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The basic questions we have to answer about ourselves

welcome to berlinI just returned from the first day (yay beginnings!) of my newest German language course here in Berlin. To say I was nervous before this class started would be a severe understatement. Just walking from my apartment to the u-bahn station today was nerve-wracking. I’ve been off-and-on (but mostly on) in Berlin for a long while now (too long to count) and my German is just…schlecht. Sehr schlecht!

Read my previous adventures of learning German in Berlin in the archives.

The past few weeks, in between German language lessons, my language skills have decreased dramatically. Not least because I holed myself up in a warm bed to avoid the winter that doesn’t seem to want to end. Then there’s this anxiousness I feel when trying to learn German. I’m not sure where it comes from—maybe it’s because I’m worried about unavoidable mistakes, worried about making a fool of myself, or worse, of some sort of strange, German-language induced death. (It can happen, right??) Of course, as soon as I made my way into the school (this time it’s the VHS if you’re counting), most of my fears dissipated.

Today’s teacher (Lehrerin) wasn’t much older than me from what I could tell. The 14 or so other students didn’t try to eat my brains, nor did they laugh at my mistakes. No pit opened up to swallow me as soon as the wrong article (der,die,das,den,who-really-cares?!) sputtered from my tongue. In fact, as soon as the tennis ball landed in my hands and it was my turn to introduce myself, I was quite calm. And ready to give it my best.

* * *

But that’s when it hit me. This must be the umpteenth time I’ve had to introduce myself in a German language course. With my limited language skills, my introduction to the who/what/where I am is pretty fine-tuned at this point. When backpacking around the world, most travelers are already familiar with “the same conversation” where you repeat your story, over and over to new, fast friends and casual acquaintances. The travel questions that you have to answer when backpacking typically goes the likes of this:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where have you been?
  • Where are you going?
  • How long are you traveling for?

The answers can vary widely but the conversation does seem to get repetitive. In language class, however, the questions we have to answer about ourselves are this:

  • Where are you from?
  • What/where is your family?
  • What’s your job?
  • What are your hobbies?

There’s something worth noting about these two sets of questions. For one, the language questions are much more focused on who you are, things you cannot control. The travel questions are more about your experiences and the choices you’ve made. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, because even if I tried to say that, I wouldn’t believe myself, but I do think each set of questions has their significance.


Having to answer these questions about myself, however, has led me to some interesting answers. When I was backpacking, my travel answers were pretty clear-cut. I knew where I’d come from, and where I was going was pretty much always open for discussion. I knew how long I was traveling for, but was less sure how much longer the trip would last.

My language answers, though, have been a whole other beast. I’ve got my location and my family down pat — that’s easy. It’s when I try to figure out how long I’ve been in Berlin, why I live here, and what exactly it is that I’m doing here—that’s where I run into trouble. How long have I been here? Off-and-on for over a year and a half, but with several long breaks. Sometimes I was working, sometimes I wasn’t. Now: defining my job is a tricky question and sometimes I’m not even sure what it is that I’m doing. My hobbies? I suppose it’s travel (or is that my job?).

It seems no matter which questions I answer these days, there’s always ambiguity. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, and like I wondered aloud last week, I don’t particularly mind that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll save the real answers for later and just focus on asking someone else the questions.

Who are you and what are you doing here? Wer bist du und was machst du hier?

  1. Sam says:

    Ich heisse Sam und ich komme aus London.

    This was really interesting read for me, as I’ve experienced both of these sets of questions many, many times: as a traveller and as an EFL teacher. Not only the students have to answer; the teacher is answering these things over and over again! And as a nomadic EFL teacher, “where do you live” is usually the hardest.

    Oh, and no one really cares about the articles! I worked in Austria (teaching English) for a while and one of the great things about the dialects there is that they can all be reduced to more or less “de”!

    • Adam says:

      Danke Sam. It must be interesting to be on the side of learning a language in a school, and also teaching a language in a school… I imagine your perspective is unique and interesting.

      Clever trick with the Austrian pronunciation… I may just use it!

  2. Hallo, ich heisse Henry, und ich bin in Kanada geboren und aufgewachsen. Während meiner 2012-Weltreise, hab’ ich mich sehr gefreut, Adam und andere nette Leute in der deutschen Hauptstadt kennen zu lernen … also, die 9. Herbst-Wochen in Berlin gingen auch zu schnell …

    I think both sets of questions have melded into one, which may reflect my overall attitude about the closing separation between the two spheres, and my feelings about how one simply leads to the other (and back again).

    Viel Glück!

  3. Talon says:

    Some great pondering!

  4. Ali says:

    Good luck with your return to German classes! I know what you mean about memorizing your answers to those questions. At the very least it’s something to remind yourself you have learned SOME German and give yourself a boost to push through the next bits. It’s a really hard language, but at least most Germans know it’s a hard language and they seem pretty understanding when you make mistakes.

    As far as the question of what you’re doing in Berlin, what work is, and all that, I can relate. I was constantly going back and forth between saying “I’m a writer” or “I run a few travel blogs” which always got me blank stares, or just not bothering and saying “I don’t work” which somehow feels dirty. Plus they have this distinction between what you were trained as for a career and what you’re actually employed as now. They seemed to always understand me more when I said my beruf is insurance. Even though I haven’t worked in insurance in almost 2 years and have no intention of ever doing that again as a job.

    Hopefully the slower class will be good for you. My 4 hour a day, 5 days a week class was way too fast to really absorb anything. Take your time, don’t be hard on yourself if you get stuck somewhere, and find people outside of class to practice with because practicing with a bunch of other foreigners in a classroom setting isn’t really so helpful.

    • Adam says:

      Thank you Ali! I won’t lie that the little conversation I’ve gotten used to saying about myself in German does usually make me feel pretty smart—as if I actually know some of the language!

      I was curious to read your perspective on your beruf. I used to make it pretty complicated and say things like “I write a blog” but it just sounded strange and now I just talk about working freelance, sometimes as a “reisejournalist.” The intense class was good for me, but drained me of a lot of energy and time for much of anything else.

      Thanks for your support!

  5. Natalye says:

    I think all of us ex-pats, no matter how long we have been on the move or settled somewhere, always have a bit of uncertainty about how to answer the questions… it is, after all, what has made us head out in search of new places in the first place.

    On another note, if you ever want to get together and practice German, I am game. I think it could be helpful for both of us.

    • Adam says:

      The uncertainty is what drives me crazy but also makes me excited about life/living/whatever.

      Definitely up for some German practice! But alcohol may need to be involved, Natalye :)

  6. I LOVE this post. I love it more than I can put in this comment. I may have to write an answer post straight away. You rule. :) xx

    • Adam says:

      Thank you so much Mariella! It was a tough one to write and I was unsure before hitting publish, but I’m quite happy with the conversations it has started.

      Bis bald!

  7. Yishyeeeene says:

    I think the most difficult question that I’ve had to answer (and am still answering) is the one I always ask myself – who AM I??

    The one I hate answering most – especially when I’m meeting new people while traveling – is what I do for a living.. or my job. (am stuck in a job I don’t enjoy and not proud of >.<)

    Good luck with the German! Will await a post in German from you.. hehe


    • Adam says:

      That’s a really tough question too, Yishyene! I’m afraid it’ll be a while until I can write a whole post in German ;)

  8. Good post Adam, I often think about these questions when I meet new people.

    Personally I think the “language questions” are silly outside of a classroom – even though I know everyone does it. Asking questions about your family/job is in a social setting irrelevant and just demonstrates boring conversation skills.

    I was once asked at a Couchsurfing meeting “what my religion was” – I replied “shouldn’t you ask me my name first?”.

    • Adam says:

      Thank you Roy!

      I find the questions about your family, heritage or job to be rather irrelevant as well – it’s strange how sometimes people fall back on old standards. That religion question is interesting. I remember being asked that quite regularly at meetups in Israel…mostly because the culture and society places such a heavy emphasis on religion.

  9. Synke says:

    Viel Erfolg beim Deutsch lernen! Its great that you trying it again, after a while it will get easier. I always struggeled learning a new language at first but sticking with it and trying it again, and again will eventually pay off.

    I really enjoyed reading your post. These are questions being ask all the time. There were times I hated my job and thats all people wanted to know when they met me. Quiet frusturating. Yet, I sometimes asked the same damn thing I have to admit ;)

    BTW, I think I saw you on Saturday over noon at Datscha and Boxi.

    • Adam says:

      Danke Synke!! I find myself falling into the repetitve trap of asking the same questions as well.

      And yes – that was ME at Datscha (and later at Boxi) this weekend! Next time say hi :) I don’t bite!

      • Synke says:

        Ok, next time I will ;) It was a bit weird to actually see someone who’s Blog I read and only know from the internet.

  10. I used to fail at the introduction thing but now I’m better at it. Things can get kinda deep though, when you start thinking about ‘who am I and why I am here.’

    By the way, I commend you on your penmanship :)

    • Adam says:

      Hahah thanks Scott for the comment on my writing – made me smile!

      These questions can get very deep very quickly! Sometimes too much for my mind to hold in — and certainly too much for my limited vocabulary when learning a new language!

  11. Jeruen says:

    Ich heiße Jeruen, ich komme von den Philippinen, und ich arbeite als ein wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter (Postdoktorand) in eine Forschungsinstitut.

    This is a great article Adam. As the son of a diplomat who grew up in plenty of different cities around the world before even turning legal, I personally find the question “Where do you come from?” very hard to answer, usually answering instead with “Well, how much time do you have?” I come from the Philippines, yet I have spent more years outside than inside it. I get reverse culture shock whenever I visit Manila. So, I might be from the Philippines, yet for all intents and purposes, that’s just a label that doesn’t mean much.

    I used to ponder about that a lot, but nowadays, I just leave the question open, it makes for great conversation fodder, and it makes life more interesting when there are things left undefined.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Jeruen – and nice to meet you :)

      I like your comment about leaving things undefined – it certainly makes life easier to keep things ambiguous – and requires deeper conversations.

  12. Arianwen says:

    Interesting. It seems that whenever I’ve attempted to learn a new language, the first lesson has been ‘How to order a beer’! Perhaps I look like the type who would need to know!

    • Adam says:

      Well Arianwen, outside of the classroom I can confirm that the very first thing I learned in Germany was how to order a beer — and perhaps more importantly, how to order two ;-)

      Thanks for the LULZ

  13. Ric says:

    Hallo! Ich heisse Ric und ich komme aus Australien.

    And that’s the extent of my german. That I pretty much just stole from the other comments…

    I know what you mean about being unsure of how to answer some of those questions. Having the place your born, you live, and your original heritage as different countries can be pretty odd sometimes. Especially when your on the road and asked the ubiquitous “Where are you from?” question.

    • Adam says:

      With so many different places that we try to make our own, it’s no wonder we have such a difficult time defining answers to even the most basic questions!

      Thanks for the comment Ric.

  14. Valerie says:

    Let’s see…I don’t know any German but I’m going to prom with a German guy does that count? haha
    I loved this article because it let’s me know that I am not the only person who doesn’t have a clue about their future. I am going to college this fall to major in nursing but I do not want to spend my whole life working in a hospital with only 2 weeks of vacation a year. I want to travel but to be honest I don’t know where to start. I guess I have a lot to figure out.
    You’re awesome! I hope your class goes well :)

    • Adam says:

      Thanks so much Valerie :) And that’s great to hear you’ve got a plan and an idea of what you already want out of life. Hopefully the 2-weeks vacation time will eventually change to be an exception rather than the norm. I don’t see how it can be sustainable forever – everyone always wants more vacation time!

  15. Nienke says:

    Great post Adam! I’ve added it to my new series of Inspirational lifestyle & travel stories. Coming from Holland, we always had to learn German in school, but I hated it and only really started picking it up it again when working in hostel in Sydney (so many German travellers, amazing). The questions you’ve written down I’ve come across so many times during my travels and apart from the ‘where have you been and where are you going next’, I always loved hearing about other people’s lives on the road. Good luck with everything!

    • Adam says:

      Thank you Nienke! Glad you found it inspirational :)

      I imagine working in a hostel is a lot of fun, but you probably encounter those ubiquitous questions at a much more rapid rate! I really love hearing other people’s stories, too – they’re often so interesting. It’s sharing my own story where I trip up…mostly because I’m so unsure about my own answers.

  16. Laurel says:

    I think it’s harder as an expat to create your identity or re-identify yourself than it is at home. You can choose what parts of yourself to re-invent and what parts you want to keep the same. For many of us, the move also means a new career, which while exciting, can also cause identity issues. For me it’s easy how long I’ll stay in Germany (hopefully forever) and why I’m here (my husband), but I think it’s a struggle for a lot of expats. And I have hobbies, which helps me feel like I fit in :)

    • Adam says:

      That’s so true Laurel! The expat thing is definitely a challenge sometimes. Most of the people in my German class are here for specific reasons (work, marriage) and the few of us who are here because we fell in love with the culture have much less tangible answers. It’s an interesting conundrum.

  17. Linda says:

    Jealous that you’re in a language class. I totally love learning to speak foreign languages but my learning has always been “on the street.” There’s nothing like learning the local language to make me feel less like a “tourist” and more like a “traveler.” My most useful phrase has got to be “Could you speak more slowly, please?” in the local language. How do you say that in German?

    • Adam says:

      Cheers Linda! Living for so much time in Berlin, a language class is pretty much necessary for me since I need to learn much more in-depth grammar & vocabulary. Plus it’s fun to meet other expats!

      I’m always asking Germans to speak slower! Langsam bitte!

  18. flip says:

    Nice post Adam! I’ve been thinking of studying another language as well but have not decided yet.

    • Adam says:

      Interesting to hear Flip! I suppose I chose the destination before the language, but there are still some languages I’d like to know more words in, despite the unlikelihood of me every living there…

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