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GAPP 50 years anniversary
Salim Fayeq

Germans are usually not famous for being overly outgoing. However, quite the contrary can be the case. Salim Fayeq shares his viewpoints on German personality and the power of language from his exchange experience in 2015.

Salim Fayeq - Alumni Portraits - German American Partnership Programm© Goethe Institut New York

Where are you from and what do you do?
I am originally form Charlotte, North Carolina and I am currently a Master student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. I am pursuing a program called TransAtlantic Masters (TAM) which focuses on transatlantic relationship. I have a specific track within the degree entitled ‘German-Turkish’ studies. I thus spent a semester of study at my home university in Chapel Hill during fall of 2020, a semester at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, during spring 2021, and currently a year of study comprising one semester of coursework and the subsequent on my Master Thesis at Humboldt University in Berlin. It’s quite an internationalized curriculum!

Why did you decide to participate in a GAAP exchange?
At the time of my exchange in summer 2015, I had been studying German for a couple years and had participated in an exchange a year before with German students from my high school, and greatly enjoyed my experience. I wanted to take part a second time, since it was possible, so I could once again practice my German where it is natively spoken and continue my transnational friendships.

Could you describe your expectations of the program before your trip?
My expectations were partly informed by my previous exchange trip to Germany the year before, which was my first time visiting Germany. However, my GAAP-funded exchange to Germany in 2015 was quite different. I connected with my exchange family on an extraordinary level. I developed a strong bond of transnational and intercultural empathy, and a valuable friendship with my exchange students, in both cities I spent my exchange (Schorndorf in Baden-Württemberg and Frankfurt am Main). I definitely did not expect the extent to which I could resonate with my exchange families and share stories, laughter, and overall joy over meals and gatherings around the respective cities in which the families resided. The exchange was truly special and in that regard quite effective, as each really did become my adoptive family for the temporary time.

Tell us a bit about your time in Germany.
My time in Germany was a real treat. I felt I was on vacation while it was also an extremely enriching experience and I benefited deeply in terms of my own intercultural understanding, German language improvement, and understanding lifestyles that are different from my own. For the first two weeks, I lived with an exchange family as part of the stay in Schorndorf, a small city about 30 kilometers from Stuttgart. However, the family actually lived in a nearby village of 6,000 inhabitants, called Oberberken. This was a very unique experience for me, as I had grown up in Charlotte, a fairly large city in the Southern U.S. Conversely, I then spent two weeks with an exchange family in Frankfurt, a large metropolitan city which is very urban, cosmopolitan, and the environment differed greatly. Despite the fact that the two families differed in daily life practices, they each shared the same qualities that I think many students can relate to who have visited Germany and interacted with German families. Both were warm and kind, tried their best to host students in a hospitable way (deutsche Gastfreundlichkeit – das beste!) while also making for lots of fun. My host families in both locations were impressively entertaining, and they were also quite inquisitive and asked a great deal of questions in order to get the feel for how alike – or different – we were from each other.

What was it like being a visiting student at a German school?
This was one of the most interesting aspects of my exchange. While I enjoyed being a guest in a German school and just getting to observe, I also found the differences quite odd. The school was built and designed in such a different way simply from an architectural point of view. I also found students were a lot more accustomed to respect in the classroom. For example, chewing gum during the lecture or moving about and not remaining still are all seen as disrespectful, and you could be reprimanded. What I also found interesting as a visitor was the interest that I attracted from other students in the school who questioned why I had come to the school on an exchange. What was I doing there? This also came a lot from students who were of migrant backgrounds and attending the school as recent arrivals in Germany. I also found more of this interest in me as a foreigner from the school in the rural area of Germany rather than from the school in Frankfurt.

Which impression of your time stayed with you?
It was quite mind blowing at multiple points throughout my four-week exchange how much maturity the German students resembled. I feel that in the U.S., we are not pushed to grow up and adopt responsibilities at the same age. German students were familiar with public transit usage, the regular habit of recycling, and of course many spoke languages such as French or Spanish, in addition to German and English. This also of course made the exchange fun.

What are the things you liked most about German lifestyle?
There were actually many qualities that I found fascinating about German lifestyle. Along the common cultural conceptions, Germans can initially come across as cold, blunt, brusque or otherwise not overly friendly or charming. However, upon getting to really know a German, they would open up. The German personality – in large part – is actually indeed quite warm, as well as humorous, and also helpful. I had great conversations with Germans, from random passersby on the street or in train stations to the dear connections from my exchange, which contained a mix of serious discussion as well as great humor and fun. I enjoyed the seemingly perfect mixture Germans can (of course not always) imbue in terms of earnestness and amusement. At the same time, the practicality of Germans and the German way of life also stunned me. I grew up in a relatively minimalist household, my parents aren’t stuffy or high-maintenance individuals, and with my father being a bit of a handyman I naturally have a predilection for practicality and sensical logic. Germans overall represent this quite predominantly. This was omnipresent across sectors of life in Germany. It was the personality of Germans, who would bring 'wiederverwendbare Kochgeräte' (reusable kitchenware) or reusable items like their own cutlery etc. It was also a big focus in intercity transit, with rules determining where you should store your belongings on the train, having an assigned seat and not sitting elsewhere. It gave way for less errors, less headache, less confusion – even if the rules are sometimes a bit overwhelming!

Looking back now, how did that experience shape your future path, personally and professionally?
The exchange I took to Germany actually left a profound impact on me. I greatly enjoyed the life I had with friends who were German, speaking a different language, and exiting my comfort zone to experience something new on a foreign environment level. The program most certainly inspired me to seek internationalism in my academic and professional pursuits. I continued practicing my German whenever I could, spending a semester of study in Germany during my undergrad, and then continuing the same trend in my Master studies. On a personal level however, the exchange inspired me to always cherish and never lose sight of the value of intercultural dialogue and competency. I am seeking this in my personal life at every chance, to really engage in discussion and critical inquiry with folks I meet who are of different national backgrounds. In addition, I also was deeply influenced by the power of language.  What is said to someone in their mother tongue will never hold stronger if said to the same person in another language. I knew from my exchange that I never wanted to lose the skill of German, and more specifically, to always use it to the best of my ability with native German speakers as I learned how much of a personal touch it can hold with those who speak with the language natively. It breaks down barriers that I feel monolingual suffocation sustains.

Are you still in contact with your former classmates and host families?
Yes! In fact, I stayed with one of my friends from the exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, who is to this day a dear friend, and I greatly enjoy her company along with her mother’s, who is a lovely German woman. I am also in touch with several other exchange students, including my own two exchange families, and I hope to visit some of them while I’m living in Berlin. In addition, I try and stay in touch with my former chaperones, which are also former German instructors from my high school, on social media.

What advice would you give to a current high school students who is just about to participate in a GAAP exchange?
My number one advice to such a prospective GAAP participating student would be to be uninhibited and completely yourself. Germans, I found, were among the least judgmental people I had ever come across. In fact, they are interested and willing to learn about American lifestyle, backgrounds, interests and hobbies. I would tell the student not to fit a certain persona for the purpose of being liked or keeping a ‘good image’. I would also say to always try your hardest with the German language, even if you feel you don’t know the exact right word or how to say a phrase or sentence the exact right way. This is how improvement takes place. Additionally, I would say Germans are usually very pleased and impressed when Americans, and perhaps foreigners at large but American students traveling to Germany in particular, make a concerted effort (even if it is minimal!) with the German language. This really encouraged me to always speak German, because I knew it would be positively rewarded and even if Germans don’t express praise – in many instances they will help and correct you – I can assure it is likely the German way of doing so!!