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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

German blogger series: expatriates in America and Germany (III)

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 9th, 2003

I’ve been writing about German bloggers in America so far: Andreas Schaefer, “siebenviertel,” Konstantin Klein. Tonight I’ll conclude with a profile of an American blogger in Germany.

Before doing so, I’d like to say that I’ve appreciated the interest in this topic shown by bloggers like Heiko Hebig, Markus (“dormouse dreaming”), and the Bloghaus.net collective.

Also, I want to mention that Armin Grewe, a German now living in England, and Elke Sisco, a German living in Northern California, responded to the interview questions on their own blogs. Do have a look. This series’ scope and timing have kept their interesting responses safe from my lengthy treatments.

Scott Hanson: PapaScott

Long as his stay in the U.S. has been, Klein has nothing on Scott Hanson, a Minnesotan who has lived in the Hamburg area with his German wife (congratulations on their 20th anniversary last week!) since 1990, with son Christopher joining the family in 1998. Dauntingly, “only my wife could speak the language.”

Thinking about the move to Germany recently, Scott concluded they might not have done it under the current economic circumstances; luckily, it turned out to be a great opportunity for his wife, who works for a major U.S. multinational company now well established in Germany. Scott also thrived, finding work as a systems administrator. With a house and a child in Germany, Scott writes it’s likely the family will be staying there for the forseeable future: “We wanted to stay for 5 years. We’re now on 13.”

Responding to whether he felt “in touch” with either country, Scott said,

If you mean do I feel at home in both countries, then yes, but I do not feel like a native of either country. I’m somewhere in between. I can understand both countries, but I can’t really feel for either one.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of American bones in Scott’s body: he misses baseball a lot, and wouldn’t mind coming across a highlights video of the Twins-Braves 1991 World Series.*

Like several other expatriate bloggers I corresponded with, Scott makes the point that it’s hard to judge what the effect of living “abroad” is on one’s politics or opinions:

My thinking on politics has become more detached and analytical, but I can’t say whether that’s because of living abroad or just becoming more mature.

The issues of affinity and politics became intertwined after 9/11. Scott’s blog archives are arranged by month, and the September, 2001 file makes for some poignant reading:

5 September, Don’t Make Me Go (Two year old son gets a replacement nanny for the first time) […]

9 September, Rainy Weekend […]

12 September, The Day the Earth Stood Still: …Mama called from her car. She had caught the tail end of a news report on the radio, and couldn’t believe what she thought she had heard.

I decided to leave work early, even though I had started late. Outside the rain was a deluge, the gutters were flooding, traffic was slow. NDR4 radio was reporting what they could see on TV, what the correspondent in NY could see out the window, the towers were collapsing, debate in the Bundestag was cancelled, members of parliament were milling together with visitors in the lobby watching the news broadcasts.

Mama was home, the television offered pictures but no new information. Christopher was hyperactive, totally beside himself, as if he were breathing the tension in the air. Our satellite dish is on the fritz, can’t get CNN at all, have to rely on the main stations. Chancellor Schroeder spoke of ‘unqualified solidarity’ with the US, which made me feel reassured. Otherwise I just feel numb. I miss an eloqent President, who can express what I and the nation must feel, but cannot put into words.

Mama shed some tears. Perhaps she had started to fathom what has happened. I haven’t. Not yet. […]

27 September, Gonna Go For A Whirl: … We use the word “war” quite often to mean a monumental task. The war on crime. The war on drugs. German doesn’t seem to use “Krieg” in this way. Then there is the American phrase “moral equivalent of war”. There’s no German equivalent, I don’t think, no phrase for “moral equivalent of the worst possible moral outcome”. So when American speak of a new “war”, it could very well be misunderstood.

Not at all to be judgmental about it: despite so clearly feeling the impact of 9/11 — as so many Europeans did – Scott began to part ways early on with most Americans in his reactions to and what to do about the attacks.

It seems like Scott has in part adopted (or has maybe long embraced) the skepticism about any war that seems to underly much European public opinion. Coming out of a place like Hamburg – brutally and tragically all but annihilated during World War II – that’s an understandable position, if not one that could be “ausschlaggebend” (determinative) for Americans.**

In our final correspondence about this piece, Scott points out he came to similar conclusions himself by early 2002:

Visiting the States last month, it was quickly apparent that the effect of 9/11 on ordinary people was much deeper than I had imagined. […]

For me, 9/11 did not change my world. … after the shock and horror was gone, my view of the world had not changed. Such an event was possible. […]

Maybe [the terrorists] knew what I just realized: that the United States was much more vulnerable [than their base of operations in Hamburg], and that the impact of an attack there would be much deeper.

Scott has had interesting things to say about the differences between Europe and America — or at least points of departure in thinking about them. Back in 2000 — this is one of the longest running blogs I know of — Scott wrote:

After nearly 10 years of being an expatriate (expatriatism?), I should certainly have some interesting views on the subject. But maybe I don’t. 10 years is a long time, and maybe the strangeness of my adopted culture is no longer strange to me, and my memories of life in the US are so old that they are no longer valid. I don’t know. I personally find the similarities between Europe and America to be more interesting than the differences. […]

You can’t generalize. Simple broad statements are simply not true, and cannot explain the details of your experience in a new culture.

You have to generalize. But one has to start someplace. The only way to begin to make sense of a new culture is to start with clichés (which usually contain some truth) and compare them to what you are actually experiencing. […]

Language is nothing. And everything. Americans are not used to hearing conversations they don’t understand. One can learn and survive in a culture without the language, but learning the language will improve your point of view.

A thematic – not constant, but frequent — concern with German-American communication and understanding is what connects each of the four blogs I’ve mentioned. I think Scott Hanson’s blog — like the other bloggers discussed here – is a new kind of example of what Walter Russell Mead calls “popular foreign policy” in his recent book Special Providence.

Among other things, Mead has meant by this ordinary/extraordinary people taking politics and foreign affairs personally and into their own hands; people writing about their native or adopted countries to eachother.** Bloggers like Hanson, Klein, Schaefer and siebenviertel are, in a way, new kinds of foreign correspondents and envoys — self-selected for travel, a certain openness, and the desire to write about it for the rest of us. They’re translating not just words for their readers, but worlds.

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* Widely considered one of the best baseball World Series ever played. Well, by me anyway. Yes, including those Reds-Red Sox and Diamondbacks-Yankees deals.

** I’m probably taking some liberties with Mead’s ideas here. Mead writes about more concrete examples, like the effect American missionaries to Asia had on American foreign policy or that of American settlers of the early frontier: creating opinions and/or facts on the ground that the U.S. government was obliged to consider.

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