Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Moving Beyond Misconceptions

Since arriving in the U.S. for home assignment, we've encountered some misconceptions about our life and ministry in Austria, missionaries in general and Austria in particular. I do not fault people at all for having these misconceptions. It is, of course, no one's fault that they have not had the opportunity to travel to Austria or that they haven't been exposed to some of the realities of missions, life in Europe or Austrian culture.  I thought it might be helpful, in light of these misconceptions, to try and address some of these questions, in an effort to educate and raise awareness about our life in Vienna.

1) Austria and Germany are basically the same country. 
This is BY FAR the most common misconception I have encountered regarding Americans' perceptions about Austria. I understand Austria is a small country, but it is a unique country and culture. However, because we speak German, many Americans get confused and refer to us as being from Germany. Or they ask us what it is like in Germany. I usually say, "I don't know. I've never been there."

The irony is that Austria and Germany are two very different countries and cultures. In Austria, people from Germany who move there often butt up against quite a few culture norms and standards that are unfamiliar to them. We also speak a different dialect of German than most of the people living in Germany. Austrians even make fun of the Germans a bit for their differences or "quirks" and vice versa. Lumping them together would be like someone saying that Canada and the U.S., or even the U.S. and England, are basically the same country, because they speak the same language.

2) Living in Europe is "glamorous".
I think much of Europe is beautiful, and we certainly live in a beautiful country and city. However, our everyday life probably looks like yours in many respects. We don't spend much time "playing tourist"; we have to work, run errands, buy groceries, do laundry, handle our medical needs and banking, and all of the other mundane things of life. Oftentimes, these tasks take more time for us living overseas than they do for someone in their home culture. In our free time, we often get together with friends for a meal or time together. Even though we live in a beautiful place, we still lead a normal life and nothing about it is glamorous.

3) Taking a vacation to another European country must be expensive and lavish.
Getting away from home as a family is something we value. Like most people, though, we live on a budget. When we plan family trips and vacations, we try to be careful about how we spend our money so that we can be wise stewards, while still having enough time away to get some rest. Living in Europe, this often means driving to a neighboring country or taking the train somewhere. A trip to Prague, Italy or Croatia might sound lavish and expensive to an American, but if done right, these trips are the cheapest options available to us (especially thanks to AirBnB!).

4) Language fluency is clear and measurable. You're either fluent or you're not.
We are often asked if we are fluent in German. This is a difficult question to answer, because we never woke up on a particular day and said, "finally, today, I am fluent!" Reaching fluency is something that is not able to be measured, and language learning is a fluid process. It is easier for us to describe our language ability, not in terms of language fluency, but in terms of particular situations where we are comfortable or proficient. For example, we could say, "Nate was able to preach in German 7 times during his internship," or "I no longer get nervous going to the visa office by myself," or "I have friendships in German where I feel like I can be myself and express myself".

5) Coming back to the U.S. is like "coming home".
I think I've written about this before...Many people greet us in the U.S. by saying "Welcome home!" While this is said with good intentions, it usually makes us squirm a little. Being in the U.S. no longer feels like our home and hearing the phrase brings up all sort of complicated emotions. Our home now is where our life is in Vienna, where we live, where our dog lives, and where our friends and church are.

6) Our home assignment time in the U.S. is a restful break.
This is a complicated one. Part of the reason WorldVenture asks us to come back to the U.S. is to take some time to rest and be back in American culture. We understand their reasons for this. The time here has been incredibly valuable. However, resting here has been a struggle for us. Traveling around, being away from home, lacking regularity and routine, staying in over 20 places over the course of 7 months...this temporary lifestyle is not very restful. It definitely has come with many blessings, but we don't ever feel fully at rest being away from home.

7) We are teaching Ellie German, and she's already growing up bilingual.
Many people are surprised when we tell them that Ellie doesn't know any German yet. However, our decision not to speak German with her has been very intentional. First, we want English to be our primary language at home so that we, as parents, can be most comfortable in our home environment speaking our native language. Second, our German is not perfect and never will be, so Ellie shouldn't be learning German from us. She should learn it from native speakers. Third, living in Austria and going through the school system, there is no doubt Ellie will become a fluent German speaker. We want to make sure she gets enough English in her life that she is truly bilingual and doesn't ever lose the English. Therefore, we are focusing on that first. She will start preschool this fall and be fully immersed in German for the first time.

8) It's easy to describe a foreign culture to someone who's never been there.
We get a lot of general questions about Austria, like "How are Austrians different from Americans?", "What is it like there?" or "Can you describe the culture?" These questions are so hard to answer, especially the longer we live there. Cultural differences are very complex and the longer I live in Austria and get to know more Austrians personally, the more I experience all of the different personalities that exist there, just like in every other culture. In every country, there is variance amongst people and for every "cultural norm", there are plenty of people who defy it. It gets harder and harder for me to fit Austria and it's people into a neat little box or tidy descriptions.

9) We live in the snow-capped Alps.
When many Americans picture Austria, they envision snowy mountains or scenes from the Sound of Music, where "the hills are alive". Yes, these places exist in Austria, but we live in the middle of an urban area in a city of 2,000,000 people. We do not ski, and we do not hike through the mountains regularly, nor do we spin in green fields like Julie Andrews, We only see the mountains a couple of times a year.

I hope these descriptions and answers shed a little more light on our life in Austria. We truly appreciate every question someone asks us about our life there, no matter how difficult they can be to answer.