So this week and next week I'm teaching an intensive English course at the Technical University here in Berlin. To be honest, I was really dreading it. There was a time when I really loved teaching EFL, especially at the TU because mostly we have college students and we have no boss and can design the courses any old way we want. But I got burned out a couple of years ago and was definitely sick of students. Since the German government pays you to stay home with your baby the first year and I had two babies pretty much back to back I really haven't taught much at all in three years. I've been enjoying it a lot more than I thought it would though. The students seem so young that I have a fondness for them as if they were my own children. And it can be interesting: In class, earlier this week, I was reminded, even after ten years in Berlin, how impossible it is for me NOT to tip.
In Berlin tipping is pretty much optional and usually something people do based on the quality of the service (not that there is usually such a thing here....) The most common thing is to just round up the bill: say your bill is 7.20 Euro, then you just leave 7.50 and it's perfectly ok. (If you gave a waitress in the U.S. a thirty cent tip she would probably come out and personally kick you in the ass!) On Tuesday we did an activity on cultural differences where they had to guess certain things. One was "It is customary to tip 10% in the U.S." Pretty much everyone thought this probably was true, but when I told them it's actually more 15% to 20% they were pretty shocked. "And if you don't tip, it's pretty much like giving the waitress a slap in the face," I told them. No matter how bad the service might be in Berlin, no matter how long it takes to get my cappuccino or how surly the hipster waiter might be, I just can't not tip at least a little bit. If I don't I always end up feeling guilty. We are simply trained that way.
Although everyone seemed to accept my advice and now (hopefully) will not have any waitresses cursing under their breaths about those cheap-ass Germans if they ever visit the U.S., they found the answer to the following statement hard to take: "If you feel dizzy or light-headed you tell people you have circulation problems." All of them immediately shook their heads yes. "Of course. Everybody knows that." Ah, the old German Kreislaufprobleme. (I already wrote a post about it here.) Anytime you feel a little bit tired, run down or burnt out it is clear you are suffering from circulation problems. Duh. Everybody knows that. When I told them that no, not everybody knows that and as far as I know Germany is the only place where people of (literally) all ages are constantly complaining about this, they got that look students get when they just can't believe something, a look like they are sucking very hard on a lemon. "If you tell this to people in the U.S. they will probably at first thing you have a disease or serious health condition and later think you are strange because only an 80 year old woman would continually complain about circulation problems." Lemon-sucking faces all across the room.
I always find it funny when an entire culture more or less agrees on something that is kind of kooky (there are Germans who don't constantly say they have circulation problems of course, but they wouldn't find it weird if someone else did.) For example, the typical American fear of germs. I remember seeing girls in high school who wouldn't even touch a doorknob or towel dispenser. Even toilet seat covers (something they don't even have in Germany) weren't good enough protection for them. They always squated over the toilet, too afraid to put their butts on that germ infested plastic, which usually meant they peed all over the seat (and of course never cleaned up afterward....Thanks ladies.)
When I was in college I worked for a couple of years at the children shoes department of Nordstrom in very suburban Pleasanton, California (with a name like Pleasanton what else could it be?) Most of the other girls working there were girly suburbanite frosted hair types. All of them had a bottle of hand sanitizer in their purse which they obsessively squirted on themselves. "Geez, people. Chill out. A couple of thousand germs ain't gonna hurt you," I always wanted to say. Mostly I just rolled my eyes. I'm not even sure if you can get that hand sanitizer stuff in Berlin, but if you can, people would probably think you were a germ-phobic freak if you were constantly using it because, well uh, you kind of are. Sorry folks, but it's true. Over-the-top disinfecting is what has led to that super bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics anyway. People, please, knock it off! (Yes, I'm well aware there might be a few people who stumbled onto this post, hoping for some tips on how to sterilize their laptop, who are now making that lemon-sucking face.)
I read recently that, in South Korea, people believe it is extremely dangerous to sleep in a closed room with a fan. Any number of life threatening things can happen such as fire, asphyxiation or hypothermia. As with circulation problems in Germany and germ phobia in the U.S., if you go to a local doctor he or she will be filled with all sorts of useful advice, i.e. won't tell you you're off your rocker because they are off theirs too.
If I ever were to teach English in South Korea and were to tell my students that I've slept in a closed room with a fan running hundreds of times without suffocating, freezing to death or being burnt to a cinder, I'm sure I'd get lemon-sucking faces from there to Mars. Well, what can you do? People are strange. ;)