Lessons from Growing up Amongst Two Distinct Countries

/ 5 June 2015

I’ve had the privilege of growing up at the intersection of the cultures, expectations, and practices of two countries. Officially I was born in Beverly, MA and grew up in Boston my first 8 years and Saint Paul, MN since, still living there to this day. Truly an American by citizenship, place of residence, and how people from other countries view me. Yet I was barely older than 1 year old when I first spent a few weeks in Vienna, Austria and that city, country, its culture and language, have been a solid part of my life ever since, to the point where Vienna may well be the only place outside the US that I also consider home.

I’ve recently come away from spending 2.5 weeks in Austria (in fact I started drafting this post about a week ago somewhere north of Reykjavik on the flight home), quite likely the last time I’ll be there with my entire immediate family, and last time period until who knows when. So there were a number of times my thoughts strayed into what I can bring back to better the wider US society, or at least hope to, from my fairly unique experiences thus far in my life. Let me discuss a few of those here.

Throughout my childhood one of my favorite things about Vienna was the Wiener Linien, the awesome public transit system Vienna has. Now, at least some of the US has decent public transit, for example Boston, but the Twin Cities very much does not when I have Vienna as my primary point of comparison (though our light rail train cars happen to be made by the same company that supplies much of the Wiener Linien). Public transit isn’t meant for the poor, not entirely. Everyone benefits from it on many levels. Fossil fuel emissions get reduced as the number of individual cars is somewhat reduced. Being in the midst of “road construction” season here in MN it also dawns on me that the stress of vehicles on our roads being reduced is also an important benefit of functional and all-encompassing public transit. Everyone who uses public transit stands a chance of being healthier simply because they end up walking more, and we may end up meeting people that we otherwise wouldn’t. With stresses of driving removed our days may be more enjoyable and also perhaps less scheduled to the minute. There is a better sense of community when you are around more people daily. The list can go on. We need to take public transit as one solid lesson from Europe, and even closer domestic peers, to better our society.

But this time I was in Vienna the Wiener Linien was not at all central, it was merely one means of getting from point A to point B, perhaps following my brief visit in 2012 where we drove everywhere and I got that very different perspective of the city for the first time in my life (things really are much closer than they had seemed previously). Instead I enjoyed the many visits we had with assorted friends of the family (and even distant blood relations) at least as much in total, though some individual ones more than others. A sort of people over places thing. The lesson in this comes from the conversations we’d have, wherein I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with much of their views of the US, understanding where they came from, and truly seeing how much more sensible countless numbers of aspects of society are in Austria over the US that informed their views of our country. I love the US, but we just need to begin to think of the whole community rather than just our selfish selves. All sorts of common good things, from functional healthcare and livable job benefits to public spaces of all kinds and everything in between. Quite simply knowing so many people in Austria, much less my personal experiences of even living there myself for chunks of time (ever since those 6 months in 2007 I can no longer be a tourist in Austria, and even sometimes feel partially Austrian when there, for it is home too), shows me how much we need to model our society on Europe to secure genuine longevity as a society. We can’t just make our lives good, we must think of our neighbors if we want to be successful and happy.

That leads me to another realization I had when walking along the cobblestone roads and sidewalks (which I find I’m as used to walking on as the “normal” pavement used in the US) of the old city and Grinzing. The US and Austria operate on entirely different time scales. Civilization that led to modern Vienna had been around for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before the US became a thing. We’re literally an infant, maybe teenager if you want to be generous, by comparison. Yes, we’re descended from European society, but we never wanted to replicate it. This doesn’t excuse our many societal problems, but it may show one lens with which to improve by. Perhaps our focus on individuality is that of the teen who rebels against everything their parents say? If we could glance at Europe in its infancy might we see some of these same tendencies? If so then perhaps, assuming that climate change doesn’t claim humanity first, we’re in better shape then a cursory glance at the global landscape of today may make it seem.

There is also the general sense of wider acceptance of differences that anyone who spends significant time in other countries will pick up. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the US and Austria (or the US and many other countries) is in the language that is spoken. While German and English use the same alphabet, and indeed a few words may even sound a bit like siblings of each other, they are still two very different languages. But the differences only start there. All sorts of small cultural differences form the core to what may make your average tourist feel ever so slightly uneasy in Austria. Once you’ve spent enough time in a place these differences melt away from conscious recognition because you’ve internalized them. This in turn gives you a sense of wider acceptance for what many may term the other, even for those groups whose cultures you haven’t grown accustomed to at all. More people in the US need to have these experiences in order to have a gracious and accurate worldview. It may well be too many people lacking in this that has gotten us into the position we’re in as a country today (and with relations towards our global peers). Whole wars may, when you get down far enough, be the result of misunderstandings that could have been unnoticeably avoided were people in charge to have had any cross-cultural experiences.

When walking along streets, in the woods, or looking out the windows of trains around Vienna you notice lots of places named things starting with “Unsere” (“Our” in English). Unsere Bad (Our Baths) and so on… This may be the most physical representation of the deep sense of things being for the common good that Austria has. It would be one thing for us to say we’ll do something, but engraving ideals in physical forms ensures they will last. So we must collaboratively do more than speak and write about change, but also to find ways, if small (say, during election cycles helping certain candidates over others), of enacting it. It is unhealthy for us to develop societies, even those built around a market economy, thinking about just ourselves or those we’re aware of as opposed to everyone, but it is worse to hold certain ideals and principles in rhetoric alone.

It has been a wonderful privilege to have who I am (continue to be) defined by not one, but two, cultures and places. Indeed, though if you counted up the days I have probably spent more time in Collegeville than Vienna, the consistency across my lifetime with which Vienna has been a part, and especially it being wholly a different place, means it may well have impacted me in some deep ways that CSB/SJU simply couldn’t have. The trick now is to let it influence the ways I make my small circle of reach in this world a better place. Of course, that is no individual task. So, let me close by inviting anyone who reads this to add to my sampling their own lessons from whatever cross-cultural experiences you’ve had in comments here or elsewhere to begin to have a larger picture of what changes could be made to better our society should we (“oh the horror” as some folks will say) take the advice of global peers.