I Could Tell That You Are German
I have never been someone who easily learns in History class. No matter how many notes I took, projects I aced, and exams that I passed, I never remembered anything that I “learned” in History class. Unfortunately, many subject areas of history refer to different cultures around the world, which means that I never learned much about different cultures. The most important aspects of different cultures seemed to be taught to me through documentaries, whether they were for science or history, which would only focus on a certain area, on a certain topic. So it began that all I knew about other cultures was the very limited information that I had gotten from documentaries. Strangely enough though, I never realized that I was applying these very limited amounts of information to entire cities, countries, or nations. I think that once I learned something about a place somewhere, I felt as if I knew everything about the people in this place we “learned” about. This is how I came to develop many inaccurate stereotypes.
There are all kinds of stereotypes in the World, but what exactly is a stereotype? A stereotype is a perceived image of a certain type of person, place, object, etc. believed by many people that while commonly supported, may or may not be true. To enhance this definition, think of how one would view America if one lived in another country. The common American stereotype is believed to be that all Americans eat hamburgers, have barbecues, and are fat patriots. If this were all that one has ever known about America, this stereotype would become engrained in their mind. As a young child, one grows up learning stereotypes based on their parents’ beliefs, and peers’ beliefs. Although stereotypes are not taught in school, kids learn to have stereotypes based upon a person’s reaction to a certain thing. It’s easy to learn stereotypes – they are everywhere. What is hard is unlearning stereotypes, which is what I slowly began to do beginning my junior year of high school. When one starts to unlearn a stereotype, it makes them realize that they had false beliefs about people, that their judgment was wrong, that they are actually, quite ignorant. That is what I learned about when I formed the Foreign Exchange Club at my high school. In order to unlearn, I had to come to terms with the idea of “stereotypes” and the fact that I had stereotypes (which is something one doesn’t notice until their stereotypically opinions of someone are shattered).
I was a junior in high school, and I had just met an exchange student from Brazil in the Exchange Club that I was president of. We were sitting in class, at our uncomfortable tan desks, talking about what her city in Brazil was like, and I thought it was perfectly reasonable to ask her if monkeys ran through the streets. I had watched a documentary on countries in South America, and one part of the documentary highlighted a city that had monkeys everywhere. From this one experience learning a little bit about South America, my brain engrained this major generalization into my head. She looked honestly shocked when I asked her about it… I remember receiving a weird look, and a demeaning “no” from the exchange student upon hearing my question. It turns out that monkeys actually don’t run wild in Brazil, or at least her part of Brazil. I could not understand why she was chastising me for asking what seemed to be a completely sane question. I did not know that my question was stupid at the time though. What was I supposed to do? I could not take back a question so blatantly ignorant as that one in such a crowded classroom.
I made a lot of generalizations such as this one my junior year ranging from “Oh! I thought that people in Germany ate sauerkraut at every meal!” to “I’ve heard that the driving skills that you learn in Asia are very different than the ones you learn here”. As I look back on this now, I realize how awful these questions must have seemed. I have never felt so dumb for falling into the American stereotype of being ignorant, which I will be the first to tell you is not just a stereotype, many Americans are ignorant, especially about other cultures! In all honesty, I feel extremely embarrassed when I think back to these situations. I used to consider myself a fairly intelligent individual, so when I learned that I had quite a bit of misinformation about people, I didn’t quite know how to feel. It was hard for me to accept that there were no monkeys, as for some reason I had grown up thinking that there were. That’s what a stereotype does for you. It is a pre-judgment or generalization of someone or something, usually biased, which causes you to believe a certain idea, which may have only a few facts to back it up.
After a few occurrences, such as the ones previously mentioned, I started realizing that maybe there was not something wrong with how people were responding to my questions, my stereotypical assumptions, but rather, maybe there was something wrong with my questions. What had caused me to believe in this false information about others? Why did I continue to still believe in my false information, even though on numerous accounts I was proven wrong?
At the end of my junior year, while many of my presumptions were corrected, I noticed that I was STILL making judgments about people. I still had these preconceived notions about how students from different cultures would act, how they would dress, how they would speak, etc. I had formed Exchange Club as a way to learn about other students from different countries, and be able to interact with each other. We had weekly meetings with about 30 exchange students, and we also planned events together sometimes. Unfortunately though, if I met a new student, instead of being welcoming, I was using my new stereotypes. Even though I did learn that my very first beliefs about many of the exchange students were wrong, I found myself forming new stereotypes based upon the students that I already met. I was a slave to stereotypes, and I learned that if I kept believing in these stereotypes, that I was going to become even more ignorant than I already was. The way in which I judged people before meeting them was completely inappropriate, and the questions that I asked were just plain stupid. I didn’t actually know anything about these students. I had formed stereotypes, and I thought I knew about the students.
There was one boy from Germany, Johannes, who was very self-indulged, and self-righteous. I coached a soccer team for the Exchange Club – Johannes never listened, and always tried to talk over me and control the team himself. I just let it slide though because I thought, “Oh, that’s just his culture! He’s German! Everyone from Germany acts like that”. I thought like that because the year before I had an exchange student from Germany, who acted in the same way, so I developed my own stereotype that Germans were not humble individuals.
The longer I continued with Exchange Club, the more I learned about other cultures and other people, but most importantly, the more I learned about myself. There was something wrong in the way that stereotypes ruined my first impressions of people. For example, I remember meeting a German girl for the first time my senior year and thinking to myself, “Why do there have to be so many exchange students from Germany? I wish that I could meet more exchange students from other cultures, the ones from Germany never seem to be the nicest.” I was basing this off of my stereotypes that I created after meeting my exchange student and Johannes.
Over the course of my senior year in Exchange Club, I found that as a club we were doing so much more together. The exchange students and I hung out every weekend, and started having a really great time just by being ourselves. After a while we were completely open with each other, and I learned a lot of positive things about my new friends from around the World. I learned that in Switzerland students attend school longer in order to enhance their education. My friends from Brazil were some of the smartest teenagers that I had ever met. I got to know the one German girl who I expected to be rude, I felt absolutely awful when I learned about what a sweetheart she was after actually spending time with her and getting to know her. I realized that by taking the time to get to know the German girl, whose name was Jennifer, that I was actually a lot more happy than I would have been if I had believed in my stereotype I formed. I decided I needed to leave behind stereotypes no matter how hard it would be for me to not listen to everything that people told me, to not believe in everything that I saw. I had learned that people cannot be characterized by stereotypes, whether or not they are from the same culture as another person.
The more I learned about my new friends from Exchange Club, the less tied down I felt due to having stereotypes. Every day I met new people, and although it was hard for me at first to not have prejudgments about them, it felt really freeing to have absolutely no expectations about their personalities or cultures. When I got to know people by spending time with them, instead of asking them presumptuous questions, I realized that I was a lot more educated, and that I became closer to the exchange students when I was more open-minded. I needed to unlearn stereotypes because it made me feel very uncultured, ignorant and by having stereotypes I was hindering my abilities to make friends. I also have learned that I had a lot of stereotypes that weren’t about other cultures as well, but rather about different types of people. I used to think that everything that I learned in school was trued. I believed every single word of the documentaries that we used to watch. But I’m not that person any more. After learning in Exchange Club that I was a very presumptuous person, and that the views presented to me in my history and science classes weren’t always right, I have tried to live with a much more open mind and I have opened myself up to a series of new opportunities thanks to my new, open views of the World.