Q&A in Germany – What the questions asked say about how the US is viewed abroad


Many of my sessions in classrooms have been opportunities for students to ask me questions. Questions about the US, questions about Judaism, questions about my life, questions about the Holocaust, about history. Anyone who has been in my classroom, or had a child in my classroom, knows I love questions and discussions. Some questions were light and fun, others more serious. Some were asked once, and others were asked every single time. What I learned from these questions, especially the frequent fliers among them, is what German teens think about when they think about the US. And it is not flattering.

One student yesterday asked me “How does it feel to be in a country with an embarrassing history?” I began to answer about facing the history of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people and she stopped me and said “I meant here, Germany.” I laughed at my mistake. But really, after all the questions I had been asked that were about the embarrassing history of my own country, my mistake was understandable. Every single group of students asked me about “weapon ownership.” Not guns, but weapons was usually their word choice. “Do you own a weapon?” “Do you know people who own a weapon?” “Do you have a weapon in your classroom?” “Is it legal to buy weapons where you live?” “What do you think about people having so many weapons?” 

And the questions about owning, having, using guns were usually followed by questions about how safe or unsafe I might feel. Had my school had a shooting? Did I know of school shootings in the Seattle area? Did my school have a guard? Did I feel safe in my city, home, school? 

I would explain about hunting rifles and growing up with a dad who went deer hunting and had a hunting rifle. I would explain about people who had a pistol for safety. And then I would explain that no civilian needs a weapon of war, and they certainly don’t need 10 or 20 of them. I would talk about how I teach at a Jewish school and so we do have security because we are a target for antisemitic attacks. I would answer that I did not have and did not plan to have a weapon, but yes in many places it was far too easy and legal to buy them. I shared that I did have friends who are also teachers who had had shootings at their schools. And I said that this all needed to change but I wasn’t sure how or if it would. That I had to answer this question once was sad, that it was a question in every single class – from 7th – 11th graders – is really damning. 

I was asked a number of questions about TFG (you can Google that if you don’t get it from context.) Could I explain why people like him? My very honest and to the point answer was “No. No, I can not explain it.” This got a few laughs. I was asked what I thought the percent chance of his running for president again was. My somewhat cryptic but very honest answer was “Hopefully very soon it will be zero as it should be.” I am not sure the students understood that I meant he should be in jail where he couldn’t run, but it was a clear answer nonetheless. I had fewer questions about our current POTUS than TFG, and again this seemed a poor reflection on how our country is viewed from afar. 

I had a number of serious discussions about Roe vs Wade being overturned and the separation of church and state. I wrote about that in my first post. Students yesterday asked my thoughts on the topic and cheered – actually cheered – when I said that a woman should have 100% control of her reproductive processes and her body in general. In another class there were two young women in hijab and they were very pleased when I pointed out that both Jewish and Islamic law allow abortion and put the mother’s life first. 

In the category of random questions, today I was asked if I eat Chick-FIL-A and I got to teach the class about the idea of putting your money where your values are as I said that I didn’t like my chicken with a side of hate. My favorite random questions though were from a student on Tuesday. This young man was very engaged and asked a lot of questions. Most were very good questions. But he also asked the two most random things I have been asked this whole time. 

“What is your favorite 9/11 conspiracy theory and why” and “Do you know the show “How I Met Your Mother” and is it true people in America think Canada doesn’t exist?” WHAT??? To the first question I responded that I don’t “do” conspiracy theories. About the second, I assured him that I have been to Canada and I am sure that it exists. 

Many of the students want to know about school and education in the US. Do we really suck at geography? Why don’t we learn more foreign languages? Did I have a lot of debt when I finished college? Do we have a lot of fancy balls like in the movies about high school? Are all our tests multiple choice? To this one I answered that I don’t give tests and I was asked if I could perhaps move to Germany and please be their teacher. Is there only one kind of bread in the US? My answer that there was more than one kind but that I didn’t really eat bread earned the great follow up question of “What do you possibly eat for breakfast if you don’t eat bread?” I assured him there were plenty of other things to eat in the morning. 

To the geography question I shared about being upset a couple of years ago that my students could not each name five countries in Europe and that I did a short geography unit on Europe as a result. When I was in Alan’s class (my teacher friend who set up my whole visit), he pointed out that his students can’t label a map of Africa. One of the students then spoke up and said that he thought perhaps it was too much to expect my students to know the countries of Europe as most German students couldn’t locate the US states on a map. To test this theory, Alan pulled up a quiz online where you had to correctly identify the states. This same student correctly identified at least half of the 50 states. I pointed out that this wasn’t helping his argument that it was ok my students couldn’t do the same on a map of Europe.

Another topic that came up a lot was racism. One young man asked specifically about the aftermath of George Floyd – knew his name – and the BLM protests. How had it changed my life and what did I see as the long term impacts? Had I experienced antisemitism was also asked several times. One person asked “Do you experience antisemitism every day?” The classes that I visited in Sinsheim and Heilbronn were diverse and their concerns reflected this diversity while living in fairly rural Germany. The schools I visited are all part of an anti racism project in the schools here and so their awareness of the topic was not surprising. The teachers who invited me into their classrooms all are working hard to create safe places for all of their students and to address discrimination when it happens.

Today’s classroom visit was with a lively bunch of 8th graders who are learning about the Pacific Northwest in their English class. They had great questions about Seattle and Washington. They asked how I would know someone wasn’t from Seattle and I made them try to pronounce Puyallup. They asked what was something unique about Seattle and I told them about KEXP and its global reach in promoting music and community. I showed pictures and they were amazed by the houseboats on Lake Union and asked about the foods and animals that were representative of Seattle. Salmon made both categories.

Meeting so many young people here in Germany has been really great. I loved seeing them warm up to me and realize I really would answer all their questions from “Do you like the Ramones” and “What is your favorite animal” to very serious questions about politics and law. My overall observations are that young people here and young people back in Seattle are not so different. They have similar concerns. They dress and act similarly. They respond positively to adults who are sincere and interested in them. I had students come up to me individually after a couple of classes and ask things that they did not want to ask in front of the group and I love that they felt that comfortable with me. I am particularly grateful for the students in each group who asked the first question or kept asking questions and who really thought seriously about what they wanted to learn from this opportunity to “Ask me Anything.” I just need to make sure no one hacks into my online accounts now that they all know my favorite pet, color, food, band and word in Polish. 😉

About nancesea

I live in Seattle with my husband Steve. I am an award winning Jewish educator, and primarily teach middle schoolers. My speciality is the Holocaust. My hobbies, when I have time, are reading, live music, and photography. I am passionate about teaching the lessons of the darkest periods history to help inspire my students to assure our future is brighter. Pre-Covid I used to travel yearly to Central and Eastern Europe to continue to learn about this history and make connections with educators there doing similar work. I hope you enjoy my writing on my travels, my learning and Jewish thought and practice. B'vrachot - with blessings - Nance

2 responses »

  1. Wow, the questions about gun ownership are fascinating. I think our young adult population is desensitized to the news and they don’t grapple with the issues of guns in America the way they should. The range of questions is also very interesting. These are the things you can only gain from travel and culturual exchanges. Keep enjoying your time!

  2. Wow, the questions about gun ownership are fascinating. Sad that this is what is on their minds and is the perception of America. I think our youth today are desensitized to the real issues in America. The range of quesions is also fascinating! These are the things you can only gain from travel and cultural exchange. Keep enjoying your time!

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