This summer marks the Höferle family’s 9th anniversary of living in the Tennessee Valley. I can’t recall how many times my wife and I were asked to tell our story, how we “ended up” in Cleveland, TN. I think it is great to be invited to share with our new neighbors what brought us here, especially because it shows how interested most Americans are in the journeys that bring people to the United States. There’s a genuine curiosity. Sometimes I wish it were similar for newcomers in Germany. And for the record: We didn’t “end up” anywhere. We chose our lives like this.
A few weeks ago I was asked again to tell our story. This time by BlogExpat.com, a “directory for expat blogs, travel blogs and blogs abroad, open to any personal blog of individual living abroad and sharing their expat experience”. The website hosts a plethora of interviews conducted with expatriate bloggers around the world. I’m honored that they wanted to talk to me. So, here’s our expat story:
From Germany to Tennessee: Southeast Schnitzel
Introduce yourself (name or nickname, where you are from & where you live now):
My name is Christian Höferle (alternative spelling: Hoeferle).
I was born and raised in Weilheim, Germany – a small town of ~21,000 people, 30 miles south of the Bavarian capitol, Munich. Weilheim is located in the Southeast of Germany.
Since July 2004, my family and I live in Cleveland, TN – another small town of ~40,000 people, 30 miles north of Chattanooga. Cleveland is located in the Southeast of the United States.
People in Bavaria/Germany and Tennessee understand when I tell them that “I’m a Southeasterner in both countries & cultures.”
1. Why did you move abroad?
In simple terms: To see if it works – the life abroad. In 2003, my wife, our then 2-year-old daughter and I were living in Munich when we sensed that we were ripe for a change in our lives. Back then my wife was a stay-at-home mom (by choice) who was getting ready to launch her next project, a Montessori school. At the same time, I was in the process of leaving my employer of seven years and I explored a job offer for a leadership position in Berlin.
Our options were:
a) to move the family to Berlin, arguably the hottest, hippest, and most buzzing city in all of Germany (Europe?), or
b) to move the family to Southeast Tennessee where my in-laws had been keeping a second residence in addition to their native home in Germany, and where my wife attended college in the 90s.
Both, my wife and I, really enjoyed city life at that time but we also knew that raising a child in the city was not our preference. While having the security of a job is a good thing when relocating, Brigitta and I decided on the high-risk option for our family’s future. In the spring of 2004 we called the movers and packed for the United States to start not one but two new businesses.
2. How do you make a living (working? Tell us about your experience)?
Between my wife and I, we currently own three businesses:
– Montessori Kinder International School (a trilingual, true Montessori school for children starting at age 3 months up to 5th grade; 6th grade is being developed right now) is my wife’s “baby”. Originally started in Munich, Montessori Kinder re-launched in the U.S. in January 2005 with three students, the school currently teaches 69 children and employs 15 staff members.
– The Culture Mastery offers cultural training, coaching and consulting services for global businesses. We help companies improve the effectiveness of their employees when working across cultures. We also provide support services for expatriates and their families, as well as international business start-up support and interpretation/translation services.
– In addition to that, Brigitta and I own a joint business which operates in a high-growth market segment. We have begun expanding the concept to Germany which has the nice side effect of re-establishing us in our old home. There are still opportunities for investors to join us in this expansion. Send me a note if you are interested.
Being your own boss and being independent has its ups and downs. There’s feast and famine. I guess we are not the (stereo-)typical expats who were sent abroad by an employer. We went on our terms. Our entrepreneurial spirit and stubbornness were rewarded in recent years: There have been several large-scale investments in our region made by international companies. These companies have been bringing expats into the area – which means additional business for my consultancy and my wife’s school.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
“Home” has become a strange word in our family. For our youngest daughter, who was born in the United States, home definitely is Cleveland, TN. Her sister and parents aren’t so sure anymore whether home is in Germany or in Tennessee. After nine years here my answer has become: Home is where my three ladies and I live – regardless of the location.
So, how do we communicate? Phone, Skype, email, Facebook. Even my parents, who are technologically challenged, know how to skype. They call about twice a week to check on us – especially on their granddaughters whom they miss quite a bit.
4. What’s your favorite thing about being an expat in Tennessee?
It might sound tacky: Being able to live the American Dream. Coming from Germany, a country with a high degree of regulation and low tolerance for ambiguity and risk, we chose to live in the U.S. to fulfill an entrepreneurial desire. We left Germany at a time of (perceived) economic uncertainty and most people described the glass as being half empty. We were looking for an environment that saw the glass as being half full. Tennessee is a U.S. state that empowers business owners and rewards risk-takers who do their homework.
Another invaluable benefit is that we can raise our children with two languages and two cultures. Sometimes this means being able to pick the best of either side. At other times it means having to live with the worst of both sides. It does, however, teach us to embrace change.
Finally, ask my wife and she’ll tell you that the weather here in the South is quite an improvement to our quality of life (compared to the sometimes long cold/wet spans of the German climate).
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Tennessee?
One aspect that expat parents struggle with is the fact that the overall educational standards, especially in the public school systems, are significantly different from their home countries. In our case these standards are often below our expectations. Despite the United States being an egalitarian society on paper, the reality in the South is that there appears to be quite a class divide in education. Expensive private schools often offer the educational benchmarks expected in an international context, while underfunded public schools are playing catch-up and are rarely equipped to meet the needs of international students.
Another big challenge of expat life in Tennessee is the cultural gap. Coming from Central Europe we had to adapt to a different set of “normal.” Some of the most pronounced differences are in behavioral preferences, communication styles, moral standards, and interpersonal relations. There are several books about the cultural differences and similarities between Germany and the U.S. but very few cover the unique culture of the Southeast and Appalachia. I could go into a lot of detail on this topic but will focus just on a select few:
– Morals: While most Germans find nudity and non-pornographic sexual content perfectly normal and socially acceptable, for most U.S. Americans this is a taboo topic (rooted in Puritan ethics and, in the South, in a strong Christian value set). On the other hand, the depiction of violence and horror is perfectly normal in the U.S., whereas it is age-restricted in Germany.
– Communication: Germans speak their mind in a very direct, straight-forward manner with the goal of achieving utmost clarity (“Klarheit”) and avoiding ambiguity. Little thought is spent on taking into account other peoples’ feelings when communicating. Presenting facts and data is often more important than the exchange of casual pleasantries. It’s all about delivering an unmistakable message. Germans want to be respected for what they say. Americans also want that respect, of course, but they want to be liked, too. Their style of communication is much less abrasive and friendlier. It is more important to create a positive impression of oneself than being too direct. This also means that unpleasant messages are packaged to soften the impact. Southerners tend to avoid direct conflict and confrontation in their communication. Germans, who value the dialectical exchange of arguments, will come across as very confrontational with their culturally determined communication style. Complaining about issues or criticizing the execution of a task – which is a socially accepted control mechanism in German culture – will typically be viewed as directly aimed at the the individual in the Southeastern U.S., thus hurting somebody’s feelings.
– Interpersonal: There is an often-used analogy to describe the German-American difference – that of the peach and the coconut. I encourage you to look it up. In this model, Germans can be seen as the coconut – with a fairly unpleasant outer shell, a hard husk that lets Germans appear reserved, hard to get to know, sometimes even as arrogant, with private and social live fairly separated. The American peach, by contrast, is extroverted towards strangers, makes friends quickly, is open and curious, and its private and public lives are interwoven.
This makes for some nice misunderstandings.
6. What do you miss most?
That’s a question I’ve been getting quite often in the past nine years. I can’t really say that I miss Germany a lot. But I do miss the privilege that driving south for two and half hours takes me into Italy. Now that same driving time takes me to Atlanta. Don’t get me wrong – Atlanta is great and we go there frequently. I just really enjoyed getting away for a weekend to Bella Italia.
In the beginning we missed certain food items which were just hard to get in small-town Appalachia. A trip to Atlanta usually solved that problem. Now, with the arrival of several German companies in our neighborhood some of the stores have expanded their product portfolio and these trips aren’t necessary any longer. We even have authentic German bread in Chattanooga (which typically is the most missed comfort food for German expats).
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
From a business perspective it was extremely helpful for us to get involved with the local Chambers of Commerce. Here in the South, who you know sometimes is more important than what you know. We got a membership to the YMCA, we enrolled our daughters in a TaeKwonDo Academy, I coached rec soccer, I volunteered as a German language tutor at the local college – lots of avenues to meet like-minded people.
My wife’s clients are parents whose children are about the same age as our daughters and whose interests and needs often overlap with ours. While we rarely mix business with social life, some of these families have become good friends.
A few years ago I was appointed to the board of a local non-profit organization which was helping immigrants with their integration into the area. Serving the community in this capacity was not only a new cultural experience for me, it also opened doors and minds.
Opening hearts took a little longer and, granted, that wasn’t exactly easy for a reserved German. Unfortunately, it was a natural disaster which may have been the final tipping point that fully integrated our family in this area. On April 27, 2011 four tornadoes went through our town, killing several people and destroying hundreds of homes. Being part of a volunteer first-aid and relief squad helping the victims and survivors wasn’t what we had signed up for when we moved to Cleveland. Locking arms with those who were spared by the storms to make a difference in the lives of the people who got hit truly made our family a part of this community.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
“Strange” isn’t the adjective I prefer to use when talking about customs or habits. “Different,” or “unique” might be better. In U.S. American culture you don’t say “U.S. American” – it’s “American.” Canadians, Brazilians, Mexicans, and most other people of the Americas (as in “the American continents”) consider themselves “American,” too. But citizens of the United States think of themselves as being the Americans.
Most, if not all Americans have an unwavering adoration for their Constitution. This isn’t surprising as it is the foundational document of the country’s democracy. This shared believe in the Constitution includes the Amendments, such as the right of freedom of speech (1st Amendment) and the right to bear arms (2nd). This Second Amendment to many Americans is just as sacred as all other constitutional laws. In the face of mass shootings and what seems to be increasing gun violence, the 2nd amendment has come under public scrutiny in recent times. However, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will make significant changes to this article of the constitution. It is one of the unalienable rights that defines the United States and it is part of the freedom that the country’s citizens value so much. To Europeans this may be “strange” – once you get behind the underlying mindset, you’ll have a deeper understanding of American culture.
In the South, one of the first questions newcomers are asked is, “What church do you go to?” – To Germans this is a very personal question. We usually do not share matters of faith in public. Living in the Bible Belt (some say: in the Buckle of the Bible Belt) has taught me to accept this inquiry as a perfectly normal approach to learn more about somebody you meet. Church life is part of social life for many Southerners, it is sort of a social glue. It is up to the expat whether he or she wants to engage in this conversation.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
That the United States are the most advanced country in the world. As a child of the 80s and growing up in West Germany most of my generation viewed “Amerika” as the embodiment of progress and future orientation. While this is certainly true in many regards, it is also false in many others: The country’s infrastructure is dated in many regions; energy consumption is completely out of hand and energy efficiency is below the levels of most European and Asian nations. Another myth is that all Americans have very little appreciation of world history and other cultures. The United States are a big country. Traveling the continent takes time and requires no knowledge of foreign languages or getting used to different infrastructures. Therefore, not many Americans have interactions with people from other countries. This has been changing in an increasingly globalized world, though.
And then there’s this stereotype that Germans are always asked by Americans if Hitler is still alive. That is simply nonsense.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
Technically, the cost of living in Southeast Tennessee is significantly lower than in Munich. However, since we are not salaried foreign service employees with a fixed income and cost of living adjustment, our family budgeting became more challenging in the first couple of years. We bought a house, two cars, started our businesses, got health insurance, had a child – just some of the big ticket expenses. Then you factor in that buying groceries can get a little pricy if you prefer to eat healthy and if you succumb to certain German comfort food cravings. Overall I’d say: You get more bang for your buck in Tennessee.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
Before you go: Have an honest conversation with your family (and/or yourself) to determine if you are ready for this. Have your job situation clarified. This includes planning for your return. Get your financial house in order (if you are struggling with money, expatriation will not fix that). Tell your company that you want cultural and language training.
As you go: Relax, it’ll be fine.
Once you get there: Keep an open mind. Stay curious. Do not hesitate to make a fool of yourself. Have fun!
12. When and why did you start your blog?
In 2009, initially as a pet project to document my intercultural experiences, but in recent years it has also become my playground to write about my work as a trainer and consultant.
Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!