- Norwegians have sorted out the work/life balance dilemma by giving very generous maternity leave and time away from work to care for sick children, etc.
- Germans provide free education to everyone, including foreigners.
- French parents teach their kids to eat proper food and behave in public.
- Chinese value education and push their kids to excel, especially in math and science.
Alright, those are all valuable traits, and probably areas where the U.S. falls short in comparison to other countries (okay, definitely falls short), but it's also led me to think about all the things in German culture which are supposedly "better" than American culture, and to question the assumption that one way of doing things is inherently better than another. Now, I really like that Americans are increasingly looking outward for alternative ways to live (and I'm often the first person to bring up these topics in conversation), but I also think that a lot of the discussions today get reduced to a very simplistic exercise in cultural comparisons that is not necessarily reflective of reality. Because the truth is that there are always trade-offs in life. It's just not black and white.
I think about my own life as an expat in Germany, and how everyday is full of these trade-offs. For example, it's great that Germans don't drink as much soda, and I find myself rarely drinking Diet Coke, my old drink of choice in the U.S., and not really missing it. But what do I drink more of instead? Beer. A lot more. So, what I seem to have done was traded a very unhealthy, though non-caloric drink, for what is arguably a much more natural, healthful drink, but that is also full of calories and alcohol. Which is better? I honestly don't know.
And then there's the paradox of fast food. America is the land of fast food, and Germany is not. Germany is therefore better, right? Well, it's not so easy. Because our lifestyles do evolve over time and the American fast food industry has actually been largely a response to the demands of modern society, i.e. we work long hours and no longer always have the traditional household set-up with one partner at home doing the grocery shopping and cooking. So sometimes a girl just needs to grab something fast, while on the run. In the U.S. that fast food industry is so developed that there are seemingly endless options, including many very healthy and quality options (e.g. reference the food truck phenomenon that has sprung up around the country). Not so here. In fact, sometimes I go to McDonalds because it seems like the only place that has something cheap, fast, and available at odd hours. I almost never go to McDonalds in the U.S. How did that happen?
Those are some everyday examples dealing specifically with eating habits, but it goes even farther than that. I see examples of these trade-offs in my work life all the time. For example, I absolutely love that parents in Germany get one year paid maternity leave. I think that is so important. But I also see that women here are less likely to make it to leadership positions at work, and I honestly think that is a direct result of the stigma/risk of knowing women of a certain age (arguably the most important age for career advancement) might disappear for a year at a time to have kids. But maybe employers need to be realistic too? It's hard to plan and keep a business running smoothly without reliable, longterm employees... so what do we do?
And then there are the services like German higher education. Yes, it's free to everyone. But someone is actually paying for it... and that's the German taxpayer. It's just that the values are different and taxes here go to education, healthcare, and a lot of social services. But maybe Germans can afford to do that because they don't have the same social costs here that we in the U.S. do - I don't really know. Maybe that's just an excuse that Americans are sold so that we keep settling for less than that which is possible.
This line of thought could definitely spiral into a deep hole of "sure it's good, but on the other hand", so I'll steer it back in another direction: that German education system. Yes, it is true; all those rumors you've heard about free university. The irony is that Germany's education system has always been free (with the exception of a few years when some schools instituted minor fees - I'm talking like $500 - $1000 a year), but Americans just never knew it. Well, I guess the fact that you had to speak German would have been a big deterrent for a lot of people. But that too is changing. Many courses are now switching over to English, and who knows, maybe by the time my nieces and nephews are ready to go to college, almost everything will be in English (do we really want that to happen? That's another topic for the future).
But then you also have to ask yourself, what's the trade off? Free education, but are the universities here as good? And what does that question even mean - the education system and style of teaching/learning is certainly different over here, but just like everything else I've already discussed, there is no black and white answer.