Friday, May 9, 2008


As a foreigner in Germany, I do what comes naturally in order to help pay the bills. I teach English for a living. Teaching is in my blood, and I enjoy it, as well as passionately love the English language. So I actually sort of fit into my profession and am pretty good at it. One of the places where I teach is a large multi-national corporation. Teaching English is big business in Germany, as more and more of the German workday is held in English. Even the fear of future team meetings in English will send these poor victims running to my classes. Longstanding employees of German companies who conducted all their work in English in the past often find themselves at a meeting in some conference room with ten of their German colleagues. If, however, one person who doesn’t speak German happens to be there, the meeting must be held in English. Arno, one of my students, is very keen to improve his English skills so that he can fit into the modern globalized, English-speaking industrial world.

Recently, Arno was promoted to a new position. One day I asked him about his career path, presuming that he, as I imagined all the other students in my class, had a degree in accounting from some university. Since all are controllers, I assumed that they needed to have a business degree in order to perform their jobs. Germany is very much into degrees as proof of competence, much more so than the US. I was shocked to find out that neither Arno nor any of his classmates has had the privilege of gaining expertise in their field in a university. Arno’s first job was in security, as a guard at one of the gates to the corporation's plant. Because of his pleasant nature, hard work and willingness to work wherever they send him (not a typical German trait), he has been able to work his way up the career ladder.

So today, I asked him how his new job is coming along. "Fine," he said tiredly, "but there is so much stress involved!"

"Oh, really! Tell me about it!"

Arno is responsible for communication between colleagues involved in controlling in Germany, Asia and the States. One of the first perks of his new job was to receive a Blackberry pocket organizer/cell phone/computer. The hook is that he needs to be available 24/7. So, he receives emails all night long, every night. In the morning he wakes up to at least six or seven emails, all in English. Then he rushes off to the office so that he can answer them at 7 am, before the employees in Asia go home for the day. Then he has to be available for the emails coming in from America in the evening, which is afternoon their time. I asked Arno when he goes home. "At around 8 pm," he said. He is doing this voluntarily, not getting paid overtime for any of this.

Arno and all his colleagues have been instructed to work from a 1,000+ page online book of guidelines - in English. The language is so specialized and complex that even I, the English teacher, have difficulty understanding it. If they were to ask the management of their company to explain the differences between the new English guidelines and the old German ones, they would be laughed out of the office.

I live in Cologne. The name of my city stems from “colony”. Cologne was once a Roman colony, and the original Ubii tribe which was settled in and around Cologne, peacefully acquiesced to the Romans, marrying, working with them, losing their identity to become Roman. The pride of Cologne is that their roots as a city go back to Roman times, when they were a Roman colony. To me, the hired representative of the language they are so urgent to learn, they are again vassals of imperialism and I am part of the colonial presence. Cologne, as also the rest of Germany, has once again given up its sovereignty in order to assimilate into the dominant culture. I came to Germany to discover a new culture, but see daily signs of willing submission to a culture they have accepted as dominant.

I hope Arno will be able one day to say, "No more!"

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