It was an exhausting and warm day of the summer 2013 in Kabul. I just arrived back to office from the budget defense committee of the ministry of finance. The results of discussions with the budget committee were disappointing; the government could not guarantee to secure and allocate the required fund for my research project on “Radiometric analysis of environmental samples from Kabul”. These disappointing news rang a bell in my mind, a bell which changed the course of my life forever. Some inner part of me asked why not go global? Send your proposal around to the universities abroad and if accepted, with little chance you may even have a PhD degree with that. From that very moment, I started the quest for finding a suitable research team in universities abroad. My main focus was on Germany where I had finished master studies in the small town of Siegen in the west of Germany three years before. The need to find a PhD through which I could support my research project was reaching the burning threshold.
Even though I had the idea of writing a proposal, there was an obstacle; Germans in general and German professors in particular are known to be tough. It is not easy to reach out to them before or even during the studies for help! This is a common stereotype about Germans in that part of the world. It took me one week or so to draft a proposal and send it to few international institutions, most of them did not reply to my email, I thought I was launching some failed attempts for an unknown success.
Institute for Radioecology and Radiation Protection at Leibniz University of Hannover was one of those institutions that responded positively to my request of having me as a postgraduate researcher on a one year trail.
I left Kabul for Hannover. In the very first meeting, my supervisor Prof. Dr. Clemens Walther told me that it is better to call everyone here with his or her first name including him. I was relieved with this suggestion; from the first day I was given the feeling that I was just a new member to this family (institute) rather than a total stranger from a different part of the world. I started thinking about the fact that either my calculations about German professors, researchers and colleagues were wrong or the people here were just exceptionally nice to me.
After a couple of months at the institute, my professor and I participated in a summer school. Based on my cultural background, food without chili tastes nothing more than grass to me; my professor noticed that I was looking at the food like an alien. He asked me the reason and I told him the reason was lack of chili. That afternoon he drove about 20 km away to find me the hottest chili of the town. In the evening we climbed a hill and took some photos where my professor was happy to give me his WhatsApp number to send him the selfies. During the breaks we discussed about my work and he encouraged me to move forward with his positive feedback. I was amazed by the degree of difference between a professor in my home country and the one here.
As the days passed by and I was interacting with more and more individuals from University specially the International office staff, I learned that everything can be simple here if we only understand them right. I started to realize that Germans attitude is 180 degrees different in official workplace than in social life. For foreigners like me and other PhD students, it is important to understand and respect the differences in official, public and private spaces. It is a common mistake to mix up these settings and find the German attitude in life too bureaucratic or in some cases even offensive, which results in our feeling out of place, uncomfortable and being a foreigner. I think this famous misconception comes from lack of information about the German way of handling official, academic, public and social settings.
I feel now that our prejudice about professors, academics and even individuals in German society are not reflecting reality. I suggest to all students and researchers who are willing to take their chance for pursuing their higher education or research in a country other than their own, to learn a bit about the culture and the way of life in official, academic and social spaces before you start your studies or research. This makes the understanding ground between you, your professor and your colleagues very wide and makes life much easier.
The wish to stick to your culture and way of life is just natural, but in order to live and fit into a new society, one must be eager to learn about their culture, values and way of life. It is important to know that there are no good or bad cultures but merely different cultures and one must acknowledge the differences in order to avoid misunderstandings and overcome the challenges of living abroad. Every human wants to help, it is in our nature, but we need to learn the ethics of asking for help and respect the spaces, boundaries and limits of people.
My journey into learning and living the German culture started with one bag of chili powder. Letting go of stereotypes and prejudices and keeping an open mind in order to learn and integrate, made the past three years and eight months the best of my life. I finished my research not only among colleagues but friends for life. I suggest you do the same; learn, respect and understand your host country’s cultural values and enjoy your time. Thank you Germany, thank you Leibniz University, thank you Hannover and thank you my great colleagues and friends.
Mohammad Rahmatullah Tanha