One of the unexpected benefits I have gotten out of Toastmasters is it has given me an opportunity to reflect on my life, and condense bits of them into interesting stories worthy of an audience.
Dear madam toastmaster, fellow toastmasters and guests, today I’d like to share with you a very important chapter of my life – lost and found in Germany.
Like all little girls growing up with disney fairytales, I have always dreamt of becoming an engineer. I am kidding. I actually never thought that I would become one. But what I did grow up dreaming of, is an opportunity to study and live overseas. So when I graduated from high school and got a scholarship to study engineering in Germany, I was ecstatic.
Little did I know what the next five years would entail.
I arrived in Germany in January 2004, and quickly discovered one of the toughest things I had to battle – namely, winter. Having grown up in Malaysia, a tropical country where it is perpetually summer, the lowest temperature I have ever experienced was 27 degrees Celsius. And the temperature on the day I landed in Frankfurt was minus 14 degrees.
So one of the very first things I picked up in Germany was the habit of checking the weather forecast. In the beginning of university I would either be wearing too little or too much to class and my coursemates would ask me “Didn’t you check the weather forecast yesterday?” I didn’t know how to tell them I never knew how to do that so what I did was I went home that evening and set a recurring reminder at 9pm everyday on my phone – ‘check weather forecast for tomorrow’.
Apart from the weather, the second thing that was completely new to me was the language. I have completed two years of german course before I arrived, but even then, I still barely understood anything in class during the first few months of university. And I was the only overseas student in my class. People kind of expected me to speak their language, and the thing is, I did. But just not good enough yet to understand everything, like the jokes or the slang. So that was quite frustrating and I felt pretty lonely at times.
Going about my daily life was no mean feat. Everything was different from what I was used to. I remember the first time I went grocery shopping. I was looking for shampoo and saw these rows and rows of colourful bottles in different shapes and sizes. I very excitedly pushed my cart over to that aisle only to realise they were actually cleaning products. For everything that you could ever imagine. Or when I was looking for garbage bags and was confronted with 75 different ones, each for a different recycling purpose. Or when I wanted to buy potatoes and was asked to “be more specific” because there are 15 different kinds of them. Or when i was looking for drinking water and the staff pointed me to the beer section.
And I remember the first time I got into a conflict with my german housemate because I did not remove the staple and paper label from my tea bag and put them into the correct recycling bags. I thought he was crazy but later found out everyone does that. Even my landlady who was 95 and was half blind.
And then there’s the different sense of fashion. On the first day of spring I saw a guy wearing sandals … with socks. Now where I came from that is a serious fashion crime. So I got very excited and wanted to tell my german friends about that funny looking guy I just saw when I noticed that all my friends were wearing the same thing. Socks and sandals. Knee-length trousers. Just … parading around.
All these little anecdotes might sound amusing on hindsight. But for me, at that time, they were actually daily battles. Little challenges added up and they slowly got to me. Up to a point where I started to question my choice to come to Germany. I fell into a spiral of self doubt, and felt that I was losing my zest, my optimism, and my confidence.
I remember the first time I fell sick in Germany. I went to the doctor and because of the language barrier, I couldn’t explain to him what was wrong with me. Overcome with helplessness and self pity, I went home and called my parents. I cried to them on the phone and told them I wanted to come home. I will never forget what my dad told me that day. He said,
“One day at a time. If you still feel the same after a year, then come home.”
And that was exactly what I did. One day at a time. Naively, I held on to the hope that I would only need to do this for one year.
One of my professors said to us in one of his classes that the secret to effective learning is, I quote “Lernen, Vergessen, und Wieder Lernen.” In English, “Learn, Forget, and Relearn”. I realised this formula works as well when one is learning to survive in a new environment. I needed to learn to ‘forget’ my old way of living, set my mind on ‘relearning’ the new one and go about it with the curiosity, eagerness and determination of a child learning to take his first steps. Once I did that, I actually started to enjoy my new life.
I learned how to take things easier and not stress up too much when I don’t understand 100% of everything. I picked up cooking and whenever I felt homesick I’d cook my mum’s favourite dish. I started to travel extensively after discovering this amazing something called budget airliners. I forced myself to watch German TV and listen to German music and against all odds and rationality became a fan of Rammstein. I became an expert in cleaning products. And I even discovered a way to bond with my housemates – over beer and sausages. For breakfast. But I drew my line at socks and sandals.
I graduated top of my class five years later. However, I realised something – I went to Germany for an education, but what I gained in the end was far more valuable – I learned life lessons. I learned to be independent, self-reliant, organised, and I learned to be tolerant and patient. For all that I thought I’ve lost – my carefree twenties and my naive optimism – I discovered some parts of myself that I never knew existed. I found out that I am stronger, more resilient and adaptable than I thought.
Twelve months after I first set foot in Germany, I went back home for holidays. At the end of my holidays my dad, still concerned about me, pulled me aside and asked me if I really wanted to go back to Germany. Truth be told, at that time I still wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to, but I mustered my bravest face and gave him what would turn out to be the best answer I have ever given,
“Yes, I am going back.”