Rent an American! Exchange Students Find a New Way to Deal With Germans

US students are having a hard time in Germany, as they find themselves having to justify Washington policy from day to day. A new pilot project in German schools is meant to help Americans deal with the endless drill.

Edward Janssen's ties to Germany span three generations: His grandmother emigrated to America from the northern port city of Kiel, his mother worked for the Siemens Corporation and Janssen himself, while he was in high school, spent a few weeks living with a host family in Germany's western Eifel mountains.

Janssen, a 22-year-old student at the University of Connecticut, decided to follow in his brother's footsteps and major in German, with a minor in political science. But now that he's come to the University of Tübingen, near Stuttgart, for a semester abroad, he wonders whether he made the right decision. Despite his affinity for German culture, Janssen has hardly been welcomed with open arms.

"I don't like having to play diplomat here," he complains.

Many of the roughly 3,200 US students enrolled in foreign study programs in Germany share Janssen's experience. They are reluctant ambassadors, routinely taken to task by students and even complete strangers for the perceived offences of their government at home -- an affront that visiting students and academics from China, Russia and Arab countries rarely encounter.

American students aren't victims of open animosity or the sort of physical attacks which dark-skinned students suffer now and then in some parts of Germany. There are of course no statistics on verbal assaults on Americans.

Yet most US exchange students have similar stories to tell -- stories about anti-Bush tirades by fellow dormitory residents, about Germans with aggressive opinions at a party, or, say, the DJ at some club who had to air his thoughts on the National Rifle Association (in the wake of the recent shootings at Virginia Tech).

Edward Janssen describes a typical conversation with a German student. First question: What's your name? Second: Where are you from? Third: Did you vote for Bush? By that time, says Janssen, the German student will already have launched into a discussion of the Iraq war, the death penalty, gun control or climate protection.

"If I can make it through the first 15 minutes it just might turn into a decent conversation," he says, sarcastically. And if it lasts that long, he might have a chance to tell his own version of the story: That he was sitting in German class at his high school in Jersey City when he and fellow students watched the World Trade Center come down across the Hudson River, that some of his fellow students lost family members and friends in the attacks, and that the first vote he ever cast in a presidential election was for George W. Bush -- and that he regrets it today.


Janssen is sometimes so annoyed by these disputes that he considered cutting his visit short. He changed his mind after joining a new pilot project called "Rent an American," sponsored by the German-American Institute at the University of Tübingen, which arranges for American exchange students to visit local schools.

One in four of the roughly 100 US exchange students in Tübingen has registered for the icebreaking initiative during the current semester. The program is sponsored in part by the state of Baden-Württemberg and the Robert Bosch Foundation, and its founders say the local pilot project, if successful, could be expanded throughout Germany.

One "rented American," Audrey Bashore, stands in front of 13- to 14-year-old kids early in the morning at the St. Meinrad Independent Catholic School in the town of Rottenburg am Neckar. A cutout of the Statue of Liberty and a picture of a skyscraper skyline hang on the wall of the classroom.

Bashore, a 22-year-old student at the University of Michigan who majors in German and Voice, starts by passing around photographs: a picture of her school, one of her family celebrating the 4th of July, even a portrait of her family's mixed-breed dog. But the students want to talk politics. They read their prepared questions out loud: "Do you believe that a different president could change your country's image?" Bashore says "Yes," and stresses that she didn't vote for Bush. Her vote in the next election, she says, would go to Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

But the students are unrelenting. Do you think it's good, the way Americans consume natural resources? Bashore says no. Do you approve of the death penalty? Bashore says she prefers the German system. Do Americans support the Iraq war? Bashore tells the students about anti-war demonstrations on her campus. This sets the students at ease, and the next thing they want to know is why Americans eat so much fast food and whether they too have organic grocery stores.

A Long Slog

The same scenario repeats itself in the next hour, when Bashore visits an 11th-grade class. She introduces herself and passes around her photos. A student asks the first question: "How do you feel about Bush and the policies of his government?" When Bashore criticizes the administration, another student adds: "No one supports him. He's a liar. We're against his wars." The discussion moves to all the hot-button issues: climate change, the death penalty, gun control, Michael Moore, the Ku Klux Klan.

Bashore later says she was prepared for these kinds of questions, even if they seemed overly direct and impolite by American standards. Germans, she says, have "strong opinions," and they know what's wrong and what's right -- just like the unpopular president in Washington.

Recent statistics by the Pew Research Center suggest that German attitudes about the US have plunged to an all-time low. Only about 30 percent of Germans have a positive view of the United States, a veritable nosedive compared with the US's 78 percent approval rating in 2000. Turkey is the only other European country in 2007 where public opinion about the United States is so unfavorable. In fact, only in Muslim countries is Uncle Sam less popular than in Germany. A survey conducted last spring reported 58 percent of Germans aged 18 to 29 saying they considered the United States to be more dangerous than Iran.

Some first-year students arrive at the university with a "box full of prejudices," says Bernd Engler, a specialist in American studies and dean of the University of Tübingen. He prefers not to label the phenomenon anti-Americanism, but instead calls it "resentment that flourishes depending on events around the world." Students' distorted images of the United States, says Engler, tend to dissipate as they become more knowledgeable about the country. German universities are as a whole "unreservedly welcoming to foreigners," he insists.

Engler sees the experiences of some US exchange students as little more than instructive "initial irritation." Europeans and Americans have different attitudes when it comes to discussing politics, he says, adding that while politics and religion are seen as private matters across the Atlantic, critical discussion and openly expressing one's political views are par for the course in Germany. "We have to make it clear to our guests that questions about their political persuasion should not be construed as personal attacks."

Most of the American students in Germany who face this constant barrage of anti-American criticism tend to oppose the Bush administration and its policies. They and their German hosts tend to agree that the so-called war on terrorism raises troubling questions, and that the experiment of exporting democracy to the Arab world has been a bloody failure. They also blame Bush for weakening the foundations of human and civil rights, promoting disinformation and ignoring international bodies.

Not Apologizing for America

Kate Lawson, a 21-year-old student from Arlington, Texas, a town near Dallas, blames her own government for the constant barrage of criticism she encounters in Germany. She says Bush is to blame for the fact "that we're having such a hard time." Lawson is a Democrat and supports green policies. "Yes, we do exist, even in Texas, even if no one here wants to believe me."

In Germany, Lawson calls herself "Texas Kate," not without irony. "For Germans," she says, "Texas means Bush and cowboy country, where everyone drives a big SUV and carries a gun." When Lawson tells people that she's a marksman and owns a gun, they treat her like "a Martian." But, Lawson adds, she didn't come to Germany "to apologize for America."

It is the moral high-handedness of some Germans that many exchange students find so offensive. They are annoyed by their German hosts' conviction that it is their duty to open the eyes of these primitives from the New World to the true world order. This "self-righteousness" is "unhistorical," says Dan Diner, a historian living in Jerusalem and Leipzig who specializes in anti-Americanism, because it ignores the many ways America has helped and influenced Europe -- from the French Revolution to German reunification.

Andrei Markovits, author of "Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America" -- and one of the most prominent US experts on Germany -- is highly critical of German academics. "Anti-Americanism is the only prejudice in Germany that increases with social status and higher education," says Markovits. It is for this reason, he adds, that "students are usually worse than your ordinary citizen."

Germany's guests from abroad have developed their own strategies for dealing with the Germans' ambivalent image of America. "Texas Kate," for example, gets plenty of laughs from her roommates when she voluntarily takes out the carefully sorted trash -- "in penance."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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