Dec 28, 2010
Eva-Maria Muecke left her small village in West Germany at the age of 17 to enter the hotel business, which eventually brought her to California where she started her college career. She now teaches biology and zoology. In February and March of 2009, local immigrants or descendants of local immigrants met with Sunset High School students to discuss what it is like to be an immigrant in Oregon. We recorded these discussions and have posted them for the public to listen to.
Male speaker: Greetings again. This is the next in the series of Oral History podcasts that the Cedar Mill Community Library is doing this year. In this interview you will hear Eva-Maria, a German immigrant who got here by working in the hotel industry and eventually started college here and ended up teaching at Pacific University.
0:29 Helena: My name is Helena…
0:30 Julia: …and my name is Julia.
0:32 Helena: And what is your name?
My name is Eva-Maria.
0:37 Helena: Where did you come from? What country are you from?
0:42 Helena: What year did you come to Oregon?
Oh, that was just about two-and-a-half years ago, but I’ve been in the U.S. for quite a long time.
0:50 Julia: Where did you live in the U.S. before you came to Oregon?
I lived for 8 years in Michigan and for another 8 years in California.
1:00 Julia: Why did you decide to come to Oregon?
I love the west coast. Initially when I came to the U.S. I lived in California, and then school brought me to Michigan, and then I decided I wanted to get back to the west coast and so I managed to get a job in Oregon, and that’s where I came.
1:24 Helena: What were the biggest challenges that you faced in coming to America?
Hmm, the biggest challenges…you wouldn’t think that overall…
(1:38 Audio dropped out until 1:55)
So overall the cultures are similar, but I think that what makes it difficult that a lot of the…you forget how different the different countries are, too. There are a lot of little things which is very different over here than in Europe. For example, what’s so different? In Europe, and I think it’s probably not just in Germany but other countries as well, you are raised being politically very active, you participate…every day you talk about politics. That’s truly not the case here. In fact, people tend to avoid politics.
2:37 Julia: My mom said the same thing about growing up in Germany. She said she read the newspaper every day. She’d always have discussions with her friends about politics. I don’t do that.
Yeah, exactly, and in fact what I’ve found, I used to just stick with that and continued doing that and then I actually recognized that people actually were very uncomfortable with me doing that, talking about politics or issues. Those are the sorts of things you have to be very aware of, to be…and this is true, I think for Germans tend to be up front and open and speak their mind more so than in the U.S. Let me give you an example. So you ask me, “Oh, can you help me out on Sunday, I need to do this, and I really need somebody to help me.” In Germany I’d basically would say, if I had something planned, you know, there’s something going on that Sunday and I really don’t have the time, I would say, “You know what? I can’t do it.” And here you would probably be more inclined to say “Hmm, let me think about it, I might have something going on there. Let me get back to you on that.” So those are just different approaches, and if you actually get thrown into a social situation you have to be very aware of that because in fact, you can really get yourself in trouble. So that’s what I mean that culturally we are very similar but there are small things, if you’re not aware of them, that can really create some difficulties. So you do have to kind of adjust and be very alert to what you’re saying and really listen to what’s going on around you.
4:20 Julia: Did you ever face prejudice when you arrived in America or Oregon?
4:33 Helena: What do you like most about Oregon?
I definitely like the outdoors, the wilderness that’s still here. That’s initially one of the reasons I wanted to come to the U.S. It’s very different. In Germany and most parts of Europe, everything is very groomed and developed because you know, people have lived there for a long time. Very different here.
4:56 Julia: What aspect do you most miss about Germany?
The culture, too…and my family.
5:04 Julia: Do you have any family here or is everybody still in Germany?
All my family is back in Europe.
5:13 Helena: Have you noticed differences in the American education system, different from the German education system?
Yes. Let me ask you this, though. Which education system are you referring to? Just K through 12, college or…
5:27 Helena: Anything…
Anything. It’s difficult to say. There are definitely differences. I’m not so familiar with the high school system. I’m learning more and more about it and the middle school system here because I have a daughter and she is just in elementary, so I am learning more and more about it. I guess the key difference, now that I think about it, in K through 12 and even colleges, that in Germany the educational system tends to be very rigid, meaning that you have to make very specific decisions about what certain career path you want to go, and you basically need to stick with it. It’s very difficult to switch, very few opportunities there. Let me give you an example. In the system there, at grade 4 or 5 you have to make a decision: are you going to go more on a 9-year path school or an 11-year path, or do you go on to the 12th year. That would be gymnasium, which is probably just above the high school system here. The 11-year path is more of an applied school where the idea is that students who actually enter that route are going to go through apprenticeships. The ones with the 12 system, through 12 years, they’re going to go on to college. And then of course there are the 9 year…these days, it’s very difficult to get a job there, you even have trouble getting an apprenticeship, but again, that route was usually for the folks, for the students who actually were interested in doing something far more applied. It’s a very basic education. And then it’s very hard to interchange between, so at grade 4 and 5 you have to make that decision. But moving from one to another is very difficult. It’s just a darn early age to make a decision in terms of what you want to do with your life. Not the issue here, right? The system here is set up that everybody has the opportunity, which is good in some ways. I do like some of the rigidity, too, that all students…you know, if you’re planning to complete 12 years of school in there, you’re forced to actually take a certain amount of science and math. I think here students can weasel out of this more, and I personally don’t think that’s a good idea, but different systems.
7:59 Helena: I have some friends in Germany that are in gymnasium and I have some other friends that are in the other type of school.
8:08 Helena: Do you ever go back to visit Germany?
Very often, yeah. At least once a year.
8:14 Julia: What are the most important lessons that you have learned while adapting and integrating to American life?
That you do need to adapt and integrate. Otherwise people will not…they’re just not going to be comfortable with you. I think that’s just a way of life.
8:33 Helena: Do you happen to belong to the German American Society in Portland?
No…you’ll have to tell me about that!
8:39 Helena: It’s just like a community where you can sign up and get newsletters and stuff. When I was younger I did a Saturday school every Saturday where I took an hour or two of German class just to keep my German up, because I don’t want to lose it, ever.
9:06 Julia: Is there anything you’d like to people to know about Germany or about moving to the country?
It’s very hard. I think Oregonians in general are incredibly open and welcoming to foreigners much more so than other states. So I mean, it’s my experience, I’ve been quite surprised by that. I think they are really doing what’s great to make people welcome here.
9:39 Helena: I think my parents noticed that, too, when we moved from California to Oregon. We noticed that people in Oregon are a lot more open and friendly than Californians.
And it’s a very big change moving from Michigan, too. The Midwest is just far more conservative, too.
10:00 Helena and Julia: Thank you very much!