2021 Fall Adjusting Culture Shock Germany Miquela Berge

Why making mistakes can be a good thing

When most people, including myself, think of preparing to study or live abroad, overfilled suitcases, endless travel documents, and extensive planning of beautiful or enticing destinations may come to mind. In fact, when I participated in my first immersive experience as a high school student in Germany, I spent my time daydreaming about hiking through the Alps and eating Bavarian pretzels as I packed and prepared my suitcase for my two week stay. Though I eventually did set my dreams, or daydreams, in motion, nothing and no one could prepare me for the amount of mistakes I was bound to make in the weeks ahead.

At that time, my understanding of the German language was basic at best, so naturally and frantically, I replied with a small “Thank you” to what I thought was a compliment when an old man had mumbled something to me as I passed him on the sidewalk. Minutes later, I found out that his concerns were actually directed toward my untied shoelaces, a moment that I will most likely never forget. During my first trip abroad I also learned that standing on the left side of an escalator (the side designated for walking) could end in disaster, commenting out loud about a stranger’s dog will get you strange looks, and speaking too loud in subways and trains results in disapproving stares from local residents. 

A picture of Hamburg's town hall. It is a large white building featuring a copper roof now turned green.
Hamburg’s town hall/Hamburgers Rathaus

No amount of words in the English language exists that can accurately describe the embarrassment that I felt back then. Though I did attempt to try new foods, add new German phrases and expressions to my vocabulary, and step out of my comfort zone by talking to other exchange students, the perfectionist side of me was completely blindsided by the possibility that I could ever make a mistake.

Nevertheless, the mistakes I made back in 2018 were also learning experiences that helped me to better understand the culture and language of Germany today. Studying away is more than just a physical experience, it requires a mental preparation as well, something I was not prepared for years ago. Now, I realize that letting your own mistakes weigh you down will only stunt your growth, whether that be personally, academically, or professionally. On the other hand, learning to appreciate the differences between two cultures and welcoming that culture with open arms will create a more immersive, engaging, and fulfilling experience. 

Since arriving in Germany, I have already learned that you cannot go shopping without bringing your own bags from home, leaving the house without handheld cash is never a good idea, and going shopping on a Sunday is a no-go. As I learn to acquaint myself with more German customs, I try my best to mentally prepare myself for the longer journey ahead. Writing long-term goals for myself and letting out my feelings in a composition journal has been a lifesaver. Though it may not seem like much, doubts and qualms like mispronouncing a word in class, being unable to make friends, and feeling lost in a city so large have already begun to circulate throughout my mind. Writing down my insecurities and long-term goals has helped me to plan what I truly want out of this experience. In the end, dwelling on unintentional mistakes only fuels self-doubt and insecurity. This year, I want to make these small hiccups learning experiences that can further my own personal growth. 

Before even starting classes for my exchange year, I know that, one way or another, I will switch up one word for another, enter the wrong bus, or fail to understand something someone said to me. Obviously, I am far from perfect, and though I may be disappointed in myself for my own lack of attaining impossible standards, I know that attending the University of Hamburg this fall will present me with amazing opportunities that will enhance my academic and personal growth. 

Want to learn more about culture shock and adaptation? Read here!

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