Do you know the difference between a flower and a weed? I’m sure you believe you do. I know I did. I was told all my life that certain plants – no matter how lovely the bloom were worthless and needed to be culled from the garden. They were mowed over, discarded, ignored.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned the true difference is merely one of perception.
I noticed early on in our first year in Germany, that the flower patch in front of the Kindergarten was wild and unruly, especially in comparison to the impeccably tended gardens of the houses in the neighborhood. Surely, they’d clean this out as soon as the school year began.
But they didn’t. The goldenrod grew tall and bloomed full, and all I could think about were the allergies caused by this giant weed growing underneath the windows of the Kindergarten. I’d shake my head as I walked past and chuckle to myself about the one unruly garden plot I’d found in Germany.
Soon I’d grown accustomed to the weeds growing at the Kindergarten, and I was able to walk by them, not noticing the lush greens and vibrant yellows that by now completely dwarfed my kindergartener.
But the day my doorbell rang, I could no longer ignore them.
I answered the door to find my next door neighbor standing there with a large bouquet for me. She smiled as she told me in near perfect English that she’d picked them from her garden. Then she handed me a large bouquet of goldenrod. I pasted a smile to my face to hide my confusion. I was wondering why on earth my neighbor brought me the weeds from her garden, but I didn’t ask. I pulled out a large vase, set the goldenrod in some water and invited my neighbor in for a coffee.
It wasn’t until we went back to visit that same neighbor after we had moved away that I shared that story with her. As our families sat together enjoying cocktails on the patio conversing in a mix of German and English, talk soon turned to the crazy things that happened during those first years.
I told her how surprised I was that she had given me a bouquet of goldenrod, because where I came from, they were merely weeds, and I could not for the life of me figure out why they seemed like an appropriate gift.
She laughed until the tears came to her eyes, wondering what I must have thought of someone who presents a gift of weeds from her garden. Then she explained to me that here, goldenrod was a valuable plant. Not only does the plant have medicinal properties, but it is used as an expensive accent to a florist’s arrangement. While she had given me a treasured gift from her garden, my perception didn’t allow me to see beyond the weed.
When you stereotype a people, it’s a lot like that. Having a preconceived notion is a natural thing. It helps you make sense of a world you cannot otherwise understand. It’s the unwillingness to see beyond these preconceived notions that is problematic. When you cling to a negative stereotype rather than looking beyond it to the individual standing before you it becomes a hindrance. It’s a bad thing when you’re handed a beautiful bouquet, and all you can see is a bundle of weeds.
Before I arrived in Germany, I read multiple books on culture. I wanted to know what I should expect when I was living among the German population. I developed several preconceived notions, stereotypes based on what I was reading. My five years living in Germany not only broke down these stereotypes, they made me realize that while you can find some characteristics within a population, each individual behaves uniquely within those cultural definitions. Stereotypes, preconceived notions, provide a springboard to explore the behaviors of individuals living within a broader cultural framework.
While the books on German culture provided me with a stepping off point, I soon realized that I needed to loosen my grip on that particular security blanket and explore with my heart and eyes open. The people who I met weren’t just Germans. They were individuals, who lived, loved, traveled, dreamed, explored, and laughed – yes laughed, a lot (contrary to the widely held belief that states otherwise, Germans have a fabulous sense of humor.) These individuals became my friends, my family, the people I turned to when I needed help, the people I celebrated with, laughed with and cried with when it was time for us to leave.
I have realized that while it is important to educate yourself as much as you can before you participate in any cross-cultural engagement, it is important not to let that research, and those opinions you’ve formed guide you too strongly. Instead, open your heart, and you might find that you have flowers where you once saw weeds.