Most of us raised in America can reminisce about watching The Wonder Years or of singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” in grade school, but Americans that grew up abroad have other memories. Their cultural jumps may have shaped a different life for them, but these two students wouldn’t change their experiences for the world.
[world]Julianna Durrett, a charismatic, curly-haired, history sophomore claims her childhood spent in Germany was absolutely for the better. She moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, when she was six years old and resided there until age 12. As is true for any child changing schools, it was difficult to fit in. “I was a complete outsider in second grade,” Durrett said. “I was the fat American.” Although she felt like an outcast at first, this experience helped her develop a different outlook on new students because she knows how it felt. Despite being different from most students in her school, the German students were genuinely curious about her and what it was like to live in another country.
Within six short months, Julianna knew enough German to hold a conversation with her classmates. Assistant family and child ecology professor Dr. Darrell Meece, explains that it is much easier for humans to pick up a new language in the early years of their development. “Children can pick up a language much more rapidly,” Meece said.
Durrett said being bilingual was a major advantage of living abroad as a child. “Learning another language makes you learn the structure of your own language, too,” she said.
Durrett quickly accepted German society. “I remember living in America, but after living in Germany, their norms became mine,” she said. Meece explained that as a child abroad or coming back to her native country, there are different crowds to learn about and a whole new social structure to figure out. This may be difficult, depending on the individual’s personality.
For Durrett, German society gave her a sense of independence she might have missed out on in America. “German society believes in bringing up their young gradually through responsibility,” Durrett said. For example, alcohol laws in Germany expect more responsibility at a younger age than in America. Drinking is legal at age 12 or 13 in public with your parents, and once you are 16, you can drink in pubs by yourself.
“You take individual steps,” Durret said. “It’s not all of a sudden like in the U.S. Here, you can’t drink until three years after you are considered a legal adult. By the time I was 12, I could go downtown by myself. In America, you just can’t do that. There’s no way in hell I would do that in Battle Creek when I was 12.”
Durrett’s experience with the German school system also helped her develop independence. While in the fifth grade, many mornings her parents would already be at work, and she would be responsible for getting to school on time. She also recalls making plans for herself on her days off.
Another benefit for Durrett was the opportunity to see a great deal of Europe. While Michigan elementary students were visiting the ever-captivating Capitol building in Lansing, her classmates took field trips to cities like Paris.
However, growing up as an American abroad was not always easy, which Durrett found out upon her return to the States. Her transition back to American culture was a bit more strenuous than going to Germany. Fellow students asked her incriminating questions, like if she was part of Hitler youth or a Nazi.
“In Germany, Doc Martens were really popular,” Durrett said. “Back in America, I was asked if they were Nazi combat boots. It was ridiculous. What I thought was cool wasn’t anymore, and that is a big deal when you’re in eighth grade.”
But despite some her cultural leap and the subsequent adjustments, Durrett looks back fondly on her unique adolescent years. “Sometimes I’ll be sitting around with friends and they’ll be like, ‘remember this and this,’ and I don’t because I wasn’t here. But I really don’t feel like I missed out. I’ve had a richer experience by living abroad,” Durrett said.
Living abroad during her youth not only molded her childhood but is a direct link to her current interests as a college student. Durrett, a history major, became quite interested in European history and feels that U.S. kids are only taught the American side of history.
Some of her neighbors in Germany were alive during World War II, and she heard their side of the story. “That is why I am so interested in European history,” Durrett said.
Durrett lived in a place with a rich history, which has nurtured her interests since her years there. “…There were still buildings up from a long time ago. I went to many museums and old churches like there are in France and England. There’s not that type of deep history in the U.S.” She also expressed interest in studying international law and has a strong desire to go back overseas.
We are, as Meece says, “social creatures and products of social interactions.” Based on our upbringing, each of us has a working model of how to act and react in certain situations. According to him, we bring this model with us to new situations. This model is hard to revise, but change is possible depending on the circumstances. This could explain how children are affected by childhood experiences and how that model changes over time.[born]
Now meet Justin Weinrich, a journalism senior whose smile and sincerity are captivating. Justin has a similar story of an adolescence spent abroad. Until age 12, he lived in Holland, Mich., but during the summer between sixth and seventh grade, he moved to Lima, Peru with his family. His parents decided to move their teaching careers to South America because they were tired of huge public schools and possessed unfulfilled desires to travel.
“It was a very, very hard adjustment. I was in a third world country for the first time,” Weinrich said. For Justin, one of the hardest transitions was living the first year in a new country without his dog.
Attending a school surrounded by a wall of barbed wire and guards with machine guns can be a little intimidating when coming from a small community like Holland, Mich. Even his health had some adjustments to make – he contracted typhoid and food poisoning during the early part of his life in Peru.
Weinrich recounted a time when he and a couple of friends went to the new mall in Lima, which when it was built was the biggest mall in South America. After a leisurely day at the shopping center, he and his buddies were robbed.
“The worst part was that they took my shoes so I had to walk through Lima barefoot,” he said nonchalantly. “Everyone in Peru has a story of being robbed, so you’re half expecting it.”
But this threat didn’t hinder Weinrich; he claims it created a streetwise attitude. “It’s not a reason to not move overseas. There are dangers of living anywhere. Life’s too short to focus on the negative instances.”
Learning street smarts was just one adjustment Weinrich quickly made. Within a year he was fluent in Spanish. “People have a tendency to focus on the negatives, but for every one bad thing, there are 20 good instances,” he said.
Due to the rapid change in climate and exposure to new illnesses, Weinrich was often sick which gave him time to watch many movies. “It helped me keep my sanity in Peru because I was always sick and couldn’t communicate with anyone. But it’s what made me want to become a filmmaker.”
His experiences in Peru also fueled his desire to specialize in international relations. Weinrich’s family lived in a mansion with a maid and a driver; his mother even had a masseuse. He describes this as a cultural norm for people with money. Cultural and economic polarization was very extreme in Lima.
“Right outside of our gates was extreme poverty. I couldn’t leave the wall by myself and that part was difficult. That’s also what got me interested in humanitarian work. Seeing different cultures is amazing. I plan on going into making documentaries that address world issues,” he said.
After three years in Peru, he and his family didn’t want to move back to the United States just yet. So, the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school, they traveled to the Netherlands. “The ex-patriot life is addicting,” Weinrich said with a smile. He remembers the transition from Peru to the Netherlands being much easier than from the United States to Peru.
“Everyone in the Netherlands speaks English and you can watch American movies on TV,” he said.
His new cultural experiences didn’t end when he left South America. On a trip through small villages in the Himalayas in Nepal, Weinrich again noticed the economic differences between himself and the natives. “You’re rich and they have nothing. But all of their smiles were so nice and welcoming. I, like most people, thought they’d all be begging, sad and in pain, but that’s really just not how it is.”
Of course, like Durrett, immigrating back to his native culture was difficult. Even now, many of his American-raised friends do not understand his experiences. “Most of my friends have no idea what it was like for me growing up. I feel like I come off as arrogant, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I don’t think I am better, it was just different and I want to share that. If I talk about my past at all, I have to talk about that. But quite often people roll their eyes.”
Weinrich explained his childhood as being in a completely different loop from his friends who grew up in the States. He never saw Full House, Boy Meets World or any of the Nickelodeon series’ so many of us loved as kids. Not being able to join in on conversations with his roommates about pop culture memories are the only drawbacks he can think of.
“I can’t get in on them, but it’s not that big of a deal. I tend to gravitate to international students because it’s nice to get that view and it is easier to talk to them about pop culture than someone from here,” Weinrich said.
But despite these gaps in culture, Weinrich would recommend living abroad to anyone. “When I have kids I would definitely do that; of course I am extremely biased, but it was a really good way to grow up,” Weinrich said. “You get a huge taste of the world.”
Through culture gaps, transitions and language barriers, Julianna and Justin both feel their experiences are irreplaceable. Perhaps living abroad as a child is ideal, but then again, most of us wouldn’t change a bit of our wonder years either.

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