Sunday, 7 April 2013

On being German in Britain

Being a foreigner in the UK isn’t really that much of novelty any more.  After all for the first time in the history of England Britons are the minority ethnic group in London.  But being a German in the UK still seems a little novel though considering the… colourful history we share.  I first came to the UK when I was 14 and now I’m 22.  Every now and then when people realise I’m a German living in South Wales they ask me: “How did you end up down here?” and sometimes I ask myself that very same question.  I arrived here with the intent to finish off my last four years in a boarding school, what happened after that would happen.  But eight years later I’m still here.  The only explanation I have is that I caught the island fever and maybe I’m here to stay for good.

Part of the reason I’m still here is because I’m in higher education, but I could have just as easily gone to Germany and attended university there.  The truth of the matter is that I probably wasn’t ready to leave the UK at that point.  I’d gone through four years of drastic culture shock and it wasn’t going to be all for nothing.  When I first came to the UK I didn’t understand what EastEnders was, let alone did I understand what they said.  I was confused about why the twenty pence pieces are smaller than the ten pence even though they are worth more.  I wasn’t versed in queue etiquette and I thought that a Yorkshire pudding was a dessert.  I didn’t realise that making a cup of tea could be such a serious business and that not having milk in your tea was considered slightly abnormal.  Now, eight years later I’m quite well adjusted.  So well adjusted in fact that I make a passable Brit.  I don’t have a German accent; according to my friends my current accent is a mix of posh, Northern and Welsh. 

But you know you’ve been living in the UK for too long when you stop being so German and start acting more British. Eight years is a very long time, some stuff was bound to rub off.  Maybe certain things have rubbed off so much that I’m more adopted Brit than German.  I was once working with a group of German ERASMUS students and when they found out I was German they turned to me and said: “You don’t look like one of us at all!”  Cause for concern? Maybe, maybe not.

But the moment I realised I was really in danger was when I started reading Kate Fox’s book Watching the English and going “oh my god I do that too!”

One of my fatal flaws that I picked up in Britain for instance is starting almost any conversation with the weather: “Nippy today isn’t it?” and on the very rare occasion: “It’s so warm today!” I hear myself doing it and want to kick myself.  I don’t even understand why I do it, according to Kate Fox it’s something British people use to start a conversation and it’s just become ritualised, an acceptable way to say hello.  And I fall for it, nearly every single time.  Even with my housemate the first thing I say when I come through the front door is some banal remark on the weather.  Complaining about the weather is also something I’ve picked uphere but anthropological studies on the Brits and the weather could fill a whole book so that’s for another time.

When I go back to Germany I feel like a tourist in my own country.  My extended German family are sometimes at a loss when they try to understand my humour that has become increasingly British (Germans do have a sense of humour it’s just a bit peculiar and we don’t like making bodily fluid jokes nearly as much as the British love to…).  I thank people in shops when I walk out, even if I haven’t bought anything or even if they haven’t been very helpful.  In Germany this doesn’t always seem appreciated and I get strange looks from sales assistants.  Back in the UK I find myself queuing in an orderly fashion and dealing with queue jumpers by fiercely staring at the back of their head.  I only tend to speak up on days where I’m feeling more German than normal, although those are becoming a rare occurrence.  If there’s something that resembles a queue I double check and ask someone in this potential queue before I join, making sure not to upset anybody. 

My biggest conundrum living in Britain remains my Germanness. 

When people ask me where I’m from it tends to cause more problems than it should.  My parents are expats so I’ve lived all over the place and my boarding school was in Yorkshire close to Leeds.  My background is made all the more awkward because I’ve never actually lived in Germany.  When I meet people, especially on nights out when they are too drunk or obviously not that interested, I decided to save time.  So in the interest of time saving and not boring someone with my background (born in Canada, raised in Holland, Oman and Qatar, boarding school in Yorkshire, currently residing in Wales) I make the judgement call and I say I’m from Leeds.  In all honesty this is a no-win situation.  It’s hard to tell whether being from Germany or Leeds is worse.  If I say I’m German, eight times out of ten I’ll get to hear some hilariously original joke about World War II.  If I say I’m from Leeds people tend to laugh in my face and go “Leeds scum!” so it really is a lose-lose situation.

Saying this, the times I’ve divulged that I’m German I’ve generally had a good response.  My adopted British humour means that I can laugh at the World War II jokes to the best of my ability, and after all the German football team is clearly superior so that’s always a good bargaining chip.  The one time my Germanness didn’t go so well was when I was in a taxi to Manchester airport and for some reason the taxi driver decided to complain about Germans.  Specifically: German tourists who put their towels on deck chairs in Spain.  Once I casually mentioned I was German he didn’t say another word to me for the whole journey.

But despite everything: Yorkshire puddings, questionable drinking habits, self service machines, the weather, milky tea, the tendency of British girls to wear leggings as jeans (the horror), bad German jokes and all, I’m still here.  In some strange way I feel oddly welcome and accepted here.  Maybe it’s because the Germans and Brits are actually more similar than we’d like to admit, but for now I’ll carry on hiding amongst the British.  I’ve got at least another eight years in me.

“The British have an umbilical cord which has never been cut and through which tea flows constantly. It is curious to watch them in times of sudden horror, tragedy or disaster. The pulse stops apparently, and nothing can be done, and no move made, until "a nice cup of tea" is quickly made. There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea-conscious. World-peace conferences would run more smoothly if "a nice cup of tea", or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time.” – Marlene Dietrich


  1. Actually one of my biggest fears of living in another country (possibility in the future) is the culture shock.. and probably the fact that I might not express myself rightly and might not be comprehended. Specially in those situation where you're lost or in an emergency!
    But I guess you get used to it and really adapt. You have an interesting background! :)

  2. I love that you were at a loss with twenty pence pieces being smaller than ten pence pieces, the 2p coin must have blown your mind aha.

    I get why you weren't ready to leave the UK after just having got over the culture shock. I think I'm about half way through being culturally shocked here in France but I leave soon :( so if I ever come back I'll have to re-re-adjust arghhh x

  3. i can identify so much with this, even though i'm british, obviously studying abroad at the moment has made me see our differences. loved your comments about the coins - especially as i have so many troubles with euros all looking the same colour and size! i never knew until i came here that people *didn't* drink tea with milk, and i have lost count of the amount of people who have assumed that Yorkshire pudding and black puddings are desserts - fair enough tho, i would too!

  4. I'm a German who's spent most of her time in the good old UK too so I can identify a lot of what's been written.

    After spending over 20 years in Britain, I definitely felt more British and my German roots seemed like a distant memory...which is why I ultimately decided to move to Germany for two years.

    Now I feel at home in both places and love both of these countries dearly.

    It's nice to see someone with a similar background!

    P.S I realise I don't look very German...long story! (Adopted etc.)

  5. As a half German, half English woman who has lived in the UK her whole life, I have to say that I LOVE this post!! It is great that you feel so settled in the UK (and have picked up such hilariously British habits!), yet I also understand what it's like to not quite belong, one hundred per cent, to any one country - and that is coming from someone who has lived in one country her whole life. I also get some "hilarious" WWII jokes at times, but I am not quite as good as ignoring them. Each time I hear one, I feel like an outsider, even though I am British. Isn't that awful? But then I always try to think that it's a good thing I have more than one country to 'belong to'. And you obviously have more than that! Thanks for writing this post because it's exactly the sort of thing I like reading/writing/talking about, and it's nice to find someone else who thinks about these things. :)
    Coco @


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