7 Things I’ve Learned from my First Year Living in Berlin (away from Singapore)
In two days, I will mark my first year living away from Singapore in Berlin. I moved here with my wife and dog last year when I managed to get transferred to the Berlin office of my current employer. As you can imagine, life has been different since.
Our first day in Berlin at a restaurant with, believe it or not, our dog.
In this article, I reflect on the lessons I have learned from my first year of living in Berlin.
First, a little background to place everything into context.
I moved to Berlin with work, not for work. As in, I asked to be transferred to this office, because I wanted to live abroad. This means that I’m not here on anything resembling an expat package. Rent and other living expenses are covered by myself. If you’re interested, I wrote a separate article detailing why we moved.
I’ve recorded my year of being here starting with the relocation in various places online. If you are interested in the details, you can find my story in bits on this blog, my YouTube channel, and my now-inactive Instagram account.
We moved on October 2019 around three months before COVID-19 turned our lives upside down. So while we originally intended to travel a lot around Europe, which would have probably changed my reflections significantly, we have in the past year only managed to travel by campervan or train to northern and eastern Germany.
In short, I moved with work to Berlin wanting to explore life abroad and life in Europe, but not long after, the pandemic started and altered our plans. There were plenty of life lessons along the way still, though.
1. There is comfort in cultural diversity
Looking back, I think picking a cosmopolitan city like Berlin was a good decision for us. A cosmopolitan city provides cultural diversity, and that has made us feel less out of place in our first home away from home.
At my office, we have people from Lebanon, Austria, Lithuania, Canada, Slovenia, Hungary, France, Germany, Ukraine, the Philippines, and with me, Singapore. And we have less than 20 people in this office! Walking down a street in the central district of Mitte you would notice people from many parts of the world, too.
Because of this cultural diversity throughout the city, I never feel like I’m sticking out in the U-Bahn station with my black hair and typically Asian slender build. I’m not seen as a local, of course, although if I spoke the language fluently I know I could easily be recognised as one. (There are many second-generation Asian Germans, mostly Vietnamese, living in Berlin.) The overall effect on my psyche is that I am welcomed here just like the thousands of foreigners at various stages of assimilating into Berlin and German society.
Had I chosen to go to Helsinki, Finland instead where our company headquarters are, I’m certain I will feel much more out of place and that one year on, we might already have headed back to Singapore. I’m glad we picked a cosmopolitan city to move. It certainly helps that Berliners are very liberal, too!
2. Language is the key to integrating into a society
I’ve learned that you can’t say you know a place until you speak the language of the locals.
Living here and designing my own life from the ground-up makes me think often about whether Berlin is a place I would want to settle down in. But even though you can get by in Berlin with English, there’s no way I can make a well-informed decision to stay longer if I don’t learn the German language.
Not long after we moved, we went to Alexanderplatz by tram. An elderly man approached and said some unintelligible words to me and my wife. I knew it was German. Still in awe of being able to walk Brownie into the tram perfectly lawfully, I looked up at the man. His face was lit with a radiant smile and he looked at Brownie and glanced at me and Charlane. From his body and tone, I knew he was complimenting Brownie for being a cute dog, but I could not respond beyond flashing back a smile. The opportunity to connect had evaporated because I could not talk to him. I had no words he could understand, nor him, me! Living in a German city without speaking German is like watching an IMAX movie on five-dollar earphones - you only get to observe what is happening and not be immersed.
Incidents like this happen regularly and it is why Charlane and I have been diligently taking German language classes twice a week for the last four months. We need to know the language to know the place and the people, and it’s only after that that we can make a well-informed decision on whether to stay here or go elsewhere.
3. Nature has altered my sense of place in the world
When you grow up in a city-island-state like Singapore, constantly hearing stories of how its people had overcome the challenges of resource scarcity and neighbouring hostility and other limitations, you grow up with a kind of misplaced pride. In my opinion, this pride has made Singaporeans (including myself) especially prone to thinking we are, each of us, at the centre of the world. And I’ve found that nature, which we have but a tiny representation of in urbanised Singapore, has helped me to see my place in this world more holistically.
Nature in the form of landscapes has changed my worldview, helping me realise that my world is more than just the city I live in. There are mountains so large your neck hurts when you look up to try to catch a glimpse of its whole, lakes so blue and pristine that you feel calm and cleansed just by looking into the water. The seasons, which we don’t have in tropical Singapore, have also shaped my perspective and kept my hubris in check. I’ve written separate articles about why I love the seasons and why access to nature is important to me.
Many of the things I used to view as problems are now no more because they arose from petty narrow-mindedness that I have now stepped out of. Living away from the hyper-engineered city of Singapore has made me realise that there are bigger forces at play, many of which are beautiful and beyond our means to recreate or overcome.
4. Closed-shop-Sundays has improved my wellbeing
In Berlin, perhaps in wider Germany as well, most shops are closed on Sundays. That means no buying of groceries from the supermarket, browsing furniture at IKEA, or shopping for things at the mall. When we first came to Berlin we were surprised and annoyed by this. Oh my god, the supermarkets are closed on Sundays?! That’s exactly when people go buy groceries!
But once I knew, I quickly got used to it and the improvements to my wellbeing have continued to accrue. Now Sundays are where I find the time to walk around the city and talk to my partner, which has undoubtedly improved our relationship. (I believe there’s a proportional relationship between time spent walking and the strength of a relationship.) Sundays are also when I have time to read books, reflect, write articles like this, and work on side projects.
The result? I am finally feeling like my weekends are long enough. Being able to say that with confidence is liberating.
I wrote more about this in a separate article: From shock to love: How the closed-on-Sunday law in Germany improved my life
5. A city’s dog-friendliness bestows a sense of belonging
Berlin is a very dog-friendly city and it has made life a lot more pleasant for us. This is one of the biggest lessons for my partner. When she realised we could walk Brownie directly onto buses, trams, trains (even long-distance ones), malls and shops, and around 50 percent of restaurants and cafes, she could only describe our life with Brownie in Singapore as “rather stifled.”
On the evening of when we first arrived in Berlin, we dropped our four suitcases and Brownie’s carrier in our rented apartment and were peckish and eager to get our first taste of food in Berlin. At that point, it was not clear to us that Berlin was particularly dog-friendly as it never showed up in our research, but we had to bring Brownie as we were not ready to leave him in a new apartment in a new country alone while we went to grab dinner. So he came with us on a leash.
Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves in a Turkish Italian restaurant (yes, that’s a thing in Berlin) one block down from our new home and I apprehensively approached the staff and asked, “I have a dog, is it okay?”
“Of course. You can sit there,” he gestured. The casualness in his reply blew our minds, and it immediately set a new standard for us. “This is a city for us,” I whispered to myself.
By contrast, in Singapore, you are not allowed to bring your pets nearly anywhere other than the sidewalks and parks. Usually, you cannot even bring your dog to dine at a restaurant with outdoor seating. The argument according to some restaurant and food stall owners is that it is unhygienic to let dogs into food establishments. Well, Berliners bring their dogs with them to restaurants all the time, sitting indoors, and there has been no epidemic or even correlation to health issues.
Knowing that we can bring our dog almost anywhere with us in the city has given us a new and very welcome sense of belonging. We’re all happy to have dogs share the city with us here.
6. Privacy is almost sacred in Germany
People’s privacy is sacred here. Germany was one of the strongest proponents of the GDPR law that now heavily regulates data collection and handling by business and government, causing upheaval in the tech industry a few years ago. True story: on the counter of a bakery around the corner from our apartment stands a placard that says, with no irony whatsoever, “Cash only. Big Brother is watching.” I remember laughing when I saw it for the first time and then checking my pockets for change.
I also remember vividly how, around Chinese New Year this year, we were confronted by a stranger for a supposed transgression of privacy. We were at an Asian supermarket queueing to check out when I noticed the series of small red lanterns hanging from the ceiling. It looked very much like a scene from Singapore and I wanted to take a photo as a keepsake, so I whipped out my phone and snapped a few shots of the scene.
Just seconds later, a woman in the queue behind said to us in English, “It is illegal to take photos of people without asking them here, you know?”
I was taken aback. First, because the pictures I took only featured people’s backs and not their faces since they were queueing in front of me. Second, because I had not encountered German straightforwardness until that point. Third, because she chose to suffix her sentence with the word “here,” as if to point out how obvious it was that we were not from here.
(We later found out that she was mistaken and greatly exaggerated that a new bill had just been passed into law in the German parliament making it illegal to take photos of people without their consent. The bill targeted at making it illegal for people to take photos of women under their skirts. I will not discuss the need for such a law.)
Law or not, this is the prevailing mentality of a lot of Germans. Some speculate it is because of Germany’s history of the SS spying on its citizenry and culling dissenters in Nazi Germany that gave rise to this allergy in German society. It takes a bit of getting used to coming from Singapore where nobody questions the kind of data that our government has about us.
In Singapore, the opposite problem exists - we tend to blatantly disregard people’s privacy, outrightly taking photos of situations that should remain private. I dislike the “Stomp” culture we have in Singapore, perhaps a little more than the “all data is sacred” culture in Germany. But I think neither of these extremes is good and I would personally love to live in a place where there is a middle ground.
7. A society’s history determines what its people view as problems
I’ve learned that we turn many innocuous things into problems because of the history of the societies we are part of and that leaving is the only way of noticing the many ways this phenomenon manifests in our lives.
My last two points in this article are examples of this. Singaporean society sees it as a hygiene problem if pets are allowed into the same spaces as humans. German society deems it a privacy violation if photos are taken without consent. And the reverse is not true in either society.
To me, the significance of this lesson is that few problems are universal. Perhaps only food, air, shelter, and health are universal problems for humanity. On an individual level, this means that it is possible to turn a problem into a non-problem just by thinking of it as such. At the level of society, it means that education and activism can similarly turn problems into non-problems at scale.
A lot of learning happens just by being away from home.
For example, being away has afforded me freedom from judgement of the people whose judgement I unwittingly give too much consideration and it has given me courage to do my own thing, like growing out my hair and publishing vlogs where I talk to myself in public. It has also stripped me of my material possessions and that has in turn helped me to rethink what I need (20 percent) compared to what I want (80 percent).
But I think it will be prudent if I write more about the gains from being away from home for prolonged periods, independent on the destination, in another article.
UPDATE (3.10.2021): You can read my second year reflections here.