Who am I?
Primarily, I am a father, a husband, and a scientist. I grew up during the 90s in a small culturally homogenous town in Utah. My interests are very broad, ranging from art to marketing and theoretical physics. Somehow, science captured my attention and has remained my primary focus. Through college at Utah State University, and through the completion of my PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Utah, my wife supported our family financially while taking care of our two children. My research has focused on new materials, called photonic crystals, patterned on the nanoscale that are capable of controlling light in interesting and useful ways.Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I decided to move my family to Germany on the advice of a German coworker I had in graduate school. He had endless praise for his Fatherland, and encouraged me to apply for an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship after graduate school. Prior to moving here, I visited Leipzig and Dresden to look for potential research institutes that could facilitate the work I wanted to include on my Humboldt application. The Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden was a great match. Fortunately, my research proposal was well received by the Humboldt Foundation and I moved to Dresden on June 1st 2012.
What challenges did you face during the move?
My family and I moved from Utah to Germany on a very limited budget. While the Humboldt Foundation paid for some of my personal travel expenses, they would not pay for my family. Since going to graduate school while having a family is not a great way to save money, we were obligated to sell most of our personal belongings to come here. In the end, we came only with what we could carry-on and check for free on our one-way flight. After arriving here, we realized that the limited German we had been practicing was not nearly enough to even get by. We didn’t know how anything worked, and we didn’t know anybody to ask. Psychologically, it was almost traumatic to go from feeling so capable after recently navigating the complexities of completing a PhD to so helpless on arriving in Germany.
How did you find somewhere to live?
We had a three-pronged approach to apartment hunting: we searched on our own, we tried going through connections at my work, and we used the TUD Welcome Center, which offers help with this type of thing. Searching on our own was pointless. We found many apartments we liked by browsing online apartment listings, but for whatever reason nobody ever responded to our phone calls or emails. A friendly coworker referred me to his landlord, who speaks perfect English and offered us a selection of places. The Welcome Center also found a place for us, but it was furnished with what appeared to be many expensive and breakable things that would not last long with my two children running around, who are 5 and 3 years old. Our efforts to network into an apartment paid off. Our new landlord made arrangements so that the apartment was available for us on the day we arrived, and even lent us basic furniture to use until we could buy our own.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Within the scientific community, Dresden attracts talented people from all over Europe and China. There are much fewer coming from the USA however. In the group of 70 people I work with, I am the only one from the US. Unfortunately, I think many scientists in the US simply do not think of coming to Germany, and those who do tend to go to the western parts of the country. This might be changing, however, because companies like Global Foundries are attracting American expats and the high volume of quality research (facilitated by the excellent funding) coming from places like Dresden is bringing attention.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
In the beginning, things were tenuous. My family comes from an area in the US where people routinely smile and say polite things to strangers, and kids tend to be a little bit more vocal. When we went to the grocery store, we felt like the locals were being very rude when we would smile at them and they would simply turn their backs to us. It was especially frustrating when our daughter, who is by every measure adorable, would smile and say “Hallo” to grandparent aged women… only to get a frown in return.
Learning about the history of East Germany helped us understand the attitudes of the older German people. We have come to respect that the Germans are very friendly and kind, just not in the ways that we are used to. And, a lot of what might be taken as coldness is actually shyness. Most older East Germans learned Russian in school, not English like the younger folks, and can be embarrassed around English speakers.
What do you like about life where you are?
There are many positive aspects to German life that outweigh any negatives. There is a prevailing sense of order here. There are many rules, but people know the good reasons behind these rules and things run much smoother. German people tend to be very direct and honest, which feels a bit awkward at first in social situations but is very favorable within the scientific community. If I ask somebody to do something, and they say yes, it is settled. They need no reminder, and they never say yes if they aren’t sure. Overall, I feel safer in Germany than I did in the US, and Germany is absolutely beautiful in the springtime.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I miss some of the convenience we have back home. It is a lot easier (because of parking), and cheaper to drive places in the USA. We feel like there is much less selection in grocery stores here, and many of the foods we like (such as peanut butter) are difficult or expensive to get. With our income, it is too expensive for us to fly back to Utah to visit our families, which is hard. And, because our Utah culture is so different from German culture (we don’t drink alcohol or coffee for example) really integrating is difficult.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Start seriously learning German before you arrive in Germany. Try to develop a support network of local people. Find organizations, like the TUD Welcome Center, specifically designed to help foreigners navigate the complexities of settling down in Germany. Soon after we arrived, we joined German language and integration classes, this has really helped. Try to make friends with a local or two (but be careful, because Germans take friendship more seriously than we do in the US). Anticipate the culture shock. I thought I knew it would be difficult, but it was much more emotionally hard for my family and I than we expected.
What are your plans for the future?
We have at least another year to fulfill my contract with the Humboldt Foundation. After that, we hope to stay in Germany for a few more years before heading back to our Motherland for good. The experience so far in Germany has been life changing for us. I am sure that our time here has greatly increased our prospects for success and happiness in the future.