One Expat’s Empathy

| March 6, 2015

Lately I have been experiencing a lot of emotions. My feelings of being a true outsider often overwhelm me, but the surprising emotion that I have watched grow over the past few years, is my ability to empathize. I attribute this to the time I’ve spent as an expat. I have particularly noted this increased empathy toward two groups of people.


I’ve always been pretty welcoming toward immigrants to the US, although I admit to feeling, as a younger person, the “If you come to America, you should speak English!” sentiment. Considering that America has no official language, I find this sentiment to be a pretty weak thing for people to hold onto. (It’s also annoying when the sentiment is held by people who speak only English, but I digress.)

People move to America for many reasons. Some do it for school or work, while others flee countries where life is difficult due to dictatorships, religious persecution, etc. Whatever the reason, they believe that America will give them a better chance to succeed–or simply to stay alive. Rather than reject immigrants, we should be proud that America represents hope to them.  I feel the pain of being an outcast who will never be able to fully integrate in the surrounding community.

This is what it feels like.

This is what it feels like sometimes.

The reality is, I moved to Germany not knowing a lick of German. It must be exponentially harder when you show up in country and need to find a job, but don’t speak much of the language. Suddenly, the guy who was upper management in his country is sweeping floors in America. My husband works with English speakers, but my daughter and I were alone. I feel the pain of arriving in a new country where I cannot understand, or be understood.  The move is both empowering and terrifying.

We can do this!

We can do this!

Oh God, what have I done?

Oh God, what have I done?


Why are they doing this to me?

It must be incredibly difficult for a family to arrive in America in this situation, with plans to settle permanently.  Even when your situation is not going to be permanent, it’s not easy. After a few months, I still could not communicate that I was looking for powdered sugar, let alone express emotion or opinion.

This sentiment is best conveyed in a recent episode of Modern Family, when Colombian character Gloria asks her husband Jay: “Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?”  Never in my life have I related more to a line on a sitcom.



I’m not dumb, but I sure sound it in German. I will never, ever correctly learn der, die, das. This dooms me to never being able to choose proper case. I’m just gonna say it: the case system of German is killing me. It’s my fourth language; I’m older now. Pushing 40 ain’t the time to start learning German. But in English, you know what? I’m smart.

Like, really smart.

Like, really smart.

Yet here, you wouldn’t know it.  The simple fact is, I’ll never fit in, and I’ll never seem smart in German.

My situation has pushed me toward wanting to help immigrant families learn English once I return to the States; to use my Master’s in Linguistics for more than sitting around thinking about academic studies I will never conduct. This experience has made me want to use my education to help immigrants fit in.

This is what it feels like.

…so they can stop feeling like this.

The next time you think about bashing an immigrant, think about their struggles; think about the fact that you’re not listening to them communicate in their native tongue. If you went to their country, how well would you be understood?  How well would you fit in?

The second group of people toward whom I feel more empathy than ever, truly surprised me.

Special Needs Families

A friend of mine writes a blog about life with a special needs daughter. It’s a wonderfully honest blog about love, frustration, and the trials and tribulations that she and her family experience. When I read her posts, I now feel a new type of empathy: both as a human being who struggled with communication here, and as a mother who watched her child do the same. For us it was temporary, and my child could communicate her needs and emotions just fine in her native tongue. It’s not temporary for those whose children have special needs.

Watching my five-year-old struggle when she started Kindergarten in a language she did not know, with children whose culture was different, was heartbreaking. I can only imagine—actually, never imagine—what it is like to emotionally struggle with a lifetime of your child’s special needs and difficulties in communicating.  To constantly feel your child’s pain. If I was emotionally drained from my situation, how on earth must a special needs parent feel at the end of

This is what it feels like.

Probably like this.

I empathize with the frustration of a mother who knows what her child is capable of, when the child is showing the exact opposite to educators. When we arrived, my daughter was placed in a German as a Second Language class for children entering first grade the next school year. For the first few months, she did not speak. One day, I was talking to the teacher, who casually mentioned that Sequoia might be ready for first grade. I stood there in disbelief. I told the teacher that my daughter must enter first grade—she could already read and write in English, had begun reading German aloud, and could do math. The teacher was astounded. “I didn’t know she knew her letters.” My daughter behaved the same with the school psychologist when tested for gradeschool readiness; she was given tentative approval based on the interview. I was devastated—she could not do another year of free-play Kindergarten!  When I read about my friend’s frustration when her daughter shows her that she is capable of learning, but then does not show the same to teachers—I get it. I will never feel the true magnitude of her pain, but I can now analogize.

I appreciate that my time in Germany has given me these analogies to apply to the situations that special needs families encounter. I’ll never fully relate, but I can empathize more than ever before.

sweet child girl

And I hope my child takes empathy away from this experience.


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Category: Ex-pat Parenting, FAMILY, In Germany A Broad blog, Linguistics, Living in Germany, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

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