steel factory (we have many in Siegen) have completed different certifications. We have this to a lesser extent in the U.S., where we instead focus more on on-the-job training. This high level of training in the various vocations is also one of the reasons why Germany, which has less than one third the population of the U.S., in 2010 overtook the U.S. in exports. Yet this intense focus on a strong vocational workforce also leads to a stronger demarcation between college graduates and non-college graduates. The feeling of there being an Ivory Tower on top of which we academics peer down onto the population is more pronounced here. The tower is very tall here. You can tell just by looking at the salutations university professors use, sometimes becoming as absurd as Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt.
However, things are changing in Europe, especially in Germany, where the major reforms in the Bologna Process concerning the standardization of higher education are taking place. These changes made it possible for me to earn an M.A. in Germany, where it would not have been possible just a few years ago. So things are beginning to look more and more like the U.S. We'll have to see where all of this standardization takes Europe and the U.S.
Johannsen: Seth, it was such a pleasure to hear your thoughts on living abroad. Thanks so much! Stay tuned for more stories from people who are living abroad. Next up? A good pal of mine who's in Seoul.
"Exit Plan: Do You Have One?"